Killer drunk drivers stalk Vietnam roads

TN News

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Statistics about accidents caused while under the influence are horrifying, but authorities seem to have finally woken up to the problem and are talking about multi-pronged action

Police check the papers of a driver in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The National Traffic Safety Committee has launched a campaign to improve traffic safety in a country where road accident claim 27 lives daily. Photo by Dam Huy

Nguyen Van Bot flew off his motorbike after passing a parked bus on Ho Chi Minh City's Interprovincial Road No.10 and hitting a truck coming in the opposite direction.

He was rushed to a nearby hospital where he succumbed to multiple injuries.

Le Hong Vinh, a local resident who took him to hospital along with another man, said there had been a strong smell of alcohol in Bot's breath.

Bot was among 7,040 who have died in road accidents this year, meaning an average of 27 die on the streets daily.

The country has more than 37 million motorbikes for a population of 90 million.

According to the National Traffic Safety Committee (NTSC), 40 percent of fatal traffic accidents this year involved drunk driving a common habit in Vietnam, especially among motorbike drivers.

Last week the NTSC announced there would be more patrols and check points to pull over drunk drivers.

Major General Nguyen Van Tuyen, director of the Road and Railway Traffic Police Department, said the campaign would last until year end when people drink during the New Year Holidays and Tet soon after.

Vietnamese have a habit of drinking beer to socialize, especially to build business relationships, he said.

"It is a tough fight because it involves traditions and customs.

"So the campaign will also focus on propagandizing to improve awareness of traffic safety among people who drink often."

Nguyen Trong Thai, the NTSC's spokesperson, said the campaign is expected to reduce traffic accidents.

"Many companies are going to be organizing year-end parties. The number of drunk drivers may also increase as a result," he said.

Increasing profits, more deaths

Despite the economic downturn, Vietnamese are drinking more beer and brewers' revenues are increasing, according to a report by the Ministry of Industry and Trade released last year.

The country's two major brewers, Hanoi Beer and Beverage Corp (Habeco) and Saigon Beer Alcohol Beverage Corporation (Sabeco), saw revenues rise last year and expects more of the same this year.

It targets revenues of VND28 trillion (US$1,326 million) this year, a 10 percent increase over 2012, and a pretax profit of VND3.26 trillion, a 14 percent rise.

Habeco had sales of VND6 trillion in 2012, an increase of 13.6 percent year-on-year. The company targets revenues of VND6.53 trillion this year, an 8.8 percent increase.

Another report released last December found Vietnam to be the biggest beer-drinking nation in Southeast Asia, consuming nearly 2.6 billion liters in 2011.

Not surprisingly, many foreign players plan to invest in the industry through mergers and acquisitions.

Vietnam's young population is another factor that contributes to increasing demand for beer, the report said.

A report titled Global Beer Consumption by Country in 2011 released last year by major Japanese brewer Kirin said Vietnam achieved the highest annual growth of 14.8 percent in beer consumption among the world's 25 largest beer-consuming countries.

Nguyen Hoang Hiep, deputy chairman of the NTSC, said virtually no one is happy with Vietnam's beer consumption records because it means fatalities involving drunk driving remain high.

A recent survey at Viet Duc Hospital in Hanoi and Cho Ray Hospital in HCMC found 60 percent of brain injuries had been caused because patients had been driving under the influence.

Hiep said of traffic accidents involving drivers aged below 40, three-fourths are caused by drunk drivers.

"In 2012 damages from traffic accidents were equal to 2.7 percent of GDP, or US$3.5 billion. More than one third of the accidents involved [using] beer and alcohol," he said.

Drinking while under the influence carries a fine of up to VND3 million (US$146) in case of motorbikes and up to VND15 million for car drivers.

But these stiff fines are clearly failing as a deterrent.

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

Corporate responsibility

As part of the campaign launched last week NTSC will meet with brewers and distillers, for the first ever time, to discuss their responsibilities in marketing and selling their products and measures to improve drivers' awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving.

Hiep said currently only four foreign beer companies print a warning against drunk driving on the label, while local companies are yet to do so.

"But the warning is so small that people can only read it with a magnifying glass," he said, showing the label on a can of Heineken.

Only Heineken, Tiger, Larue, and Bivina have either agreed to print or printed warnings and his agency would urge them to print them in larger font sizes so that they catch people's attention.

"We are determined to have the warning on beer labels, just like the warning on cigarette packs.

"There will be a conference on the issue with the participation of beer and alcohol companies early next month."

Asked about a ban on drinking during working hours and lunch for government workers, Major General Tuyen said there should be more specific regulations and penalties.

"Only a few cities and provinces have issued the ban. And there have been no reports about its effect.

"The central government should issue a ban that takes effect nationwide because it is very common for civil servants to drink during working hours or lunch and cause accidents."

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