Thursday, February 09, 2006

Helmets are good

It needs to be emphasized: helmets should be essential when driving or riding a motorbike. Even here, where motorbikes are the main form of transportation. Or should I say especially here?

To be honest, I didn't wear them much until I bought my Protec™ models last November (one for me, and one for my wife). But now I'm a convert. Every time I go out I don that motherfucker straight onto my head.

I should have decided the purchase on straight road safety grounds. People here may be driving slower than in western countries; 20-30 km/h is the norm in the cities. But it's the fall that makes the difference. You're looking at at least a metre and half drop onto the bitumen. If you're moving quicker, then expect serious grazing at least - the roads are like sandpaper at those velocities. I shouldn't forget facial reconstruction. I've taught some students with broken noses. Alas, these are near best case scenarios. To quote the Asian Injury Prevention Foundation:

In Vietnam, nearly 40 people die each day in traffic accidents and twice that number suffer debilitating head injury. This is a result of rapid motorization and modernization, where people have the ability to trade bicycles for motorbikes, creating a highly mobile population. Unfortunately, preventative safety measures have not accompanied this increased motorization. Limited traffic safety education, lack of awareness about the effectiveness of helmet use, and inconsistent traffic legislation and enforcement have contributed to annual death tolls of over 12,000 people in Vietnam. In addition, approximately 30,000 more suffer from severe brain damage or head trauma sustained in traffic accidents.

That's a lot of Death and Brain Damage, and I'm undecided as to which is worse.

Alas, the Vietnamese are a conservative people, in its original sense of  "conservative" - averse to change. They will not change their behaviour if they don't think it will be in their best interest. Vietnamese generally do not think helmets look good on them, and they think they're too hot to wear.  Plus there's a cultural thing: not so much keeping up with the Joneses, but keeping steady with the Nguyễns. I was talking with my Vietnamese teacher about helmets, and why he doesn't wear them with his wife and daughter to support. Well, he only drives three kilometres to work. If he kept bringing his helmet to school, there's the problem that his fellow teachers would think him - "odd" - which is not what you want in Vietnamese society or in your career. At all. I don't face the stigma, because I'm a foreigner, and thus assumed eccentric unless otherwise proven.

A shame, it is. One of my neighbours got himself in an accident with extra head injuries. He's one of the lucky ones - he isn't brain damaged. But now he's up for 20 million đồng (about $1800 AUD). That's a lot of money in Việt Nam.  I don't know how his family can pay up, especially when the father has abandoned his family to follow some mistress in the Delta.

One welcome change is that helmets are now mandatory on highways, and have been for the last year or so. If drivers don't have a helmet, they're likely to be pulled over by traffic police, who generally are extremely avaricious.  Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more.

To repeat, I should have decided the purchase on straight road safety grounds. But I didn't. I bought it for the face shield attached. I do some teaching in schools on the periphery of Sài Gòn, where the roads are dirtier and more dusty, and the road budgets are lesser. The face shield may not ward me from the nitrogen, sulphur and carbon oxides in the air, but it does spare it from the airborne particulates floating there. Of which there is a lot, from carbon caused by dodgy two-stroke motors and diesel engines, to the dust from cracks in the road. Imagine what it does to your pores.  Visualize what it does to your eyes. I wear glasses, which prevent the bulk of the pollution from hitting the corneas, but there's always side winds to blow it there. The result was a lot of runny liquid with black bits and white bits, and lots of Rohto eyedrops to clean it all out. Oh, the face shield has made a big difference to my life, such as a decline in acne. 

Helmets won't save you every time. Nearly a year ago in Gia Ray, I just avoided observing a fatality by seconds. Some young man drove out in the highway without looking, did a sudden right turn, not realizing there was a minibus just behind him, and well... let's just say "watermelon" comes to mind, with polystyrene mixed in. He was wearing a helmet, but that wasn't going to do him any good under some vehicle's wheels. (This led to a roadside embalming a few hours later, but that's another story.) Helmets are all well and good, but they're secondary to another quality - observation. Alas, that's another thing in short supply here.