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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Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



  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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  9. mrG says:

    Several things come to mind, the first stemming from the observation that parents with helmets will have children without — could it be the (real or perceived) cost of helmets when children will only outgrow them in a year or so, which might be mediated by sponsoring helmet-swaps in the schools (here in Canada we do this for ice-skates and hockey gear). Another option is the alpha-ape method: find popular celebrities who will endorse the behaviour especially by being seen doing it in mass media (movies, tv shows etc) — I should think it would also be possible for Ultraman to help make helmets seem more cool, especially among Thai children 😉 and you might encourage helmets with appropriately themed graphics at affordable prices (Fischer-Price does this in America)

    However it is done, I can tell you that it can be very effective: Canadians greatly resisted helmet laws and many adults will still ride bicycles without helmets and complain bitterly about motocycle helmet laws, but I notice that among my children (8-32) the perceived need for the helmet is so complete they won’t cycle around the block in a residential neighbourhood without one!

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  10. Michael says:

    In Brazil families who use motorcycles/mopeds to get the family around do so because they can’t afford a car. Buying 2-3 kids helmets which would quickly be outgrown would be a big challenge.

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  11. Andria Muchmore says:

    I can think of several solutions but need more information. My own personal experience with seat belt non-compliance was related to masculinity and the idea that seat belts assumed that the driver was unable to avoid an accident (ie if you have to wear a seat belt, it’s because I can’t drive.) This was dispelled with “defensive driving” classes that teach how the problem is other drivers and that safety features are to make sure that some OTHER person doesn’t make a mistake. This could be helpful if parents perceive children in helmets as an admittance that they can’t properly protect them otherwise. A simple campaign with parents who’ve lost children (highlighting all of their great traits and how they’re amazing and yet even THEY couldn’t stop the other person from killing their child) might work but I know that the individualist vs. collectivist culture changes perception and I’m not versed in that enough to know. Other suggestions, have school/sports/etc programs give helmets to their TOP students and athletes because they need to protect their investment. Helmets become a status symbol and parents want to protect their own investment in their children. Shaming works but I don’t know that it will be effective for those who are living in conditions where a whole family is on one motorbike. Instead, I think that inflating status could be an easier way to do the same.

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  12. Jaime says:

    I am a US citizen that currently lives in Thailand. I have spent much brain power thinking about how to create reform on such a widespread, common occurrence. I was initially shocked by the lax attitudes towards safety standards in Thailand and then amazed at how overly protective, and protected, we are in the US. When visiting nearby Vietnam, I couldn’t help but notice that almost everyone wears a helmet, especially children, which is due, in part, to large fines for offenders. I agree with Raymond that this is the most effective and efficient way to create change in a country such as Thailand.

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  13. Jonas says:

    Don’t have to look so far. In Rhode Island it’s legal to ride motorcycles without helmets. Try to convince those guys on their Hondas and Yamahas to wear helmets first…

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  14. Brett Harrison says:

    Have you discussed any of this with the makers and sellers of helmets? Do they have any ideas themselves? It seems to me the easiest solution — should there be one — would involve a company finding a way to make money on the sale (and/or exchange, etc) of children’s helmets. Marketing costs for the “program” would then be the responsibility of the for-profit company — and you might benefit from their experience in the Thai market.

    I know many NGOs are hesitant to work with for-profit companies — and are especially unwilling to use funds to aid in for-profit projects. I think this is one of the biggest mistakes an NGO can make. Profit has as much (or more) potential to make a program sustainable than does about anything out there.

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  15. Shane L says:

    Perhaps this problem will disappear by itself as Thailand develops economically and more people shift from motorbikes to cars. Of course I don’t mean that a campaign to save lives now is without merit.

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  16. MajorSensible says:

    What is the reason that people in Thailand don’t typically wear helmets? Find out why and address it in a way that provides incentive for people to comply.

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  17. RGJ says:

    erm….only a few posters mention legal action? Catch an adult with a helmetless kid on the back, fine the heck out of the parent. Catch a kid, grab the bike for three days and make him show up with a helmet to get it back.

    Now, I’m a libertarian, and I wouldn’t necessarily back those measures in the US until someone showed me it is a bloodbath, but if you want to stop it it starts with the parents.

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  18. NRG says:

    An incentive approach aimed at the most vulnerable! -kids

    1. Give out candy to every kid wearing a helmet, do it on prominent traffic junctions so other kids can see what’s going on.

    2. Let kids paint or decorate their helmets as part of a crafts class in school, personal investment will make them use it often.

    Assumption here is that helmets are not that expensive, if price is a barrier, it maybe difficult for parents to purchase one and this approach won’t be effective.

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  19. Stewart Herring says:

    Turn them into fashion items. In Mexico I would say make the helmets into the masks that the wrestlers use. In the USA, Spiderman, Superman, Darth Vader helmets. There might be copyright problems with that but the companies involved could be persuaded to drop any objections, after all, they will be saving the lives of future customers.
    I don’t know Thai culture, but how about Gods/Godessses or local film stars?

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  20. Andria Muchmore says:

    Why are parents wearing the helmet? If you see the driver of the motorbike wearing a helmet but no one else, could it be because the helmet keeps the sun/wind/dust out of the driver’s face? If the motivation of the parents wearing the helmet is not safety, it could explain why the children are not wearing one. Maybe the perception of the helmet is that it is uncomfortable and sweaty but necessary to drive and that children are thus freed from that discomfort? –

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  21. Kronos says:

    Consider the logistics of traveling with children. You have to tote them and their stuff around. Now add a group of heavy, bulky helmets, and well, you get the drift. If you leave them on the bike they could get stolen. So economics is a big part of the problem too. Also, as kids grow their sizes change so you need new helmets periodically. And young children are difficult to make comfortable.

    I have a bear of a time fitting my kids with regular bicycle helmets. The straps are awkward to adjust and the little cushions always fall out and they rarely fit snugly. I would need to buy more expensive helmets more frequently to do it right.

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  22. LA Grant says:

    All the solutions are statist solutions. Why not leave them alone and allow them to assume the consequences with the responsibilities?

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  23. Adam says:

    @Kronos – surprisingly low rate of theft – nobody locks them and nobody steals them (at least in Chiang Mai, Thailand).

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  24. LivinginAsia says:

    Is there any indication that people in Thailand show preference for doing the things that people in developed countries do, as in, is it a status symbol to do things in a more ‘Western’ way? I’m just thinking of your average advertising technique – associate helmet-wearing with something like a desirable social status, like maybe having ads that show celebrities wearing helmets? (Of course this would have to be paired with making helmets more affordable and available to the general public.)

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  25. El Conquistador says:

    Charge extra on gas prices for those without helmets. The gas station will have a financial incentive of catching those not wearing a helmet .

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  26. LAGrant says:

    Get rid of the middleman (middle-parents). Give the kids to the state to raise.

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  27. Allison Zelkowitz says:

    Thanks a lot to Stephen and all those who posted comments and ideas – many are really interesting and could end up being effective. I’ll let you know how it goes as we plan our program and start to implement some of these ideas in late 2013/early 2014. – Allison Zelkowitz, Save the Children in Thailand

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