A Brazilian mayor aims to shock motorcycle riders into wearing helmets

A rider in Shanghai, one of 10 cities making concerted efforts to bolster road safety. (TonyV3112/Shutterstock)

Zipping around by motorcycle can be an effective way to navigate traffic in Fortaleza, Brazil’s fifth-largest city. But without a helmet, it’s also a dangerous one: In 2015, almost half of the city’s 315 road crash fatalities were motorcycle riders who weren’t wearing helmets.

In an effort to curb such preventable deaths, Fortaleza is launching a public safety campaign in an effort to encourage helmet use. The city also plans to step up enforcement of existing helmet laws.

“I am a doctor by training, and I visit our hospitals regularly,” Mayor Roberto Cláudio told Citiscope. “More than 60 percent of traffic accidents are men between the ages of 18 and 30 years old driving motorcycles, almost always without helmet. It’s a very serious issue.”

In collaboration with local schools and media outlets, Fortaleza will target young men with a multimedia campaign offering a simple message: “Helmets save lives.” Cláudio compared the campaign to anti-smoking ads that include graphic imagery on cigarette packets.

The World Health Organization estimates that proper helmet use can reduce the risk of fatality in a motorcycle crash by 40 percent. At current rates, deaths from road crashes are on track to become the seventh-leading cause of death worldwide by 2030.

Fortaleza is tackling the issue with the help of Vital Strategies, a New York-based NGO, and financial support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which is funding a five-year effort to prevent traffic fatalities called the Initiative for Global Road Safety.

Fortaleza is one of 10 cities participating in the Bloomberg programme, institutional support that Cláudio insists made possible not only the campaign but also broader changes in municipal government.

“They helped us create a system in city hall that prioritizes this topic,” he said. “We had problems with the precision of data from hospital emergency rooms, so we are trying to create a baseline to see if we reduce the number of accidents and if it was because of increased helmet use.”

[See: In Kampala, an Uber for motorcycle taxis puts safety first]

As a result of poor existing data, the campaign does not yet have specific statistical targets, but Cláudio anticipates them in the future.

Other road safety measures the initiative funds include campaigns to promote seat belts, discourage drinking and driving, and reduce speeds. Fortaleza is participating alongside Accra, Addis Ababa, Bandung (Indonesia), Bangkok, Bogotá, Ho Chi Minh City, Mumbai, São Paulo and Shanghai. As a result, Cláudio says, “I feel part of an international effort.”

“Many cities in the world today, especially in Brazil, suffer from an epidemic of violence: gun violence and traffic violence,” the mayor said. “What kills the most youths in Brazil are these two. Traffic deaths are something where we can intervene with simple policies. It’s a lot less complicated than reducing violence in and of itself.”

Cláudio hopes his city will be “a global innovative force” on the “vanguard” of road safety. “We want to experiment with successful public policies that can be scaled up and recognized.”

[See: ‘We managed to kick off a paradigm shift in São Paulo,’ mayor says on leaving office]

As examples, he points to existing investments in bike lanes, speed-calming devices, wider sidewalks and bike sharing. All of these have been relatively new to his seafront city, both a tourist hub and a state capital in Brazil’s impoverished northeast. Several of the city’s projects are featured in the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Global Street Design Guide.

Fortaleza Mayor Roberto Cláudio: “Many cities in the world today, especially in Brazil, suffer from an epidemic of violence: gun violence and traffic violence.”

If Fortaleza is successful with its helmet campaign, the city may have much to offer a world in which the motorcycle is quickly becoming the method of choice for cruising around the city. In Brazil, they are the main transportation system for deliveries — for couriers, those toting hot meals and more.

The global market for motorcycles was forecast to expand 7.2 percent this past year, according to market researcher Freedonia Group. Asia was expected to continue dominating the market, purchasing 84 percent of all units sold.

For now, Cláudio has to convince the average young Fortalezense to cover up their noggins. What would he say to a recalcitrant rider?

“My friend, even though you’re a good driver, your safety in traffic doesn’t depend on just yourself,” he said. “If you are caught by surprise by a bus or truck, your ambitions in life — to start a family, get rich, be your best — could be cut short. Simple use of a helmet could save your life.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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