Danger on wheels

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Rundown, overloaded bikes worsen an already bad traffic situation

An overloaded motorbike on a street in Ho Chi Minh City. Such bikes are making city roads even more dangerous.

Last month, Tom Hricko was hit by a delivery man riding an almost worn out bike carrying large sacks of ice cubes in front of the Caravelle Hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

"The guy was going in the wrong direction and stupid me, I did not think to look both ways even though it was a one-way street. My leg still has not healed," the American expat said.

Although he was quite used to the heavy traffic over several years that he'd been staying the city, Hricko said he still carried a fear of reckless motorbike drivers who could cause serious damage at any time.

Now there is another item that has been added to the scary list: overloaded bikes on rickety bikes.

In fact, it is not just the expatriates who carry with them the trepidation about heavy loads on bikes that look like they can collapse any moment.

Nguyen Thi Thien Thanh said she gets really scared whenever she has to go on Ly Thuong Kiet Street that runs through districts 5, 11 and Tan Binh because of the high number of motorbikes and three wheelers that carry heavy loads.

"There are a number of construction material shops and a big market on the street. They mainly use old and rusty bikes for transportation," she said.

"˜Dangerous activities'

According to the US Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), "the two most dangerous activities in Vietnam are crossing the street and driving or riding in traffic."

"The road system throughout Vietnam is chaotic, and traffic laws are widely ignored," says OSAC's Vietnam 2012 Crime and Safety Report released on February 15.

According to the report, police officials admit that they face a major problem controlling the steadily growing number of motorcycles and vehicles on their streets.

"The lack of open sidewalks and adequate traffic controls, such as stop lights at all intersections, creates a precarious situation for pedestrians and motorists," it said.

Vietnam, which has a population of 88 million, has more than 32 million registered motorbikes and the number has increased by 10 percent a year over the past few years. The Transport Ministry has forecast that there will be 36 million motorbikes in the country by 2020.

HCMC has around 4.7 million motorbikes, about one motorbike per every two residents in the city with more than eight million people.

George, a tourist from London, said it might be fine for the Vietnamese but it can be "intimidating and scary for tourists who are new to the chaos.

"If you have already been traveling through Vietnam you have probably noticed the mad random acts many drivers commit. Honking, jumping lights, cutting corners, going the wrong way on the streets, riding one handed, the list goes on...," he said.

Indispensable, expandable

Motorbikes have been important load carriers for a long while in Vietnam, but with exponentially increased numbers of vehicles plying the same roads, those that are overloaded are exacerbating the chaotic traffic situation.

On March 1, a woman was carrying two large sacks of clothes on District 7's Rach Ong Bridge when the load suddenly dropped. Luckily, several motorbikes behind managed to escape to safety on the sidewalk.

But Tran Huu Phuoc of Tan Binh District was not so lucky. The pedestrian was fatally hit by a motorbike carrying a heavy load when he was crossing Truong Son Street last June.

A number of dilapidated motorbikes are being used by many shop owners to deliver goods because they are cheap vehicles, which is an advantage because the possibility of being stolen is less and the loss is not too great if they are seized by traffic police for any violation.

These bikes are used to deliver a wide variety of products including ice, beer and beverages, cooking gas, bread and many other commodities. The bikes, often with a decrepit frame with no lights, mirrors or horns, also tend to speed on crowded streets to ensure fast delivery and to evade traffic police.

A motorbike mechanic who is also a broker selling such motorbikes in Binh Thanh District, said a registered bike costs only around VND1 million (US$48) while an unregistered one can be got for less than half this amount.

A traffic police officer said some shop owners have dozens of these cheap motorbikes for delivery. "They would pay fines to get the bike back for minor breaches and just abandon them if the driver commits some serious offence," he said.

The police official, who wished to remain unnamed, said they have failed to identify drivers in many traffic accidents because they would flee the scene, leaving the bike behind. It was often not possible to find the abandoned bike owner because it was unregistered, he said.

Legal loopholes

According to a Transport Ministry circular on vehicle loads, a motorbike is allowed to carry a load that exceeds either side of the rear seat by 0.3 meters and has a height not exceeding two meters from the ground.

But there is no regulation on the maximum weight that a motorbike can carry.

Many traffic police officials said they could not issue fines against drivers who carry heavy loads that do not exceed the size limits.

One of them said: "There should also be regulations that stipulate higher fines for motorbikes carrying large loads because they are easily a danger to themselves and to other drivers."

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