by Quang Vinh
Vu Bang is a proud father of two children - a second grader and a little boy attending kindergarten. He is also proud of his motorbike driving skills and how good his little daughter is at sitting on the bike.
Bang drives the little girl to a nearby primary school on his way to the office. He sits the child in front of his bike, like millions of Vietnamese parents, both because the children like it, and because their arms can protect the little ones from falling.
But safety is not a major concern for Bang. He never has his daughter wear a helmet. "Why not," I asked.
"It's just a short distance from my home to her school. Moreover, a helmet on her head would hinder my view while driving." Seeing that I was skeptical, he assured me: "Don't worry. I am an excellent driver. And even if she sat behind, she would hug me tightly and would not fall."
"What if the police stop you for not putting a helmet on her?"
"See, she looks small for her age. I would tell them she is under six."
Under current regulations, fines are not levied if children under six are carried on bikes without helmets.
Phuong, Bang's wife, does not like the seating arrangement. What if he brakes suddenly? But she is also not into letting the little one don a helmet. How can the little girl's tiny neck withstand a heavy thing like that?
Phuong also said it would be very inconvenient for parents to hang the bulky helmets on the sides of motorbike after the children are dropped at school, and take care of them, the helmets, for the whole day until pick-up time.
So, there you have it. Parents have several excuses for not having their children wear helmets, so they are not going to act with alacrity in abiding by a new law that goes, authorities say, more strictly into force this Friday (April 10).
Traffic police nationwide are set to pull over and fine people carrying children, in front or riding pillion, and children themselves riding motorbikes or electric bikes without helmets.
They had done this twice before, in 2011 and 2013, so people are wondering if the rule will stick this time, or fade away "as usual".
This time around, the law says, parents or whichever adult is carrying a child riding pillion without a helmet will be fined VND100,000–200,000 (US$5–10) on the spot. Children riding or riding pillion without a helmet will have their names forwarded to their schools for follow-up action, which, at this point, will be a gentle reprimand and reminder of the law and the need to abide by it.
Traffic police officers have been helping parents and children prepare for the new regulation. On Monday, April 6, they began visiting schools to warn them about the coming rule and penalties for violations.
Also on Monday, reporters who visited schools to cover the new traffic development found that many parents were still driving their kids to school on bikes without helmets. Several parents were themselves not wearing the mandatory headgear.
Some Lao Dong (Labour) Newspaper reporters were with the traffic police when they caught the parents.
Out came the excuses again.
Some had forgotten, some were in too much of a hurry to get their children to school before going to work, some had not bought the helmets yet, and some simply said they were not aware of such a regulation, although campaign announcements were being made on the mass media since last Thursday.
When the police had issued their reminders and left the scene, some parents opened up a bit more. They said they were hesitant about buying helmets for their children because they wanted to adopt a wait-and-see approach. They would watch the situation unfold and act accordingly, but expect that things will return to "normal" soon, they said.
One parent, Minh Vu, commented on the Vnexpress website that if he had to get a proper helmet to fit the size of his son's head, he would have to replace it every year as the son grew up. "It would be a waste."
Vu's comment was echoed by others who said they would rather let their children use the adult helmets already at home than buy new ones.
I guess it can be safely said that this latest safety push is not going as smoothly as authorities would have hoped.
Captain Pham Thanh Tuan, head of the Ha Noi Traffic Police Division, said that officers had been delegated to work three shifts a day at many schools: in the morning, at noon and at late afternoon, but it was hard to reach all violators and issue warnings.
"Narrow streets are already crowded when parents park and wait to pick up their children. When we stop a parent to remind them to have their children wear helmets, curious people surround us and make the streets even more congested."
Most motorbikes or scooters do not have a trunk, and the under-seat storage space, where it exists, can only accommodate one helmet.
While most parents commenting on the social media have supported the rule and urged other parents to insist that their children wear helmets, not all children like it.
Tuan Anh, an 8th grader, hates wearing helmets because it gets hot and sweaty on summer days. More importantly, it makes him look so ugly and ruins the shape of his hair, which is always painstakingly styled by gel.
Tuan Anh's aesthetic notions on the verge of adulthood are likely shared by a lot of his peers of both sexes, accounting for the ubiquitous sight of bareheaded youth on bikes and electric bikes on the road.
Khuat Viet Hung, deputy chairman of the National Traffic Safety said World Bank statistics show that in 2014, 94.6 per cent of the adults wore helmets, while the number was just 23.6 per cent for children.
Hung also quoted a Health Ministry report as saying that every year, between 1,800 and 1,900 children die from road accidents, accounting for 20 per cent of the total fatalities. Experts have said the figures point to the importance of children wearing helmets.
The Government has done much to raise awareness among parents. Decrees have been issued, the subject has been introduced in school curricula, students are reminded of the need to wear helmets at the flag saluting ceremony every Monday, and so on. However, it seems that the situation has not really improved.
If parents were to act decisively now, they would not only be making themselves and their children safer, but also inculcating a culture of following the law that will benefit society as a whole in a big way.
Will on-the-spot fines hit the spot? We can't know for sure, but I would like to remind parents of how often they tell their children, "this is for your good," when the latter have to do something unpleasant, like taking bitter medicine.
It is time parents took some bitter medicine themselves, saying, "this is for our good." — VNS