Awake at the wheel

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A traffic cop is questioning three violators on a street in downtown Hanoi 

I decided to spend the second half of Tet in Phu Quoc this year, looking for a quiet place by the beach.

As most must know, Phu Quoc is indeed a bit of a sleepy island with tourism employing a great many people and fishing occupying many of the others. The whole place is really laid back and in two trips there I only ever saw policemen once. So unsurprisingly most foreigners rent motorbikes there, pretty safe in the knowledge that their lack of license will not even raise an eyebrow; as for helmets, who really needs one when there are no police around?

Motorbikes are so convenient anyway; fairly easy to handle, low on fuel consumption, can sit 2 comfortably and quite a few more uncomfortably, and anyway how the hell are you supposed to get back to your hotel at 2 in the morning when the bars close?

Though Duong Dong is so small you might miss it if you blink, I must have seen some of the worst driving to date in this country. You must have guessed it: I am talking about foreigners like myself.

Oh, I'm not going to sit here and pretend that the Vietnamese are stellar drivers (au contraire), but a young white guy screaming down the road on a barely functioning two-wheeled time-bomb with curly blond hair blowing in the wind and talking on the phone might rate 10 on the cool scale, but I dare say this matters not one bit when the danger is so great and so real.

Now let's supposed this young stud has an accident. Let's first suppose he somehow sustains only minor injuries while the other person involved is not so lucky and is bleeding profusely, lying unconscious in the street. What might our young protagonist do what would you do? Help the victim? But the accident was caused by your reckless driving, and there are countless witnesses that saw you hit this old man parked on the side of the street; you're not making any friends here.

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What's more, you don't have a license; even if you were not the cause of the accident, you have committed a serious offense and are therefore responsible. You could face jail time, and in any case a serious amount of "coffee money" and reparation. So what else can you do? Only one choice: get back on your bike and make sure nobody catches you. That's right, flee the scene which your reckless driving caused; at least you'll still look cool without your helmet, but I dare say you won't care anymore.

Now let's supposed that things have turned out differently, and that our young hero is the one on the road, bleeding from a fractured skull, which a helmet might have very well prevented.  You might say: "Well, this is his choice, and he is paying for the consequences" and in a cynical way I am tempted to agree since it is not my tax money that pays for healthcare in this country. But this argument is flawed. At work, I am responsible for the safety of a crew of 20 and ongoing emergency training and the use of PPE. As an anecdote, I myself avoided a severe head injury by wearing a hard hat while doing a very mundane task.

What case studies show is that the rescue of an injured person is in itself a danger which rescuers and bystanders take upon themselves in order to save the casualty. Many accidents have made victims in the rescue phase; many have died trying to save somebody else. The ambulance that will take you to the hospital will likely go against the traffic at high speed in order to save you, which will endanger the lives of so many who had absolutely nothing to do with your driving.

To be absolutely honest, when I first came to Vietnam at 21, I was a bit of a young buck myself, and used my first bike recklessly. Then I smartened up, got my license, purchased a safer bike, started using mirrors and indicators, drive at an appropriate speed, and never after drinking; just like I would at home, partly because it's the law, but mostly because it's the right thing to do. Sure, this is Vietnam and driving will always be hectic and somewhat aggressive, but to as great an extent as possible, I am doing what we should all be doing, and that's respecting as many of the rules of the road as possible.

I like to think that Westerners are able to think for themselves, that this is something we nurture through our education system,  but what I saw in Phu Quoc and many other places too is that if we think we can get away with it, we'll try. And that's something we ought to be ashamed of.

Getting your Vietnamese license isn't hard at all; my knowledge of Vietnamese is very limited but I had no problem. Alternatively, consider driving a 50cc; you do not need a license for it. A helmet is cheap, light, and can make the difference between life and death in so many accidents. Even my 2-year-old son wears a helmet; this VND50,000 piece of plastic could save his life.

All my Vietnamese friends and family think I'm nuts and they all tell me he doesn't have to wear one. But safety shouldn't just be the lowest common denominator a society abides by, but something we all strive for. I once saw a young guy hit the curb and falling in the grass (luckily) with his bike flipping over him; when we removed the bike from over him we saw he was still sending a text on his phone.

Need I say more? And finally, I don't know where you guys have all been these past three decades, but drinking and driving don't go together; cabs and xe om are so cheap here, there's just plain no reason for taking the risk.

By Bill Chapman, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the March 15th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
*The writer is a Canadian expat who lives in the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang

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