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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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