A collision that left seven dead on a southern expressway has sparked a debate over Vietnam's ability to manage its rapidly expanding network of high-speed roadways.
Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc recently asked the Ministry of Transport to collaborate with local governments to tighten traffic safety on the Ho Chi Minh City – Trung Luong Expressway, which connects the southern metro and Tien Giang.
Phuc also ordered the ministry to review and improve regulations on the management and operation of highways to ensure better traffic safety across the board.
The deputy PM issued the order in the wake of a collision between a bus carrying 14 passengers and a water tanker on the 40-kilometer expressway.
The accident, which happened on April 16, killed seven people, including a French couple and the driver of the bus.
Seven other passengers were injured and remained trapped in the wreckage until locals could pull them out.
The driver of the water tanker and two workers men allegedly riding in the cab of the truck escaped with minor injuries.
Tien Giang police are investigating the case, but several legal and transportation experts blame the tanker, which was hired by the highway’s management company to water trees on the day of the accident.
According to the initial findings submitted by the police, the crash took place in a lane designated for traffic traveling at 60-100 kilometers per hour (kph). At the time of the collision, the bus was traveling 92 kph and the tanker was moving 15-20 kph.
Speaking to Thanh Nien, Attorney Cao Minh Triet of the Tien Giang Bar Association said the tanker apparently violated the posted speed limit and illegally obstructed traffic.
Under Vietnamese law, those found guilty of traffic violations that cause collisions must pay compensation to injured parties or face criminal charges if said violations lead to a death.
Associate professor Nguyen Quang Toan of the Hanoi University of Transport also said the tanker and its driver should be held responsible for such a “classic” accident.
He said when a road is under maintenance, its management company must shut it down or post clear warnings so that other vehicles are aware of the work and can take appropriate action.
Without such precautions, drivers cannot be expected to know how fast maintenance vehicles are moving and can only be expected to follow posted speed limits, Toan said.
Without strict safety regulations on highway maintenance, similar accidents will likely happen in the future, Toan said.
A Thanh Nien investigation revealed that current regulations do not stipulate speeds for vehicles involved in such work and the representative of one highway management company admitted that his company has had to draft its own set of safety rules for its road maintenance workers, as the existing laws are inadequate.
He said in other countries, maintenance vehicles are required to move at over 60 kph. Moreover, instead of dispatching a tanker truck to water trees, automatic watering systems are employed, he said.
Ngo Xuan Tu, deputy chief of Chau Thanh District’s police division in Tien Giang, told Thanh Nien that the bus driver may have failed to properly scan the road, leading to the accident.
Nguyen Van Thanh, deputy chief of Road Management Agency 4 under the Directorate for Roads of Vietnam, said the tanker was hired by the state-owned 715 Road Repair and Management Company to do the job, and that it's actions were sanctioned by the directorate and the Ministry of Transport.
He added that existing safety regulations require a flag man to be posted 200 meters behind such a tanker with a signboard posted on the vehicle's rear to alert oncoming vehicles.
The official refused to comment on statements made to the press by the two drivers' assistants in which they described themselves as seated inside the front cab at the time of the accident.
Nguyen Van Loc, vice director of the Tien Giang Police Department, told the press last week that if the bus driver was at fault, they would not seek charges because he was killed.
Vietnam plans to build 22 expressways with the total length of 5,873 kilometers by 2020.
Tran Thi Hong Tham told Thanh Nien that she was sleeping and then awoke to heavy shaking.
“When I came to, I found myself in the hospital with injuries,” the 25-year-old pregnant woman said.
Pham Thi Phuong Thao, another survivor, told Tuoi Tre that she was watching TV when she heard a big noise -- which sounded like an explosion.
Thao lost consciousness and when she woke up she discovered her leg trapped in the wreckage. She was surrounded by other passengers who were similarly stuck.
All of them were rescued by good samaritans.
The French victims, identified as Loreal Jean Jacques, 64, and his wife Loreal Boussiron, 60, had spent a few days touring Ben Tre, before boarding the bus to HCMC, according to a hotel manager named T.
She said the couple told her that they planned to fly back to France on Friday, two days after the fatal accident.