How to Get Motorbiking Parents to Put Helmets on Their Kids?

(Photo: Dan bennett)

Allison Zelkowitz, the Thailand program director for Save the Children, writes in to say:

I listen to your podcast frequently, and I was particularly interested by your show on the “herd mentality.”
Do you guys have any ideas to help me (and Save the Children in Thailand) figure out how to get parents to put helmets on their children in Thailand (or in other parts in the developing world?)
Thailand ranks worst in the world for motorbike and two-wheeler casualties, with more than 11,000 motorbike drivers or passengers dying annually. Traffic accidents are one of the highest causes of death for children in Thailand.  Helmet wearing is low overall, but it is particularly low for children – it is common to see parents wearing helmets on a motorcycle with children who are not.
This, as you can imagine, blows my mind. Save the Children is working to design a program to address this, and as a result of your program on the herd mentality, I’m seriously considering trying to video parents at intersections and project large images of them on screens at the same intersection, with “thumbs down” signs when their kids aren’t wearing helmets (similar to the “shaming” you mentioned on your show.)
Any other ideas on how we could change parents behavior in this regard would be so appreciated! 

I replied:

I’d suggest experimenting with a number of efforts (i.e., simultaneously) in order to try to fix the problem as quickly and cheaply as possible. There are probably a lot of ideas in that “herd mentality” episode that might be worth trying, from shaming to the “social norm” pressure of letting people know (or think) that everybody else does put a helmet on kids. Also I wouldn’t discount the use of shock tactics as well (grisly pix, e.g.).

She replied:

Your idea of trying a number of fixes simultaneously is a good one – this is not usually the way international NGOs do things, we design a program, see how it goes, then adjust.  Thanks for the reminder that simultaneous experimentation can be more effective (I’m reading the book Decisive now, which also mentions this methodology).
Our partner, the Global Road Safety Partnership, had told me previously that scare tactics (similar to gruesome photos on cigarette packs) haven’t had much success with road safety initiatives, though I’ll check in with him again and see if there is any evidence for this working in Thailand or not.

All right, readers — what good advice do you have for Allison and Save the Children?

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  1. Shar says:

    Since I live in the U.S. I have no idea how widely available helmets in kids’ sizes are in these other countries. Is there a supply problem or is it completely a perceived lack of need to use helmets for kids?

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  2. Peter Harrison says:

    Create an exchange for children’s helmets, so when their child outgrows theirs then they can swap it for a larger one at no cost. If these exchanges were at schools then it would make it easy and also is a good place for discussions between parents to ramp up the peer pressure.

    The ghost bike phenomena could be something else to take inspiration from – to commemorate places where children have died in motorbike accidents. Would be hard to drive past one with a child not wearing a helmet…

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  3. H says:

    Also worth checking out: A framework / method for changing behaviour. The key: not only try a number of fixes in your programme, but also implement a number of them simultaneously in different “influencer” area’s. The book is a great read, with examples from Thailand.

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  4. Jay says:

    I’ve seen the same problem back here in India..not seen a single child in my biking of past 7 years wearing helmet…well penalty works well here, although temporarily only and I guess it’s because either it’s insignificant in amount or you get away cheaply by bribing…but if enforced strictly…it should work…it may not necessarily be monetary…like it can be cancelling/suspending licenses to cancelling vehicle registration to confiscating the bikes…instill fear and it should work fine…

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  5. baldmosher says:

    I’d suppose the main difficulty in forcing acceptance of this would be the thought that if the parents and child are involved in the same accident (using the photo above as the prompt for this), the child with a helmet might survive, where the parents without a helmet might not — it’s a horribly blunt way to look at this, but having the child survive as an orphan might not be such a great idea, unless Thailand has very good orphan adoption rates and highly developed social services. It’s not even a good idea to be an orphan in Britain and we have some of the best equipped social services in the world.

    It’s the same problem with inoculating children in the third world without also educating the parents that now they shouldn’t bear so many children because the ones they do have won’t be as likely to die from disease, and therefore they’ll be more likely to starve to death.

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  6. IE says:

    How about cameras that would read license plates (they have license plates on motorbikes, right?), recognize if everybody wears a helmet and mail them a lottery ticket?
    It’s probably way too expensive, but I have no doubts it would be effective.

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  7. Raymond Wonsowski says:

    After having lived many years in a developing economy (Paraguay) that had (and still has) the same problem, the ONLY thing that has worked has been crippling financial penalties.

    Paraguay had tried PSA’s, giving away free helmets when purchasing motorbikes, safety schools, and so on. And still you would find families of four on a moped with the mom cradling a baby, NONE wearing anything resembling safety.

    So, now, police pull over helmetless/unsafe operators, and (being the police are very corrupt there), on first offense, either pay a “multa” the size of the average Paraguayan’s monthly paycheck, or hand over whatever cash you are carrying to the officer in charge.

    Repeat offenses are even better, because then the police take your motorbike, and you will have to buy it back.

    Sometimes the only way to stop bad behaviour is to kick’em in the wallet.

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  8. Adam says:

    Maybe some image modification to show the helmet-less how they would look if they were in a gruesome wreck, following the idea about scare tactics. Of course, if the research shows that those tactics are ineffective, don’t waste your money!

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