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