Traffic was at a standstill. Pedestrian spectators pointed their phones at a grisly scene; a motorcycle had t-boned a car. A spider web of glass across the car’s windshield revealed the point of impact. Based on the severe damage to the car and mangled frame of the motorcycle, there should have been blood, but there wasn’t. A motorcycle helmet perched on the hood of the car may have explained why.
According to a bulletin published in 2009 by the World Health Organization, wearing a helmet in Vietnam reduces the risk of death by 42%. Since Vietnam introduced the helmet law 10 years ago, AIP Foundation has estimated more than 15,000 fatalities and 500,000 injuries have been prevented, and those figures continue to grow. The road to preventing fatalities and injuries has been long and riddled with obstacles, but with the support of organizations like AIP Foundation and the Center for Global Development, individuals, government agencies — and even unsuspecting partners — 100% use of helmets is on the horizon.
Fifteen years ago, Tram Mai’s uncle was driving around Hanoi on his motorcycle. He was involved in a collision and fell off of his bike. For two years, a head injury that he sustained during the accident resulted in severe pain. Then one day, he suddenly died.
“He wasn’t wearing a helmet when he was in the accident,” explained Tram, now 26, who wears her helmet everywhere she goes.
A few years later, on December 15, 2007, the Vietnamese government enacted Resolution 32, which is more commonly known as the helmet law. Key features of the law included a five-fold increase of fines for not wearing a helmet and mandatory helmet use by all drivers and passengers on every road.
If children comprise the most precious of cargoes, the law enacted did not reflect their value. Whereas in many Western countries a parent can be fined if their child is found not wearing a seat belt, in Vietnam, existing legislation prohibits imposing a penalty against a parent whose child passenger is not following the law. Financial penalties apply for children aged 16 to 18 years, but at half the rates for adults and it is undetermined how often children pay them.
“Wearing a helmet and enforcing helmet laws is acknowledged as one of the main contributors to reducing road fatalities and injuries,” said Mirjam Sidik, Chief Executive Officer of AIP Foundation, an organization on the front line fighting the rising number of road-crash injuries and fatalities for nearly two decades.
In 2000, former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, and AIP Foundation rolled out “Helmets for Kids”, a signature programme of the foundation that provides school children and teachers with quality helmets and road safety education. A year later, Vietnam adopted a child-specific helmet standard and, soon after, AIP Foundation created a road-safety curriculum, which schools adopted nationwide.
Despite the initial education, rumours of helmets causing neck injuries to children were prevalent, and helmets to protect the growing heads of children were widely unavailable. By 2015, many children remained without helmets because of inaccurate information about injuries they might sustain while wearing them. In response, the government launched a National Child Helmet Action Plan (NCHAP).
The integrated plan included three critical components; a public awareness campaign, police enforcement, and a strong network of road-safety partners to support and further the plan.
Credited with having accelerated the passage of the  helmet law because of their “Wear A Helmet. There Are No Excuses” campaign, AIP Foundation was the natural choice to lead a public awareness strategy that would target the next generation of Vietnamese drivers, but also the most malleable of minds.
Value Life Over Fines
Tam Dang, 37, is a teacher’s assistant at a local private school. The staff at her school check to see that the students are wearing helmets when parents drop off and pick up their children. Things don’t always go smoothly. Sometimes a child will have only one helmet to use, so when a different parent picks them up, they are without a way to protect their head. Tam sees this as a problem, but she finds it a challenge to address the parents about it.
Tam has two daughters, ages six and nine, who attend public school in Hanoi, and always wear helmets. In the public school system, helmet education is a part of the classroom experience.
“During every assembly on Monday morning, the use of helmets is talked about,” said Tam. “Sometimes the school even gives away helmets as a prize for different things.”
She credits Protec, the social enterprise arm of AIP Foundation, for coming to the school and demonstrating to people what a safe helmet looks like and how to use it not only on motorcycles but bicycles, too. Presentations don’t focus on selling the brand — although they are one of the most highly regarded brands available — they focus on saving lives. Currently, the market remains flooded with flimsy helmets designed for vanity, not for protection. With increased awareness of what a good helmet looks like and how it’s built, they hope, there will be less demand for those that aren’t safe.
Ultimately, it’s parents’ behaviour that is an indicator of progress. According to research by AIP Foundation, “by May 2016, 95% of parents reported awareness of the child helmet law, and 97% [of them] stated that the reason they had their children wear helmets was that they worry about potential head injuries.” Unfortunately, only 45% of parents the organization polled admitted to consistently putting a helmet on their child.
From excuses like “I am not driving far” — crashes happen more frequently close to home than elsewhere, according to a New Zealand study — to not being able to find a child-sized helmet, there are many reasons why that number remains high.
“As adults, we don’t think about protecting ourselves when we wear a helmet,” Tram said explaining the widespread use of vanity helmets. “We think about protecting ourselves from the fine.”
To change this mindset, Tram and Tam believe that people need multi-generational education that places a value on life. The burden doesn’t have to rest solely on children.
Covert Peer Pressure
There are new, unintentional, advocates of the helmet law in Vietnam. People see them every day in the cities, and increasingly in smaller Vietnamese towns: it’s the ride-share companies.
In 2017, Uber and Grab introduced motorcycle taxis. Since then, the number of motorcyclists working full or part-time for the companies, continues to grow. Unlike traditional xe om drivers, they stand out because of their flashy helmets. It’s a stunning visual to witness on packed morning and evening commutes.
“The safety of both driver partners and riders are a top priority at Uber,” said a company spokesperson of their helmet policy, which follows Vietnamese law.
Uber gives their uberMoto drivers two free, high-quality helmets that have met rigorous safety testing — one for the driver and one for the passenger — and offers drivers a free replacement helmet when theirs have become worn or damaged. While Uber encourages the use of their branded gear, wearing a helmet, period, is a non-negotiable requirement for both driver and passenger for a ride to commence.
This sort of branded “covert peer pressure” which Charles Duhigg writes about in The Power of Habit, is yet another way the helmet law is being implemented across Vietnam.
“By encouraging driver partners and riders to wear helmets,” said Uber’s spokesperson, “we hope it helps raise awareness of road safety in the driver and rider community, in particular, and the Vietnam community, in general.”
Neither Uber nor Grab signed up to become official partners in support of the helmet law, but they have inadvertently become helmet ambassadors, their flashy green and blue swag testament to change, and maybe coolness. Ongoing research in behavioural economics suggests that brands can positively affect our behaviour. What better place to form a good habit than with protecting our heads.