HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — The head trauma ward at Viet Duc Hospital in Vietnam's capital is so crammed with beds, they line both sides of the room and spill out in the hallway. All are filled with unconscious patients with head injuries — motorcyclists who crashed with no helmets.
Vietnam has one of the world's highest traffic fatality rates, with nearly 13,000 deaths recorded last year alone — the majority involving the ubiquitous motorbike. Few people bother with helmets, saying they are hot, bulky and unfashionable. But as of Dec. 15, everyone will be required to don the so-called "rice cookers" as the government enforces a new law intended to save lives.
The Health Ministry kicked off a traffic safety campaign Wednesday to raise awareness before the new rules take effect.
"It's not only the deaths, it's the tens of thousands of injuries. Some people become like vegetables," said Jean-Marc Olive, World Health Organization representative in Vietnam. "Also what is quite sad is that the major proportion of accidents occur in young adults."
More than 20 million motorbikes cram Vietnam's busy streets on an average day, and their numbers are growing as the country becomes wealthier. The roads are also some of the most hazardous on earth. Few drivers look before pulling into traffic. Speeding, weaving, underage driving and drunk driving are common.
Vietnam's traffic fatality rate is about 27 per 100,000 — nearly double that of the United States and among the highest in the world, according to WHO.
But those statistics mean little to most motorbike commuters in Hanoi.
"It is an unenforceable law. Wearing helmets in cities is ridiculous," said Nguyen Tung Anh, 21, a student in Hanoi. "It will reduce drivers' vision, hearing and it is not suitable for the weather conditions here."
For those who need more convincing, Dr. Vu Hong Phong says perhaps a visit to Viet Duc Hospital would work. As the chief neurosurgeon there, he races in and out of surgery every day trying to salvage what's left of motorcyclists who slam their heads onto the pavement without helmets.
"The problem is getting worse and worse," Phong said. "The number of deaths I've seen over the past several years has increased too much and I feel very sad about that."
He lectures surviving patients and their families about the importance of wearing helmets but said his advice is heeded only about half the time, even among those who narrowly escape death.
In the head trauma ward, blood fills cotton stuffed into patients' ears as loved ones massage limp arms and legs. Some victims thrash in pain, their arms and legs tied to bed rails. Others lie still, their heads swollen and bruised. Tubes and machines keep them alive.
"He is in a coma and there is blood on his brain," said Dang Thi Tu, standing over her 21-year-old son, Cong. He was driving home from a wedding when he hit a rock in the road and lost control of his bike. She wishes now that his head had been protected.
"He was only a few kilometers from home, and he didn't wear a helmet."
Currently, helmets are only required on highways outside cities where fines the equivalent of $1.25 are levied on violators. All government employees have also been required to wear helmets since last month.
Government officials are discussing whether to raise the fine when the new law kicks in. Helmets must also be certified with a stamp verifying they meet Vietnamese safety standards.
But enforcement will be tough. When Vietnam tried to impose a helmet law in 2001, angry drivers protested and the government backed down. Some say they will only abide this time if forced.
"I cannot imagine myself wearing trendy clothes together with a helmet," said Le Tra My, 18, who was shopping for hats at an upscale store in Hanoi. "It will look awful."