A motorbike in Hanoi carrying a heavy load has the pillion rider perched precariously and without a helmet. 2012, designated as the year of traffic safety, has continued to see a large number of accidents and traffic laws flouted.
Early this year the Prime Minister encouraged all local and regional officials to improve traffic in their respective regions. Just recently the Prime Minister "ordered all municipalities and agencies to continue their effort."
According to recent statistics, with the exception of some African countries, South East Asia, particularly Vietnam, has the highest accident rates recorded worldwide.
Almost immediately after the first warning statement, a Ho Chi Minh City official claimed a 50 percent reduction in accidents (Vietnam News).
Last week (Vietnam News, June 5) it was reported there was a 26 percent drop in accidents in the first five months.
Later in the week (Vietnam News, June 8), it was said that the targeted 10 percent decrease would not be achieved this year since there was only a slight change thus far in 2012.
In addition, it was claimed that there were only two traffic jams lasting more than 30 minutes this year in HCMC, as compared to last year's 21 in the first five months a huge reduction. It all seems a bit confusing and misleading at best. If we can't be clear about the extent of the problem how can we attempt to manage the problem?
Now a campaign to shame has been bolstered by the Prime Minister. Apparently, traffic violators will have their names announced or published in newspapers in an attempt to shame the offenders. Although this was done somewhat effectively in the USA to shame criminals and drunk drivers, I'm not sure we can expect the same result here. In order for an individual to experience shame they must (1) have the awareness that they have done something wrong, and (2) they would then need to have the capability of accepting responsibility prerequisites not easy to find. Additionally, comments written in "Talk around town" (Vietnam News, June 6) are not encouraging. Some of the younger people surveyed had similar responses: "Nobody cares"¦ I don't care"¦ I think I feel nothing." Other suggestions were made that the policy may only work for older people who have more of a sense of shame than the youngsters; another thought it might work for people in high level positions in the government.
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When the shame scheme began two years ago it turned out to be ineffective: names were to be published and, in addition, offenders were to show remorse for their crimes "but this rarely happened."
How effective is shame in changing behavior? For some young drivers, it may even be a badge of honor among their peers. I guess anything is worth a try, however, considering the situation.
Violating traffic rules is the norm for many drivers, so how do we change the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of these people? Well, we know a few things about what causes accident: speeding, drinking, reckless driving, running red lights, etc.. And we know who the violators are: Young drivers, aged 15-25, cause 80 percent of accidents; alcohol is involved in 93 percent of accidents.
I would put my money on these groups of people. Driver education needs to begin early in all schools and violators must be subject to mandatory driver education along with substantial penalties for all moving violations. It's time to get tough and start confiscating motorbikes and give violators jail time for serious or repeated offences.
There are basically three areas that should be addressed: Protective equipment: such as helmets this has been done successfully after much effort, but now a large number of drivers are unprotected because the helmets are not safety approved and children continue to ride without protection despite the law; Engineering: improvement in the design of roadways and elimination of existing problem areas by using barriers, etc.., which I have seen more of recently; and Administration: training, licensing, driver records, stiff penalties, increased enforcement, and accurate accounting of accidents, injuries, fatalities.
Last week Vietnam News said 268 accidents were reported in HCMC this year with 240 deaths. This number simply doesn't compute anywhere near reality (unless perhaps we are only counting accidents which included a fatality).
Based on a very well-recognized safety tool, the Safety Pyramid (a tool used by all safety professionals), 240 deaths would indicate approximately 72,000 accidents (compare this with the 268 reported) that would have resulted in injuries, 7,200 disabling injuries would be expected, and 72 million at-risk behaviors (violating traffic rules) for each fatality that would be in HCMC alone in the first five months of 2012!
Yes, seventy-two million violations in five months in HCMC. Would we have enough space to print the names in the newspaper?
By Roy Little
The writer is an American expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City