Distracted to death

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With no serious effort to discourage texting and talking on the cell phone while driving, the deadly habit could prove hard to kick

 
A woman checks her cell phone while driving in downtown Ho Chi Minh City

Apparently oblivious to the blaring of horns all around him, the motorcyclist snaked through a rush of oncoming traffic "” encroaching into the car lane on the one-way Huyen Tran Cong Chua Street, one hand on the throttle, the other hand texting on his mobile phone.

He managed to wiggle out of the car lane only when the bike got too close to a truck ahead. But his hand never stopped texting.

Elsewhere, another motorcyclist abruptly stopped her bike in the middle of Ong Lanh Bridge, which links Ho Chi Minh City's districts 1 and 4, oblivious again, to the danger posed by speeding cars and huge trucks passing inches away from her. She had got a phone call and apparently could not let the person on the other end wait.

But not all bikers are lucky or skilled at the multitasking involved in driving and texting at the same time.

On April 12, 22-year-old Tran Hoang Em died on the spot after a truck crushed him in HCMC's District 12. The police said Em had been talking on his cell-phone while driving and fell flat on the street after losing control of the bike.

Texting and talking on cell-phones while driving is a common phenomenon in motorbike-dominated Vietnam, and serious enough to get health experts and officials fretting. But the lack of local research on the links between such behavior and road accidents, coupled with lenient penalties against the violation, has rendered this hazard invisible to many.

"Using a cell phone while driving is definitely a major road hazard in Vietnam," said Greig Craft, president of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF), a US non-profit organization that seeks to reduce traffic crash injuries and fatalities in developing countries through public education campaigns.

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"[But] many people are not yet aware of the extreme danger they are placing themselves and others in when they indulge in this behavior," Craft told Vietweek.

In an interview with Vietweek two years ago, Tran Thi Ngoc Lan, a senior official at the Ministry of Health, said no research had been carried out on the links between cell-phone use and road accidents, adding it would have to be done soon so authorities can take stricter action and impose heavier penalties.

Two years on, nothing has been done.

"The [health] ministry hasn't worked out any plan to conduct a study on this matter," Lan said Monday (April 16).

Lan Anh, a spokeswoman for the National Traffic Safety Committee, also said there is no such study in Vietnam.

"We have just learnt from the experiences of other countries," Anh said.

Visible hazard

International research on the connections between cell-phone use while driving has highlighted the danger involved.

Studies suggest that drivers using a mobile phone are approximately four times more likely to be involved in a crash than when they do not, according to the World Health Organization.

Text messaging, specifically, creates a crash risk 23 times worse than when driving while not distracted, according to Distraction.gov, an official US government website on distracted driving. In the US in 2009, 18 percent of fatalities in crashes due to the driver being distracted were caused by mobile phone usage, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association said.

"There is no doubt that distracted driving results in many traffic deaths and serious injuries," said Steve Lind, deputy director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

"We now have primary enforcement laws in Washington prohibiting the driver from using a hand held cell phone or texting while driving," Lind told Vietweek.  "The minimum fine for either offense is US$124."

In an attempt to clamp down on traffic violations in Vietnam, the government has since 2010 increased penalties up to seven times for various offenses. The new law bans car drivers completely from drinking, while lowering the allowed blood-alcohol limit for motorbike drivers from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

But fines for mobile phone use while driving remain fixed at between VND40,000 to VND60,000 for each offence.

Several traffic policemen and bikers in HCMC told Vietweek that pulling over people and fining them up to VND60,000 for texting or talking on a cell phone would not deter the practice.

"Neglecting to make this a priority among traffic police is leading to more traffic crashes, injuries, and deaths as we speak [and]"¦ this bad habit may become more difficult to reverse in the future" AIPF's Craft said.

Motorbike is the most common means of transportation in Vietnam, with a total of more than 32 million registered bikes among a population of around 88 million. Every day, at least 1,000 new motorbikes and 100 new automobiles hit the road in HCMC.
In 2011, the National Traffic Safety Committee reported some 11,000 deaths in road traffic accidents. Government figures estimate the annual cost of road traffic accidents at roughly $800 million.

Hooked up

With iPhone shops sprouting up in the country and tech-savvy young people between 10 to 24 years representing almost a third of the total population, "it is [the] country's youth that is most at risk," Craft said.

According to the General Statistics Office (GSO), as of January 2012, the number of mobile phone subscribers had hit 118.5 million in Vietnam, meaning a user owns one to three Subscriber Identity Modules (SIMs) with the same network provider.

A Nielsen 2011 survey said about 20 percent of the younger Vietnamese population between the ages of 15 and 24 increasingly uses mobile communications services. A 2010 survey by Cimigo, a marketing and brand researcher, found 97 percent of 1,000 phone users in Hanoi and HCMC use the text function regularly.

Vietnamese health officials have acknowledged the risks of texting and talking on cell-phones while driving, but given limited resources, the government has given priority to cracking down on drunk and reckless driving.

Doctors at the head trauma unit of HCMC's Cho Ray Hospital, which treated 65 road crash victims per day on average in 2010 (according to latest figures available), have said there has been no letup in the figures since. Officials say the same thing at the Viet Duc Hospital in Hanoi, where an average of 49 traffic accident patients were treated per day during the first and second quarter of 2009.

There has been no assessment of how many accidents among these were caused by the use of cell-phones while driving, and there is no such effort in the pipeline.

"I don't think the doctors have ever bothered to find out the cause of road accidents, unless it had to do with driving under the influence," a doctor from the People's Hospital 115 in HCMC said on condition of anonymity.

For now, there is not going to be any respite in the growing numbers of youth and even older people talking and texting while driving motorbikes and cars.

"If I get a phone call while driving, I just want to return it immediately," said Kieu Viet Anh, a 22-year-old employee of a coffee shop in District 3.

Asked if she saw any risk in doing so on the street, Anh said, "Yes. The only thing that worries me is that my cell-phone could get robbed anytime."

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