Fatalities have soared with the proliferation of motorcycles
With highway fatalities soaring to levels reminiscent of
wartime body counts, Vietnam has said "enough" and
implemented a safety program that targets the culprits and
the victims of the carnage– motorcyclists without helmets.
The centerpiece of this campaign to cut road deaths and save
an estimated $85 million a year in related costs is phasing
in a mandatory helmet law, which, so far, just about everyone
"Helmets won't reduce the number of accidents, though
they might reduce skull injuries," said university student
Thanh Lam, 22. "What officials should do is organize
and manage traffic well, then let people decide if they want
to wear a helmet. But I do agree there's a problem."
With only 8,530 miles of paved roads, Vietnam may well have
the world's deadliest highway system. Every day, about 20
people are killed on it–the equivalent of a fully loaded
747 jetliner crashing every three weeks–and about 40 people
are left with brain damage or other permanent disabilities.
Eighty percent of the victims ride 125- cc motorcycles.
The costs associated with the road carnage consume 90% of
the national health budget and have so overwhelmed city hospitals
that doctors have had to adopt triage systems. One hospital
alone, Cho Ray in Ho Chi Minh City, loses an average of three
patients a day as a result of motorcycle accidents. Safety
experts say helmets would reduce the number of dead and injured
by 80% to 90%.
"It seems insane for Vietnam to have made a huge investment
in its people in social spending since the war, then to be
losing a good part of the next generation to deaths that could
be prevented," said Greig Craft, an American who has
lived in Hanoi since 1991 and has set up the Asia Injury Prevention
Foundation. One of its goals is to provide motorcycle riders
and passengers with specially designed helmets at cost.
Craft recently brought in his first shipment of more than
1,000 lightweight, vented helmets, made by Troxel Cycling
& Fitness of San Diego. With a sturdy shell and extra
foam to protect the skull, they cost less than $10 each–compared
with $50 here for many imported helmets, an amount that stretches
the budgets of even middle-class citizens, and $7 for locally
made ones that can hardly withstand a hearty gust of wind,
much less a collision at 20 mph.
In many ways, the highway slaughter that Craft, the government
and various international agencies have taken on is a result
of the Communist leadership's decision to move toward a free-market
The resulting new prosperity has enabled 6 million Vietnamese
to turn in their bicycles and buy 125-cc motorcycles–the
largest engine allowed without a special permit (average cost:
$2,400). The problem is that very few owners have learned
to drive properly.
Unlike in the U.S., alcohol is responsible for relatively
few road fatalities in Vietnam, a government survey has shown.
Nor is speed usually a contributing factor, given the congestion
on city streets and the rough road conditions of the countryside.
Nearly 80% of accidents, officials reported, occur because
drivers "do not follow the rules."
The effect is that Vietnam's streets are about as orderly
as a carnival bumper-car ride. Motorcyclists feel free to
ignore red lights and one-way street signs. They speed blindly
through intersections, believing that the beep of their horns
gives them the right of way. They load down their Hondas with
two and three passengers or with pigs, vegetables and sundry
goods piled sky-high and tied to the rear rack.
The mandatory use of helmets on selected national highways
and on urban thoroughfares came into effect Sept. 1, but an
informal police survey indicated that fewer than 3 in 10 cyclists
have been in compliance. In January, helmets will be required
on all roads, excluding those in city centers. The Transportation
Ministry has asked the government to approve a $3.50 fine
for violating the law.
"Right now, people view helmets as hot, expensive, inconvenient,"
said Bui Tuynh Long of the National Traffic Safety Committee.
"It will take time and education to change their habits.
. . . But when people understand how many lives will be saved,
I think you'll see them putting on helmets."
Terry Bilt contributes and publishes news editorial to http://www.all-motorcycle-helmets.com.
A buyers guide to all types of motorcycle helmets plus shields, googles, custom and wired radio helmets.