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Hats off to Vietnam's helmet law

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Science  12 Sep 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6202, pp. 1261
DOI: 10.1126/science.345.6202.1261

Study shows that traffic laws, combined with advocacy, can save lives.

A “Helmets for Kids” ceremony, sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies, at a Hanoi school in 2012.

PHOTO: © KHAM/REUTERS/CORBIS

A decade ago, it wasn't unusual to see a Vietnamese family of five cheerfully braving the frenzied traffic of Hanoi on a single motorcycle—with nobody wearing a helmet. No longer. A stringent law passed in 2007 has made helmets compulsory—and has proven that such laws, which require political will more than money, can have a huge impact on public health. Research suggests that the law's passage saved more than 1500 lives the first year and reduced serious head injuries by almost 2500.

Traffic injuries aren't the first thing most people think about upon hearing “global health,” but road accidents kill an estimated 1.24 million people worldwide annually, about the same number as tuberculosis and twice as many as malaria. That's why the World Health Organization (WHO) has made road safety a priority. In developing nations in particular, there are huge opportunities to drive down the death toll.

In Vietnam, the economic boom of the 1990s led tens of millions to trade in their bicycles for motorcycles, causing injuries to soar. (Cars are still relatively rare.) In 2010, Vietnam had 24.7 traffic deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 11.4 in the United States and 3.0 in Sweden. The country has had helmet laws on the books since 1995, but at first helmets were compulsory only on major roads, and enforcement was weak. Many Vietnamese resisted what they called rice cookers, saying they were uncomfortable in the tropical heat—or an assault on their hairdos.

In 2007, a new law required riders to wear helmets on all roads at all times. Fines were set at $6 to $12, a whopping 30% of the average monthly income. Foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations pitched in with money for education campaigns and free helmets. When the law took effect on 15 December 2007, helmet use jumped from less than 40% to almost 100% literally overnight.

It wasn't the end of all problems. Many riders initially didn't strap their helmets, which was then made an offense as well. Many of the helmets on the market are flimsy, and the government is still struggling to enforce quality standards. But a study published in 2010 by researchers at WHO's country office in Hanoi found 16% and 18% reductions in the risk of serious head injuries and deaths, respectively, in 2008.

Researchers at the Center for Global Development (CGD) plan to include the Vietnam law in the next edition of Millions Saved, a book on proven successes in global health—but strictly speaking, the evidence doesn't meet CGD's standards. The center prefers to see a randomized study or at least a “quasi-experimental” study design (see main story). That didn't happen in Vietnam. CGD decided to include the case anyway because it's difficult to see what else—besides the law—could have caused the drop. CGD's Miriam Temin hopes Vietnam's success will inspire other countries.

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