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World Health Organization – Helmet Initiative

November 16, 2009

World Health Organization – Helmet Initiative

All things must come to an end. This is the final edition of Headlines, the newsletter of the World Health Organization Helmet Initiative.

There are several reasons why publication of Headlines is ending, however, the major one has been the Helmet Initiative is a victim of its own success! In the past 17 years, there has been a dramatic change in attitudes towards bicycle and motorcycle helmets. In 1991, when the Helmet Initiative began, using a bicycle helmet or motorcycle helmet wasn’t very common. Then, only motorcycle riders in Europe wore helmets regularly. In Asia and the SE Asian Peninsula and Latin America, almost no motorcycle riders wore helmets. In most counties, few children – and even fewer adults – wore bicycle helmets. There were no laws requiring riders to wear bicycle helmets.

The idea for the Helmet Initiative came about in 1991 when several of the WHO Collaborating Centers for violence and injury prevention decided to join together and work on a common project to prevent injuries. Since bicycles and motorcycles were used worldwide and helmets had been shown to reduce serious head injury and even death for bicycle and motorcycle riders, we felt that a project to promote the use of bicycle and motorcycle helmets would be appropriate. And so the Initiative was born.

During the 17 years of existence of the Helmet Initiative, people have begun wearing helmets. Health and transport officials started talking about the benefits of wearing helmets. Policy changes to promote helmet wearing were made. In the South East Asia and Western Pacific regions these changes were dramatic. In Vietnam, helmets were designed for use in tropical climates, manufactured and distributed throughout the region. Universal helmet wearing laws were created and old laws were enforced in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. In Latin America, countries like Columbia and Mexico have enforced existing laws, resulting in dramatic declines in head injury rates. In the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Norway, bicycle helmet use became widespread, first for children, then for adults. This happened because of vigorous helmet promotion activities and by using mandatory laws. Now, throughout the world, helmets are a common sight everywhere. They’re just something that’s done – part of the riding equipment. Even professional bicycle racers are wearing helmets when they race.

We know a lot about the basics of helmets. We know they’re effective. We know that wearing laws – that are enforced impartially – increase helmet use. We know the effectiveness of peer pressure, helmet subsidies and giveaway schemes in increasing helmet use. We’ve developed helmet designs that are inexpensive and work, and they can be manufactured and worn in the tropics. We’re on the right track!

But in spite of the huge global increase in helmet wearing, we can’t celebrate yet. In many African and Latin American countries, helmets are worn infrequently. In the United States of America, motorcycle helmet use is decreasing as fewer states require helmet wearing. In Asia, although helmet use has been increasing, recent research shows that constant promotion and enforcement of laws are necessary in order to keep these wearing rates up. In Africa, few countries have policies in place that promote helmet wearing. Motorcycle taxi passengers and operators in some African cities suffer alarming injury rates because there are no helmet laws.

We appreciate your comments, contributions and encouragement through the past 17 years. We hope that you will continue to rely on science-based policy to promote helmets. Although we will discontinue publishing Headlines, the need to continue to promote use of helmets for all bicycle and motorcycle riders must go on. It is up to you to continue the efforts.

Thanks for your support and best of luck to you!

Philip L. Graitcer
Facilitator, WHO Helmet Initiative

NOTE: Good resources for helmet promotion may be available through the  Headquarters and Regional Offices of the World Health Organization

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