A couple of years ago on a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I was struck by an interesting phenomenon traveling from the airport to my hotel. I saw perhaps more than a thousand motorcycle riders and passengers but only one person was not wearing a helmet. The entire two weeks I spent in that city, I didn’t see a single police officer giving out tickets enforcing a helmet law.
Yesterday, I saw something in Pattaya that I have begun noticing a lot lately- two riders on a motorcycle both wearing masks and neither wearing a helmet.
In Thailand, apparently unlike Vietnam, police officers regularly fine drivers for failing to wear helmets.
There’s something a little incongruous about wearing masks but failing to wear helmets. Since the CV-19 outbreak, the virus has killed roughly 50 people in Thailand, about the same number of people that die every day in Thailand from vehicle accidents. That’s right. Even if the number of coronavirus deaths happen to be significantly under-reported, more people are likely to die this month from motorcycle accidents than from the virus.
But would motorcycle helmets make a difference in road fatalities and, if so, how can we get people to wear them?
In the US, where the helmet debate has been studied extensively, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of dying in a crash by 37%.
The World Health Organization (WHO) concurs, estimating that wearing a helmet correctly can reduce the risk of death by almost 40% and the risk of severe injury by more than 70%. So, let’s assume that wearing helmets is a good thing.
In Thailand, accidents involving motorcycles account for more than 80% of traffic injuries. If punishing non-helmeted riders with tickets isn’t the answer, what is? The answer is simple: Create a social norm in which wearing helmets, as in Vietnam, is the usual practice. To a large extent Thailand has already succeeded establishing that norm with face masks.
A social norm is a group-held belief about how persons should behave in various contexts. Norms in every culture create conformity that allow for people to become socialized to the culture in which they live.
Here are two simple suggestions using social norm models.
Soap operas are popular in Thailand. Introduce characters and situations on those programs in which helmets are prominently displayed, not just when characters are riding on their bikes, but also when they are transitioning from or to the motorcycles. This model has been effective in Latin American countries during soap opera presentations in encouraging the use of birth control.
The second idea is to establish a public relations campaign in which the message is that other Thais are already using helmets. Billboards throughout Thailand showing riders with helmets would be a good start. Being helmet-less will therefore be viewed as being against socially normative behavior.
The virus that we fear lurking beneath the surface is not as deadly as the daily motorcycle carnage in front of our eyes. We’ve resolved to fight the scourge of the virus with masks; we should fight the motorcycle threat with helmets.
About the Author:
Patrick Mattimore, now retired and living in Pattaya, was an Adjunct Professor of Legal Reasoning and Case Briefing: Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing, teaching psychology to students there. He has also been an online columnist for the Phuket Gazette and its partner newspaper China Daily, covering a variety of topics from why rumors spread panic to selfies among the tuhao.