A recent magazine article combined with comments from a friend prompted an internal debate. Why don’t I wear a helmet? I remember, as a kid on my paper round, my parents forced me to take a huge plastic mushroom as protection. Too embarrassed to wear it, at the first opportunity I’d stuff it in the bag with the papers. As I grew older, wearing a helmet didn’t become any more appealing. Now, ten years on, I’m still shunning a simple item which could save my life. But why? It doesn’t look cool -- am I that vain? Is it uncomfortable – not if I get one that fits properly. Is it too hot to wear one? These reasons, which are common excuses for not wearing a helmet, disintegrate when you imagine the consequences of a traffic accident.
The fact that people aren’t responsible enough for their own safety is evident all across the world, and easily proven right here in Vietnam. Westerners often apply their seemingly higher moral standards when judging the Vietnamese – ‘Well, our countries have laws about this kind of thing’. That may be so – England is the nanny state, and for a reason. If we didn’t have those laws the people would be just as irresponsible about their safety, as proven when foreigners come here and find out they don’t have to wear a helmet, so they don’t. Another important factor here, and the main difference between the west and developing countries is this: laws needs to be enforced. Here, unfortunately, laws are not routinely enforced, and when they are, it’s not for the right reasons. Even though there may be penalties that accompany the law, they can be hurdled with a crisp pink note. If you don’t want to play that game, you’ll be tied up with red tape and sent to bureaucratic hell and you’ll wish you’d just kept your mouth shut and next time, remember to do what the Romans do in Rome. There is only one place your moral crusade will end up here – in a pit of burning resentment.
So, we should talk to people on a personal level, educate, convince and set an example.
Total brain injury cases selected: 1,127
Brain injuries due to road accidents: 859 (76.2%)
Brain injury cases without helmets: 728 (93.1%)
Brain injury cases with helmets: 54 (6.9%)
The following were taken from the same hospital in Ha Noi over 2 months early this year.
Hospitalized cases due to injuries: 5,517
Victims in road accidents: 2,805 (60% of people hospitalized due to an RTA)
Of these 2,805 people, 1,262 (45%) had face & head injuries.
Out of these 2,805 people, 2,632 or 93.85% were not wearing a helmet. Only 25 people or 2% hospitalized with a brain injury were wearing a helmet.
These figures were provided by Mr Dong at UNICEF Vietnam, who responded in length after I found this page about World Health Day 2004 in Ha Noi. The page lists a number of factors explaining the high incidence of child fatalities in traffic accidents, including a ‘limited knowledge about safe driving behaviour’ and a ‘fatalistic view about traffic accidents. Many people do not understand that these injuries are preventable’. UNICEF Vietnam then go on to list a number of potential solutions including organizing children’s competitions on road safety and ‘assisting the commune to provide “child safe playgrounds” where children can play safely away from the traffic’. Mr Dong also pointed me in the direction of Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, an NGO based in Ha Noi who’s mission statement reads:
‘Asia Injury's mission is to reduce the rising number of traffic fatalities in developing Asian countries, starting in Vietnam, and to raise awareness of their social, economic, and human impact'.
They go on to say:
'In Vietnam, nearly 40 people die each day in traffic accidents and twice that number suffer debilitating head injury. This is a result of rapid motorization and modernization, where people have the ability to trade bicycles for motorbikes, creating a highly mobile population. Unfortunately, preventative safety measures have not accompanied this increased motorization. Limited traffic safety education, lack of awareness about the effectiveness of helmet use, and inconsistent traffic legislation and enforcement have contributed to annual death tolls of over 12,000 people in Vietnam. In addition, approximately 30,000 more suffer from severe brain damage or head trauma sustained in traffic accidents'.
I wrote to Grieg Craft, the president of AIPF, and he kindly wrote back inviting me on a tour of their helmet factory. He said "Yes, we have set up the world's first non profit helmet plant, producing a 'tropical' helmet we've designed. All revenues flow back to Asia Injury to help fund our other work. We employ 150 workers, 1/3 of whom are handicapped. We're very proud of the model".
There is also the World Health Organization Helmet Initiative ,which has a more global focus, but as AIPF points out, of the 1.2 million killed each year in RTAs, developing countries account for 85%.
So from now on my wife and I are wearing helmets, and I hope you at least think about it too.