Notes from the field: Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Gai Lai Province
On May 15, a day before I started my field trip to South-East Asia, Vietnam’s national government formally announced that all children starting school in the first grade will be provided with a helmet beginning in the 2018-2019 academic year. The government’s commitment to distribute 1.6 million helmets by September 2018 alone marks an important milestone in the work of the FIA Foundation’s partner in Vietnam, AIP Foundation. AIP Foundation’s work there has focused on child road safety and over the years has contributed substantially to the country’s policies on helmet use.
Beyond Vietnam, the FIA Foundation’s support to partner organisations like Save the Children, UNICEF, and AIP Foundation has enabled lifesaving work across South East Asia including Thailand, China, Myanmar, Cambodia, and the Philippines. The Foundation’s support to the region is well-timed as South East Asia has continued to prioritise infrastructure development, including road networks, as a part of its growth strategy.
In my week long trip to the region, I was very glad to witness the work of our partners in making sure that road safety remains central to the infrastructure development agenda. In Bangkok, I met the team at Save the Children in Thailand. Their ‘7% project’ has reached out to all the public schools in Bangkok metropolitan city through their road safety education campaign. They have also been working with the Traffic Police to ensure better enforcement of helmet regulation in Bangkok. The 7% project name is derived from the harsh reality that despite the majority of Thailand’s 18 million children travelling as passengers on motorcycles every day, only 7% wear helmets. Save the Children is determined to change this very low coverage of helmet use in Bangkok. In 2016, findings from Thai Roads Foundation, which conducted helmet observations outside the project schools, showed that the project tripled the percentage of children observed wearing helmets after 10 weeks from 10% to 30%. Next year, Save the Children will be working on designing a policy brief on road safety zones for kids to document good practices as well as organize a policy dialogue to advocate the ‘road safety zones for kids’ model. The 7% project shows how road safety as an agenda is beginning to be mainstreamed into the child rights discourse, through influential champions like Save the Children.
After an insightful meeting with the Save the Children Thailand, I went to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where the Foundation’s partner AIP Foundation has been working on child focused road safety initiatives, including helmet safety and safe school zones. Over the years, AIP Foundation has become a leader in advocating for stronger enforcement, better policies, safer infrastructure, and promoting behavioural change in Vietnam as well as four other Asian countries: Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and China. With the Foundation’s support, since 2008, AIP Foundation’s work has been critical in pushing forward the road safety agenda in the region. It has supported the design and delivery of the National Child Helmet Enforcement Plan in Vietnam and carried out a successful advocacy of the Passenger Helmet Law promulgated in 2015 in Cambodia which has led to sustained increase in helmet use by children.
On May 17, I joined Mirjam, Alex, Thuong, and Gillian from the AIP Foundation team to attend a workshop jointly organised with the World Bank, International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP) in Ho Chi Minh City. The workshop was part of the Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety (BIGRS), bringing organisations together to support safer streets and safer mobility. As an element of the project, the World Bank and iRAP engineered transportation infrastructure solutions, while iRAP trained AIP Foundation’s team how to use the Star Rating for Schools (SR4S) app. Following the training, AIP Foundation piloted the app by assessing 37 school zones along the city’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor and producing Star Ratings and recommendations. Along with AIP Foundation, the World Resource Institute also inspected the school zones, in addition to developing school-specific recommendations and design solutions. Of the schools assessed, while 40% were of three stars and above, another 60% were either 1 or 2 stars and in need of lifesaving infrastructure improvement.
The workshop was organised to share results of the assessments conducted around school areas as well as to jointly advocate to the Ho Chi Minh City Government to implement road modifications in the remaining schools. Attended by 35 participants, representing World Bank, FedEx, as well as the Department of Transport, Ho Chi Minh City Department of Education and training and Traffic Safety Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, the programme highlighted the extraordinary commitment by the government in investing in making and/ or upgrading 157 pedestrian refuge islands, 11 raised crosswalks, and 15 safe accessibility to bus stops so far.
Speaking at the workshop, Nguyen Ngoc Tuong, Deputy Director of the Standing Committee of the Ho Chi Minh Traffic Safety Committee, emphasized the centrality of the star rating app in the project. “The tool not only helps investors monitor progress but also helps assess effectiveness of road improvements on reducing road traffic injury and fatalities.” He further noted, “We appreciate the effort put by the partners on evidencing the problems and proposing solutions. Given that this year, the priority is on road safety for children and in school zones in Vietnam, we will review all recommendations and where feasible and in line with Vietnamese regulations seek to implement the solutions”.
Another government representative, Hoang Phuc Dung, Deputy Manager of Road Infrastructure Management of Ho Chi Minh Department of Transport, called for the translation of the star rating app to Vietnamese to enable the transfer of methodology to local staff in Vietnam. Iterating the importance of evidence based solutions to safer roads, Luke Rogers, iRAP’s Global Operations Manager, highlighted that crash costs are halved for each star rating improvement, and argued that there would be a substantial cost saving if infrastructure around the remaining schools were to be upgraded. After the workshop, I joined AIP Foundation and WRI to observe a few infrastructure improvements, which have been done by the government. From the first refuge island made, to improvement in foot bridges to accommodate disabled access as well as bicyclists, it was clear that the city was heading for a transformation in transport systems, and was keen to integrate safety into that framework.
I then went to Pleiku, in the central highlands in Vietnam, to join Phuong, Hoa, and Alex of the AIP Foundation. On 18th May, we started the day with the focus group discussions with parents, teachers and pupils in one of the project schools, supported by Johnson & Johnson, as a part of the ‘Helmets for Kids’ Programme. In one of the project schools, Le Quy Don primary school, which has 377 students, we heard teachers say that while the helmet safety programme does mean that they need to work more on coordinating different activities, they are happy to do it, as it benefits the children and the community. Just as the focus groups ended, I joined Phuong and Alex to visit Nguyen Luong Bang primary school in Pleiku city and Phan Dang Luu primary school in Bien, the two schools where AIP Foundation has recently commenced the Slow Zones Safe Zones programme supported by the Botnar Foundation. As a part of the programme, AIPF will campaign for reducing the speed limit to 30km/hr from the current 50 km/hour around school zones. In a brief visit around the second school, Phan Dang Luu primary school, where 952 students study, we saw areas with no sidewalks, no signage, no parking area and no crossings despite it being adjacent to a high speed road. As we left, the AIP Foundation team discussed how the road design certainly did not have children in mind! They now plan to work with the government to address this challenge.
In the afternoon, I again joined a workshop convened by AIP Foundation, which sought to review the programme activities in 2017 as well as orient the teachers of the new project schools, which will be implementing the Helmet for Kids programme in 2018. With over 102 participants at the session, I heard encouraging testaments of AIP Foundation’s work from the government officials from Gia Lai Traffic Safety Committee and Gia Lai Department of Education and Training, school representatives and parents. Hoang Thi Thu, school principal of La Nhin primary school, stated that sustained commitment is the most critical ingredient for ensuring increased motorcycle helmet wearing rates amongst students. In her school, she has taken a number of steps, including introducing fixed helmet storage areas in schools, teaching students to wear helmets correctly, as well as engaging parents to ensure that their children wear helmets.
The head teacher of Ly Tu Trong primary school also talked of how the context and the composition of school children was important to understand in designing interventions. All of her students were from ethnic minorities, with parents engaged in farming in rubber plantations for a living. Given their occupation and long hours at work it requires lot of effort to continuously engage parents in the project and convince them about the importance of crash helmets. Representing the Anh Hung Nup School, which has seen 100% of students use helmets in subsequent helmet observation studies, the head teacher Tran Xuan Quang, discussed what it takes to achieve such a level of compliance. He stated ‘We have noticed that designing a Helmet Action plan is critical. In our school, we formed a student team who would monitor helmet use and report non-compliance to teachers, who would then work with parents to ensure that their children wear helmets. Involving parents at all stages is critical’.
In some poorer areas of Vietnam, where helmets can be expensive, we heard teachers and parents talk about how important the donation had been and how it has ensured that children and parents are more aware of road safety. We also heard from the Gia Lai Transport authorities. In his brief remark, Mr. Pham Hieu Trinh, Chief of Secretariat of Gia Lai Traffic Safety Committee, said: “The project has been very influential. There are many students walking to school but still wearing helmets. This is because of the local culture where children on their way home often ask for a free ride. Thus they carry along their helmets so they can wear them when getting on a motorcycle. They all see the helmet as a close friend, a partner that goes to school with them every day.”
After a long day in Gia Lai province, I left with a thought of how important partnerships with government(s) at different level, schools, parents and children are to ensure commitment to road safety. Most of all, as I heard provincial transport leaders in Gia Lai talk about engagement with AIP Foundation over the years, I understood how ‘partnership’ required building up a shared understanding of issues and committing to them over time and how it is ‘ easier said than done’. My interaction in Gia Lai and HCMC gave me the impression that road safety was increasingly being discussed, its implementation prioritised, and mainstreamed across different issue areas from education, child rights, urban planning and infrastructure development.
In three short days I witnessed some of what it takes to bring about change, the remarkable work the FIA Foundation’s partners do in difficult contexts, often with little international support and commitment. Further, while I often think that much remains to be done on road safety, this trip convinced me that we also need to look back to recognise how far we have come with the work and achievements of our partners. I not only bring back memories of the beautiful cities and landscapes, but insights that I will help me in understanding and supporting road safety interventions in the future.