25 December 2007

What's Right With This Picture?

Every year, about 13,000 people die in traffic accidents in Vietnam, the majority while riding motorbikes. HCMC has around 25 deaths and 100 brain trauma cases per day. You can do the math on additional bodily injury. Or at least that was the case until December 15th, when the new helmet law went into effect.

When I first arrived here, I rarely saw anyone with a helmet. There was a law for riding on the freeways with a helmet, but not within the city. Still, the majority seemed not to be wearing them. Or you’d see people with plastic yellow hardhats, (not US quality ones – more like kiddie toy hats), which, of course, had no chin straps. Even those with decent helmets, more often than not, left them un-strapped. Whenever the police would set up a ‘helmet trap’ on the freeway to nab non-compliers, people came up with interesting ways to avoid a ticket. There was the simple turn-back-take-another-route. There was the wait-it-out. And my favorite, the guys who set up helmet sales stands at the entrance to the patrolled area. You drive up, rent a helmet, drive past the cops, and return it to his partner on the other side.

Try as one may to convince people that helmets really were necessary, it was mostly a lost cause. Complaints of discomfort, heat, and ugly, were among the most common. And this from women who routinely wear full-length gloves, jackets, hats, facemasks, and sunglasses so to avoid any hint of sun exposure to their skin.

The helmet law, overnight, changed all that. I simply could not believe that from one day to the next, everyone was wearing a helmet. The reason? The fine. Don’t wear a helmet and you could fine yourself paying a $10 fine. When you only make $100 a month, that is substantial. Hell, even if you are making $200, that is still a lot.

I hear that within the first week deaths were down by two thirds. Those that were dying were mostly wearing either inferior helmets or not buckling them. Helmet quality is a problem. Apparently, a year ago, about 40% of the helmets sold did not comply with safety standards. Now that is down to 20%. It seems things will only improve.

‘Tis the season and I intend to get up early tomorrow so as to be able to watch White Christmas at 6am before heading off to work.