In Vietnam, banning motorbikes won't decrease traffic accidents

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Small vehicles in big cities are not the problem, according to statistics

A motorbike taxi driver napping on a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. PHOTO: AFP

Some people are of the opinion that motorbikes need to be banned in Vietnam's big cities. One of the basic arguments is that motorbikes cause most of the road accidents in Vietnam, and they cause untidiness in cities.

It is true that motorbikes have some bad consequences.

However, it is baseless to say that motorbikes, which are currently an effective means of transport for most of Vietnamese citizens, are the main cause of disastrous traffic accidents in Vietnam.

According to official figures released by Vietnamese agencies, nearly 12,000 people are killed by road accidents annually.

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But, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 22,000 die a year, including those who succumb at hospital but are not included in the official statistics.

The figures mislead us into believing that motorbikes are the cause of traffic accidents in Vietnam, given that they are the means of transport for most people.

It is, however, a much different story, if we put Vietnam's traffic accidents into the global picture.

The WHO's 2013 report on road safety showed no relation between road fatality rates (fatalities per 100,000 population) and means of transport.

Among 50 countries with the world's highest rates (Vietnam ranked the 23rd), just a few have large numbers of motorbikes. 

Ecuador, South Africa, and Venezuela have much lower rates of motorbikes and higher income per capita than Vietnam. But, their road fatality rates are still considered high.

In the Southeast Asian region, Thailand and Malaysia have much lower numbers of motorbikes than Vietnam, but their fatality rates are 38.1 and 25, respectively, compared to Vietnam's rate of 24.7.

On the other hand, Taiwan is home to more than 23 million people and over 22 million motor vehicles, including over 15 million motorbikes. But, its fatality rate is equal to that of South Korea, which has a much lower number of motorbikes.

That's to say there is no particular evidence that motorbikes cause a high rate of traffic accidents.

Serious accidents rarely happen in cities where motorbikes are used the most. This is also where public transport can replace them.

In fact, disastrous accidents often happen on roads where motorbikes circulate together with other motor vehicles at high speeds like beltways, national roads, and roads connecting provinces. Collisions between motorbikes and other vehicles account for a very high rate of accidents in these areas. But, it is difficult to organize public transport in those places due to low traffic circulation.

Therefore, if we ban motorbikes in places where most of accidents happen, people will have no alternative means. But, if we ban them in cities, the ban will not effectively reduce road accidents.

It is a worrying trend in Vietnam that more and more roads are being built in urban areas, and motorbikes are still allowed to circulate on those highways with other motor vehicles.

Without reasonable solutions, more roads will mean more accidents.

To reduce accidents, we need to build lanes specific for four-wheeled vehicles and others for tri-cycled and two-wheeled ones. But, it is necessary to divide street areas reasonably for each vehicle. Otherwise, it will be like the case of Truong Chinh Street in Ho Chi Minh City, where motorbikes struggle to move in a very small lane and end up in the lane for cars.

The quality of helmets is also a problem in Vietnam where many people wear them just for the sake of not being fined by traffic police.

According to the WHO, quality helmets and proper wearing can help reduce deaths by 40 percent and other serious road injuries by 70 percent.

With Vietnam's restricted resources, it is difficult to enforce the law requiring people to wear helmets properly at every corner of a city. But, the law needs to be enforced strictly on roads with high rates of accidents.

In short, to say that motorbikes cause serious accidents in Vietnam is a baseless argument. And, it is even more baseless to ban motorbikes in a place where accidents happen less than another.

By Huynh The Du*

* The writer is conducting a postdoctoral research about urban economics and public policies at Harvard University. He is also a lecturer with the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program. The opinions expressed are his own.

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