One Man’s Mission: Helmets Across Hanoi

Widespread adoption of protective headgear by motorcyclists is one indicator of how far Vietnam has come.

(Photo: Alex Aw/Flickr)

Nov 29, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Christopher Johnson's work reporting from the U.S., Africa, and Southeast Asia has appeared on Marketplace, The World, and various NPR and CBC programs.

Driving among the 6.5 million-plus residents of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, it’s common to see motorcyclists wearing little more than plastic baseball caps or thin helmet shells lined with coffee cup–grade Styrofoam.

Many are paying the price. Last year, 11,000 people died in traffic accidents, most of them motorbike crashes, according to Vietnam’s National Traffic Safety Committee. Because many deaths go unreported, the World Health Organization estimates the figure is double that, which would make the rate twice as high as it is in the U.S.

As developing nations become wealthier, people begin to opt for motorized and personal transportation over feet, bikes, and buses. It’s almost possible to guess a country’s per capita GDP by how people get around: Burundi is a foot place. Bangladesh, bikes. Ecuador has moved up to four-wheeled Toyotas.

“Mobility is a great thing, but not when people are killing themselves,” said Greig Craft, the U.S.-born president of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation.

Craft founded his Hanoi-based, U.S.-registered nonprofit in 1999. In Vietnam’s crowded cities, motorcycles, mopeds, and scooters are the preferred means of transportation, and one persistent obstacle to road safety is convincing people to wear helmets.

Many Vietnamese steer clear of helmets because of the humid, tropical climate, Craft found. Summer temperatures can hover above 110 degrees, and traditional, full-face motorcycle helmets are impractical sweatboxes.

So in 2001, he and a group of partners raised funds to create the Vietnam Safety Products and Equipment Company, a Hanoi-based, American-invested enterprise that designs and manufactures the Protec-brand Tropical Helmet. It’s made of lightweight expanded polystyrene that offers extra ventilation and covers just the head.

Craft wanted change to happen through more than just products. In 2007, the foundation successfully pushed Vietnam to require all government workers to wear helmets when motorcycling. A year later, helmets were made mandatory for everyone riding a motorbike.

“People were coming into our showroom with footlockers full of cash to buy helmets,” Craft said.

The helmets cost $10 to $20, and Protec has sold at least 1.2 million of them in Vietnam since 2012.

Still, cost is a factor for some families, according to AIP Foundation’s Frances Massing. “For rural areas, affordability is the number-one reason citizens do not wear quality helmets,” she said. “Many motorcyclists are low-income earners, and $10 helmets are still too expensive for them.”

Yet, the fact that many people are able to spend such a sum on reducing what can seem a remote risk is an indicator of how far Vietnam has come. When you’re struggling to feed your family every day, the off-chance that you might fall off your scooter is a less-pressing concern. But now that many city dwellers, at least, have $10 in their pockets, they’re willing to make the investment.

AIP Foundation estimates that the rise in helmet use prevented more than 20,000 deaths and 400,000 injuries between 2008 and 2013.

Proceeds go to its road safety campaign, and today, Craft and other road safety advocates say there are two major challenges to reaching true compliance: quality control and getting helmets on children.

Both are tricky. Last summer, Vietnam began cracking down on users and vendors of so-called eggshell helmets. Anyone caught wearing a substandard helmet or wearing a helmet improperly was subject to a $5 to $10 fine.

As for getting helmets on children, Craft says his organization’s biggest battle is fighting widespread suspicion of kids’ helmets after a doctor publicly warned in 2007 that they were harmful to children’s bodies.

“Even today, many Vietnamese will tell you that helmets hurt kids’ spines,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest urban legends that’s impacted 100 percent of the population.”

Next spring, Vietnam will launch a national action plan focused on public safety and emphasizing zero tolerance for motorbikers driving children who are not wearing helmets. AIP Foundation is also working with the National Traffic Safety Committee on ways to boost compliance: a public awareness campaign with billboards and TV spots; collaborations with law enforcement officials; and the implementation of school-based programs, including road safety curricula and helmet giveaways for kids.

For Craft, helmet protection is a public health issue, one he often describes in comparison to medicine and vaccines.

“Vietnam has high inoculation rates for children,” he said. “So why not helmets?”