01/10/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

Driver Safety: Scooting Around the World

I recently flew from Los Angeles to Seoul and then on to Hanoi, Vietnam. On the first plane, I watched five movies. I don't recommend watching Contagion while on a packed trans-Pacific flight and when your final destination is a crowded developing world city, but I did it anyway because I knew it would at least entertain me, if not make me paranoid. The first film I watched on the plane was Larry Crowne, which was released in American theatres last July and is now on DVD. Larry Crowne, played (and directed) by Tom Hanks, gives up his expensive gas guzzling SUV for a motor scooter, and this shift is a metaphor for the age 50+ college student's new outlook on life.

Sure, contagious germs are always a concern in winter and especially when you travel, but I didn't know when I was on the plane that that scooter would frame my outlook on life while I travel through Asia. I am now realizing that transportation by motor scooters is giving me a new outlook on everyday life back home in Southern California and on public health too.

Traffic accidents, primarily involving scooters, or mopeds, are common in Vietnam, and they are the leading a cause of death. Accidents have been found to be caused primarily by young men who are speeding and who have "poor consciousness of the road." Disregard for traffic lights is a problem, and of course, like in the US, use of cell phones is also blamed. Helmet use is intermittent. Scooters share the crowded streets with pedestrians carrying large packs, traditional bicycles, Japanese and German cars, delivery trucks, tour buses, wild and domesticated animals ...

Just as Larry Crowne simplified his life and figuratively shed a decade or two when he traded in his SUV in the movie, motor scooters are the transportation of choice for young people in Vietnam. A person must be 18 years old to drive a scooter in Vietnam and 20 years old to drive a car. One third of the country's 82 million residents are under 25 years old. While young people are the most common drivers of scooters, they are not the only ones.

In Vietnam, moms and dads line up outside their childrens' schools on Honda scooters, not in Honda Odysseys. Babies and toddlers are not strapped into the back seat. Instead, they hang on to their parents' torsos, sometimes sandwiched between both parents for extra support or between grandma and an older sibling. When only one other passenger is present, small children usually sit on the driver's lap or stand in front of the driver, peering out over the handlebars. Older couples share motor scooters too.

Don't forget the "stuff" Americans would carry in the back of our cars -- or would we? Young men delivering 10 water cooler refill bottles are not an unsual sight. With Vietnamese New Year/Tet on its way, people take home 5-7 foot tall mandarin orange trees on their scooters. A working cotton candy machine fits on the back of a moped too, and can be powered by the battery. Of course, you cannot forget those with the basket of two dozen live chickens or the cases of beer stacked sky high. Some carry hundreds of pounds of rice, stacked in several bags behind the driver and in front too. There doesn't seem to be anything that the locals won't try to carry home on a scooter. They will tie things onto a scooter that I wouldn't have ever dreamed of carrying in my own 7 seater car.

My friend Dr. Tracey Koehlmoos, an international public health expert, has also counted how many people can fit on a scooter and has personally experienced the horrors of traffic accidents in developing countries. Since a traffic accident tragically took the life of her husband, US Army Colonel Randall Koehlmoos, she discovered that the United Nations and the World Health Organization are starting their second year of a Decade of Action for Road Safety, 2011- 2020. I have no doubt that Dr. Koehlmoos and her colleagues will be part of the solution across the developing world.

My own family is no stranger to traffic accidents. Most American families are not either. Senseless traffic accidents take the lives of too many Americans each year as well. The National Transportation Safety Board wants to ban all use of cell phones to increase driver safety on American roads. But what is feasible?

In the Los Angeles region, where car culture reigns, recent efforts are underway, for example, to increase safety on the Pacific Coast Highway where scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, cars, runners, and the occasional pedestrian share a too-narrow space. On both sides of the Pacific and in diverse countries with all types of economies, traffic accidents are a public health issue that cannot be ignored.