Drunk drivers could face criminal charges

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Officials propose criminalizing drunk driving, but supporters fear the booze lobby

 
Police officer Vu Xuan Ha Thai (R) administers a breathalyzer test to a motorist in Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh City vice mayor Nguyen Huu Tin has proposed criminalizing drunk driving to reduce traffic accidents. Photo: Reuters

Nguyen Vu Thong did not plan to kill four people when he set out to drive home from a party with his colleagues in Ho Chi Minh City.

"I'm so sorry. I was very drunk and fell asleep at the wheel," the 31-year-old professional driver told the family of Tran Thi Bich Lien in court July 20.

On December 10 last year, when Thong passed out at around 10:30 p.m. while traveling at a high speed, his Toyota Fortuner crossed the center divider on Nguyen Huu Canh Street in District 1, colliding head-on with a much smaller Hyundai driven by Lien in the opposite direction. Lien's father, 75-year-old Tran Van Phan, and her son, Nguyen Chi Trung, died instantly. Lien and another son, Nguyen Chi Hieu, died later at the hospital.

Thong fled the scene after the accident and turned himself in to police the next morning when his blood alcohol level was still four times the legal limit. The court sentenced Thong to 11 years in jail for driving without his license, driving on the wrong side of the road, speeding, failing to help the victim and fleeing the scene of a crime.

Had Thong been pulled over before the fatal crash, the maximum penalty he would have received would have been a 30-day suspension of his driver's license and up to VND6 million in fines.

Many officials want to change that and are arguing for harsher punishments to be levied against drunk drivers before they cause accidents, in the hopes of reducing fatalities and relevant damages.

Arrest them

The legal threshold of blood alcohol content (BAC) in Vietnam is under 50mg/100ml or breath alcohol content (BrAC) of under 0.25mg/l for motorbikes, which equates to little over one can of beer or 30 milliliters of brandy. The threshold for car drivers is zero.

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Under Vietnamese law, those caught driving automobiles with a BrAC ranging from 0.25 to 0.4 are subject to fines of between VND2-3 million (US$95-143); VND200,000-300,000 if they are driving motorbikes.

In both cases, violators may also have their licenses suspended for 30 days. Fines are doubled for drivers with blood alcohol levels of more than 0.4 milligrams.

At a meeting with the National Assembly's Law Committee on July 26, Nguyen Huu Tin, deputy chairman of HCMC People's Committee, proposed that drunk driving become a criminal offence.

"Vietnamese laws stipulate that a person can be prosecuted for a crime when his/her behavior poses a direct threat to the life or property of others. However, drinking and driving is one such behavior which is not currently considered a crime," he said.

Last year, traffic police in HCMC issued 5,000 fines for driving under the influence.

Ngo Minh Chau, deputy director of HCMC Police Department, said his department had identified drunk driving as the leading cause of serious traffic accidents in the city.

Meanwhile, HCMC representative to the National Assembly Tran Du Lich proposed additional measures beyond mere imprisonment, such as forced labor.

HCMC Traffic Safety Committee records show that 342 traffic accidents occurred in the city over the first six months of the year, killing 303 people and injuring 143 others.

Nationwide, there were 2,344 traffic accidents in July, killing 692 people and injuring 2,475 others.

Nationally, traffic accidents claim 22 lives per day and are Vietnam's second-leading cause of death after non-communicable diseases.

According to the National Traffic Safety Committee, drunk driving is involved in 40 percent of traffic accidents.

Vietnam, which has a population of 88 million, has more than 32 million registered motorbikes and 1.2 million automobiles.

Formidable opposition

At a recent conference on drinking and driving, Nguyen Van Tien, deputy chairman of the National Assembly's Social Affairs Committee, said drunk driving in Vietnam is a very serious problem.

"Policies on limiting alcohol abuse have been ineffective because alcohol [makers] have lobbied strongly. It is necessary to increase tax on alcohol and beer, ban advertisements and pass a law on preventing alcohol abuse," he said, adding that Vietnam produces nearly 350 million liters of alcohol and 2.5 billion liters of beer every year.

According to a report released last month by the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Vietnam's per capita alcohol consumption in 2010 was 30.3 liters of beer, up from just 18 liters in 2006.

It also estimates that Vietnamese citizens spend more than VND6 trillion (US$291.72 million) a year on alcohol, despite the economic downturn.

Meanwhile, the beer companies are thriving. The Hanoi Beer and Beverage Corp. (Habeco) and the Saigon Beer Alcohol Beverage Corporation (Sabeco), Vietnam's two major brewers, have both seen their profits increase over the first half of this year.

Habeco sold 30.6 million liters of canned beer, up 72 percent over the same period last year; and 17.3 million liters of draught beer, up 27.5 percent.

Meanwhile, Sabeco also reported a profit increase of 9 percent over last year.

Although the companies' increasing profits mean they paid more tax to the government, Deputy Minister of Transport Le Manh Hung argued that this was not actually an increase in state revenue.

"Every year, relevant costs that the government and residents paid to recover damages caused by drivers' alcohol abuse have far exceeded tax collected from these companies," he told a recent conference on drinking and driving held by the National Traffic Safety Committee.

"It's time for us to have decisive moves against drinking and driving."

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