Helmets now mandatory in motorbike-crazy Vietnam

 http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSSP34262

HANOI, Dec 15 (Reuters) – Vietnamese motorcyclists appear to be complying with a new rule that gives them no choice but to wear a crash helmet, the latest drive to reduce the unacceptably high road traffic toll.

The millions of small, noisy motorbikes vrooming around city streets, often defying traffic laws, are symbols of the energy in the fast-emerging Southeast Asian market economy, but with severe costs in lives.

According to government estimates, up to 13,000 people are killed and more than 11,000 injured in traffic accidents every year. Half of all casualties are brain injuries.

“When suffering from cranial trauma, if not dead, most of them can no longer work,” said Dr Cao Doc Lap as he stood among beds of seriously injured patients at Hanoi’s Viet Duc hospital, where he is in charge of emergency care. “If the situation continues, then it will seriously affect our society.”

The sickening toll on the young labour force year after year seems finally to have spurred the communist government and the general public into action.

Helmets became mandatory on December 15.

And while citizens had largely ignored previous decrees and campaigns, this time there were visible signs in the teeming city streets that more Vietnamese were willing to don protective headgear they have often derided as “rice cookers”.

The central government’s Resolution 32 requires all motorbike riders and passengers to wear helmets on all roads across the nation of 85 million.

On Saturday, compliance was high in the capital, Hanoi, and in the commercial centre of Ho Chi Minh City. The few who were not wearing helmets were stopped and fined by police officers stationed at many intersections.

RICE-COOKERS

“We look kind of funny and silly with these rice cookers on our heads, but we can live with it. Everyone else is wearing a cooker too so no one can laugh at us,” Do Thu Thuy, a 25-year-old marketing executive told Reuters from the back seat of her boyfriend’s $5,000 Piaggio scooter in Hanoi.

“One good thing is that we do feel safer.”

Police may impose instant fines of 100,000 -200,000 dong ($6-$12)). In a country where corruption is rife and people often pay cash to police for traffic violations, officers must write tickets so the fines could be paid at a state treasury office.

Speaking days before the rule came into force, Lap said his hospital treated 50-70 traffic accident patients a day, most of working age and 30 percent aged between 18 and 25.

The hospital courtyard and corridors were packed with mostly poor people, some crying in grief.

“He was not wearing a helmet,” Hoang Thi Kim Chi, 23, said of her 17-year-old brother, unconscious for the past two weeks after crashing and cracking his skull. “He can’t open his eyes or recognise family members.”

Taking risks with road safety is a poverty trap in a country where the annual per capita income is still only about $835.

An accident that kills or seriously injures a breadwinner can send a family sliding back into destitution.

Vietnam, an overwhelmingly bicycle-pedalling society just 15 years ago, has motorised faster than many countries. There were fewer than 500,000 motorbikes in 1990 but now there are more than 22 million, increasing at 20 percent a year.

DARK SIDE?

“Maybe it’s the dark side of globalisation,” said American Greig Craft, founder of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation.

“Investment is coming into these poor countries, which is a good thing but it’s leading to certain social things that people aren’t prepared for.”

Craft has promoted helmet safety campaigns in Vietnam for nearly 10 years. He also has a factory near Hanoi that manufactures lightweight helmets suited for the tropical climate.

Though many Vietnamese can afford cars these days, small motorbikes are the cheaper, preferred mode of transportation.

The streets and roads of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are choking on the success of an economy growing at more than 8 percent a year while infrastructure lags far behind.

Motorbikes, often seen carrying entire families of four or overloaded with produce and poultry, have also come to symbolise individual independence in an authoritarian state.

Helmets are generally considered unfashionable and inconvenient in a hot climate.

In one helmet shop last week, young men and women were trying on brightly coloured red, green, blue and pink helmets to find the best one to wear on Saturday.

The women gazed in the mirror, adjusted the helmets and fussed with their long, silky black hair.

“I don’t think a helmet affects my appearance,” said one smiling customer, Vu Thi Cham. “I am wearing a helmet but my hair is still beautiful.”

Helmets that have been tested for safety sell for between 149,000 and 215,000 dong ($9-$13) but some cheaper, poor-quality helmets made in neighbouring countries are also on sale. (Additional reporting by Nguyen Nhat Lam and Nguyen Van Vinh)

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