Fines for cell phone use at gas stations increases tenfold

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Impractical penalties ignore the far more dangerous practice of using a phone while driving

 
A woman talks on her cell phone in a gas station in Hanoi. A recent tenfold increase in the fine for this offence has been criticized as being too high and impractical.

Hien, a gas station attendant on Hung Vuong Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 5, said a driver had insulted her recently after she told him to stop using his cell phone.

"Others just sneered at me or ignored me when I warned them about the ban on using cell phone at gas stations," she told Vietweek.

But drivers may not laugh for long.

A decree taking effect on August 5 includes a ten-fold increase in the fine against the use of cell phone at fire-prone places, including gas stations a strict measure that has been criticized as unreasonable and impractical.

The international debate as to whether or not electricity or sparks in mobile phones can ignite gas vapors seems to have most experts dismissing the threat, but with so many low-quality bootleg phones in Vietnam, authorities have chosen to err on the side of caution.

Decree 52 lays out new disciplinary measures against fire regulation violations and subjects those using cell phones at fire-prone places to fines of between VND2 million and VND5 million (US$96-$240).

Previously, a 2005 government decree included fines of between VND200,000-VND500,000 for people using objects that can cause fire and heat at fire-prone places.

However, critics of the increased fines argue that there is no link between the use of cell phones and fires and explosions at gas stations.

Even some who say the ban is reasonable argue that it is impractical as authorities would never be able to enforce it at every station in the country.

The increasing fine has attracted the public's attention as Vietnam is home to 1.8 million cars, 35 million motorbikes and 120.7 million mobile phone subscribers. Most media commentators have said the new fines are unreasonable and impractical.

Unidentified dangers

Hoang Ngoc Huynh, the Ministry of Public Security's Firefighting Police Department spokesman, said many petroleum companies around the world have banned the use of cell phones at their depots and retail stations.

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In 2006, the Vietnam National Petroleum Group (Petrolimex) was the first gas company in Vietnam to issue such a ban.

Huynh said there have been several accidents at gas stations and stores that "may have been linked" to the use of cell phones.

On the evening of November 28, 2011, Vu Trong Khanh stopped at a gas station on National Highway 1A in Hanoi's Long Bien District to obtain an invoice for gas he had bought over the preceding few days.

He answered his phone while using a nearby toilet, when a flame suddenly flared up and seriously burned the 34-year-old driver.

The district firefighting police launched an investigation but failed to conclude whether the accident involved cell phone use and vaporized gas at the station.

Huynh said another case occurred in Brazil on February 2, 2008 when a gas tank exploded and killed an employee who was using his cell phone's flashlight to check the tank. Other such reports have emerged from the US and Australia as well.

"There are many smuggled and low-quality cell phones in Vietnam that pose a high risk of fire and explosion at places with vaporized gas like refill stations," said Huynh.

Vuong Thai Dung, deputy general director of Petrolimex, said that answering a phone call creates an electric spark that could burst out into a fire or explosion when it meets high density gas vapor.

Hailing the new regulation as an "advanced step" in fire prevention in the petroleum trade, he said the new fines were really necessary because a gas station fire was "not simply an accident, but a disaster."

Unlikely explosions

Although similar bans have been enforced in many countries, scientists told Vietweek there is no evidence of a link between the use of cell phones and gas station explosions.

Hank Grant, director of the Center for Study of Wireless Electromagnetic Compatibility at the University of Oklahoma, said his center performed a study on the possibility of fire and explosion caused by the use of cell phones at gas stations 10 years ago and found that such an event was unlikely to happen.

"At that time, we found no documented cases where this had actually occurred. Scientifically it will never occur"¦ it seems to be an extremely unlikely event," he said.

"Gasoline requires a precise mixture of oxygen and gasoline for it to explode, as is provided by a carburetor."

Grant said the research team was unable to find an example where the battery separating from the phone would provide enough energy for ignition.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau recorded 243 reported incidents of fires breaking out at petrol stations around the world between 1993 and 2004 and concluded that none of those incidents occurred as a result of mobile phones.

"According to industry reports, the notion of mobile phones exploding or igniting at petrol stations was triggered by a hoax email. Perpetuated by the rise of the Internet, warnings about the dangers of mobile phones were in global circulation by the late 1990's," it added.

The agency said the temperatures needed for static-ignited fires are much higher than the normal operating temperatures of mobile phone components.

In 2003, the British Institute of Petroleum held a seminar on the issue and announced in a press release that "although the majority of mobile phones are not specifically designed and constructed to prevent them igniting a flammable atmosphere (in accordance with standards for "˜protected equipment'), the risk they present as a source of ignition is negligible."

Television shows like Mythbusters in the US and Brainiac in the UK came to the same conclusion that a properly-working cell phone poses almost no danger of igniting gasoline, even when surrounded by gasoline vapor with the optimum fuel-air mix for ignition.

Impracticality

The new regulation in Vietnam has grabbed headlines over the past days and many people said it is unlikely that the new regulation will be thoroughly enforced due to a lack of personnel and the unreasonably high fines.

According to the decree, firefighters, traffic police, environmental police, and investigators at commune and district police precincts are responsible for enforcing the ban.

Senior Lieutenant Colonel Dinh Van Ngan of HCMC Fire Fighting and Prevention Police Department told Vietweek on August 5 that his agency was waiting for instructions from higher-ups before taking any relevant action.

"Moreover, we do not have sufficient human resources to assign personnel to all gas stations in the city to issue fines," he said.

Vietweek conducted a survey in several cities and provinces and found that many drivers and gas station attendants were not aware of the new fines. Some used cell phones at the stations without even being aware of the previous ban.

A gas jockey in HCMC's District 1 said many people were surprised when he told them about the new regulation.

"Most of them said the fine was unreasonable and they didn't think that they could be fined for such an offence. Some stopped using their phones following our warnings but others just ignored us and continued talking on the phone before scolding us," he said.

Jonathon Passmore, technical officer for Road Safety & Injury Prevention with the World Health Organization (WHO) Vietnam, said he has never seen any enforcement of the previous version of the legislation in his five years in Vietnam.

Many also said the new regulation is unreasonable because the fine is too high in comparison with fines for mobile phone use while driving, which is only VND40,000 to VND60,000 ($1.9-2.9), though driving while talking on a phone has proved to be far more dangerous.

Phuong, a driver for a company in HCMC's Binh Tan District, said he has to answer phone calls from his boss at any time, even at the gas station.

"Actually, littering and smoking at public places are banned on paper without thorough implementation. I think the ban against using cell phones at gas stations is similar," he said.

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