Wearing a motorcycle helmet can reduce the risk of death in the event of a crash by up to 40% and the chance of a serious injury by up to 70%. Yet according to World Health Organization research only 40% of countries have a comprehensive helmet law and effective helmet standards.

In some of the countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, where motorcycle use has exploded in recent years, levels of helmet use are appallingly low. And even if the driver is wearing a helmet, passengers (sometimes up to three or four on one motorbike) do not. In India an estimated 30,000 people die in motorcycle crashes every year, yet wearing rates and enforcement are low, and laws governing passenger helmets are confusing or non-existent. In China up to 20,000 people die in motorcycle crashes – wearing rates are estimated by the government at around 16%. The problem is exacerbated by the widespread availability of cheap, poor quality helmets – some providing almost no protection.

Yet success stories demonstrate that change is possible. In Vietnam a strong partnership of government agencies, international donors and bodies like the World Bank and Unicef, road safety NGOs and private companies worked together for several years in a ‘helmet wearing coalition’ to build public awareness and implement a helmet standard, legislation and strong police enforcement. The results, since 2007, have been dramatic: helmet wearing rates of more than 85% in urban areas, a 12% reduction in fatalities, a 24% reduction in serious injury and a consequent saving to the Vietnamese government of at least US$200 million.

Now the Road Safety Fund is working with one of the lead architects of the Vietnam success, the Asia Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation, in an effort to transfer the lessons and techniques learnt in Vietnam to assist other countries. The Global Helmet Vaccine Initiative (GHVI), established by the AIP Foundation in 2009, has a vision of ‘A helmet on every head in the Decade of Action’. As well as continuing its work in Vietnam, GHVI has expanded to neighbouring Cambodia and Thailand and is even partnering with campaigners in Africa, Europe and Latin America.

In Cambodia, the ‘Cambodian Helmet Vaccine Initiative’ has established a national office staffed by local road safety practitioners, building a strong relationship with the police and government and securing funding from corporations. The program’s core elements include: research, monitoring & evaluation, working in partnership and with the financial support of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and with Handicap International; providing technical assistance, for example through advising on the introduction of Cambodia’s new helmet standard and draft helmet legislation; public awareness education (the initiative’s ‘One Helmet. One Life’ campaign included an 8 part soap opera ‘Regrets’ on national TV about the impact of a road crash on a typical Cambodian family. The TV drama was introduced with a personal video commendation from the Prime Minister); and free provision of crash helmets to low-income children. The Cambodian Helmet Vaccine Initiative is also cooperating closely with other partners working on helmet safety, including the ‘Road Safety in 10 Countries’ program funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and led by the WHO national office in Phnom Penh.

Another national coalition has been established in Uganda, where Road Safety Fund financial support has been complemented by CDC and the Global Road Safety Facility. The project has three key objectives: to build political awareness and support for helmet safety interventions; to support the Kampala police in their efforts to drive up helmet use amongst ‘boda boda’ motorcycle taxi drivers and their passengers; and to support government efforts to implement a new helmet standard. Already, the World Bank has facilitated a high-level mentoring workshop for senior Ugandan police officers with members of Road Pol, the World Bank’s traffic police advisory network. A national office has been founded with a local director, working with local partners including the Automobile Association of Uganda – the emphasis is on building sustainable local capacity.

GHVI’s CEO Greig Craft is committed to promoting safe and affordable helmets as a ‘vaccine’ for preventable head injury. “Helmets are a proven intervention; they save lives and prevent serious injury. Through GHVI we work to create a new generation of safe and smart road users”, he says.

The experience in Vietnam has proved the investment case for helmet safety in developing nations. With increased financial support for GHVI and similar programs many thousands more lives could be saved.