VIETNAM: Drink Driving, Motorbikes Make for Deadly Mix on Roads

  • by Helen Clark (hanoi)
  • Wednesday, April 01, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

Vietnam's rapid motorisation, which has increased together with economic growth, has taken a dangerous turn over the years.

Although Vietnam’s General Statistics Office (GSO) reports a recent improvement in the casualties from road accidents, an average of 12,000 people still die from road accidents yearly. Many say though that the actual death toll is 30 percent higher.

From 500,000 vehicles in 1990, there are now about 30 million motorbikes in this South-east Asian country. These make up over 90 percent of all vehicles on the roads.

'Ten years ago, you hardly saw a car, now there are so many. The roads are so crowded,' 38-year-old Vu Thi Long, a fruit seller at Hanoi's Long Bien market, said. 'There are a lot of accidents.'

On Mar. 13, a bus carrying Russian tourists tumbled over a cliff on its way from coastal Phan Thiet to the mountainous holiday town of Dalat in Vietnam's central region. Eight Russians and two Vietnamese died on the spot, while two other Russians died while being treated in the hospital.

Such accidents, which made local and international news, account for only one third of Vietnam's daily road toll of 35, although conservative government estimates put this figure at between 28 and 32. Traffic accidents, 80 percent of which are motorbike-related, are the biggest killers of people aged 18 to 45 in Vietnam.

Government statistics, however, show there might be some improvement in this trend. They show that as of 2008, there has been a significant drop of up to 12.5 percent in the road casualty toll, perhaps owing to various road safety campaigns initiated by both the private and government sectors.

According to statistics from the capital's Viet Duc Hospital, alcohol is involved in over 60 percent of vehicular crashes. Ninety-three percent of people involved in these accidents were reportedly driving after drinking. Men account for 82 percent of these accidents.

The Vietnam Union of Friendship Organisations-NGO Resource Centre, a group of international non-government organisations, quoted Transport Minister Ho Nghia Dung as saying at a Mar. 24 conference here that alcohol consumption causes 10 percent of traffic accidents in Vietnam.

Called a meeting on 'Alcoholic Beverages and Traffic Accidents'’, the conference aimed to educate traffic officials about the new law on wearing protective helmets and the consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol. The event was held with the participation of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP) and the National Traffic Safety Committee (NTSC).

Vietnam's Helmet Law or Government Decree No. 32, which took effect in December 2007, requires everyone riding a motorbike, including passengers and children, to wear a helmet. Failure to comply means a fine of 150,000 dong (8.40 U.S. dollars).

Dr Dong Van He, a neurosurgeon at Viet Duc Hospital, said that there were attempts to enforce similar helmet ordinances in 1995 and 2001 but both failed due to lack of political will. 'I wore a helmet from 1996. Only three of us (at the hospital) did back then,' he said.

Meanwhile, the government is planning to enforce the Road Traffic Law on Jul. 1, 2009, which states that motorbike and car drivers' Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) level must not go beyond 0.05 percent and zero percent, respectively.

'I recommend a BAC of zero percent but it's really difficult,' Col Nguyen Anh Dung of the Hanoi Road and Railway Traffic Police told the March conference. 'I also recommend no drinking among police during working hours.'

Studies show that 83 percent of Vietnamese are unaware of what the current legal BAC level (0.08 percent) should be. In conducting a survey around drunk driving at the Saint Paul and Viet Duc hospitals, the National Economics University's Nguyen Thi Thieng noted the 'very poor understanding' about BAC levels. Among policymakers, there is a 'high understanding but poor application'.

NTSC chair Than Van Thanh asserted that infrastructure plays only a small part in most road accidents. 'Accidents are mainly caused by (the lack of) awareness and the manner in which people take part in transportation every day,' he told IPS in a phone interview.

Long-time Vietnam resident Greig Craft, president of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, attributes 90 percent of accidents to human error. '(The rate of) motorisation is out of control and with that you have associated problems. There's a lack of infrastructure and experience,' said Craft, who has seen motorbikes replace bicycles in the country’s streets almost overnight.

Others, however, are not so sure.

U.S. travel writer Adam Bray, who has lived in Phan Thiet for five years, had been in a motorbike accident himself near the site of the March bus crash. '(The road) is too steep and the curves are too tight. There are too many potholes,' he said.

'Road crashes don't just 'happen' and they have determinants that can be controlled,' explained Jonathan Passmore of the road safety and injury prevention division of the WHO.

But without education and awareness, no road system will be entirely safe. 'The biggest problem is how to raise people's awareness of laws, and of safety in transportation,' said Thanh.

Craft adds that if there is one good thing that can come out of the current financial crisis, it may well be a decrease in the death toll from road accidents. 'This economic crisis may help. It'll slow down motorisation,' he said.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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