Menace on wheels

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Reckless bus drivers terrify Ho Chi Minh City residents

The scene of an accident between a bus and a car in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Reckless bus drivers have injured many people and even killed some, with authorities unable to control them.

Vu Thi Quyen had to return to the Gia Dinh Hospital very soon after a periodical visit to monitor her diabetes and heart disease, this time for a new condition a broken arm and a broken pelvis.

The 64-year-old retired employee of the [former] Irrigation Ministry was getting off a bus at stop near her house on Ho Chi Minh City's Nguyen Xi Street, just about ten minutes from the hospital, when the driver suddenly drove off.

"I might have been killed if I fell under the rear wheels," she told Vietweek as she twisted in pain in the hospital bed, talking about the accident that happened at around 5 p.m. on May 9.

Reckless and rude drivers remain a threat for passengers and other vehicles on the street despite relevant agencies beefing up measures to improve bus services and promote it as the primary means of public transportation in HCMC.

The city with eight million people has nearly 3,000 buses operating everyday from 4-5 a.m. to 7-9 p.m. HCMC buses serve an average of 1.1 million people a day. Over the first four months of this year, there were 14 accidents involving buses, killing nine people and injuring 20 others.

Quyen said the bus had sped away leaving her badly injured on the street. Luckily, a student helped her to the sidewalk and called her children to take her to the hospital.

"The driver had told a female friend on the bus that he would try to drive fast because she said she was about to be late for some appointment," she said.

She has spent about VND100 million (US$4,800) so far on hospital fees, including surgeries of her broken arm and implanting an artificial pelvis.

Quyen's daughter, Pham Thi Phuong Hoa, said no one from the bus operator, Saigon Passenger Transport Company (Satranco), has visited them or offered compensation.

"The more important thing is that strict action should be taken against such unethical drivers so that others do not do the same thing," she said.

Another similar accident happened last Sunday when 32-year-old Le Diep Minh Luan of Go Vap District suffered serious injuries as he was getting on a bus on Phan Dang Luu Street.

Witnesses said the driver, later identified as Tran Hoang Tiep, left the stop before Luan got into the bus and his two legs were crushed by the vehicle's rear wheels.

Tiep stopped the bus immediately and Luan was taken to the hospital. Traffic police arrived at the scene soon after.

Quyen and Luan are among many cases where people have been injured by reckless bus drivers. Some of the cases have been fatal.

Last Saturday, Nguyen Duc Xuyen was driving a motorbike on National Highway 1 in HCMC's Thu Duc District when he hit a bicycle going the same direction. He fell to the ground and was fatally run over by a bus from behind.

Xuyen was driving in a lane designated for both two-wheelers and buses.

A bus driver who wanted to be identified only as V. admitted that many drivers frequently violate traffic rules and drive dangerously.

"I drive buses connecting the university village and other locations around the city. I want to maintain the schedule so that they will not be late for school or work. But it is also the most crowded time on the street.

"Sometimes, I drive in the motorbike lane to escape gridlock. But only when I am sure that it is safe," he said.

Cuong, a bus driver assistant, said it is common that bus drivers warn their colleagues about temporary traffic police check- points on highways.

"They used to give signals to other buses travelling in the other direction but now they
just phone each other because calling is cheap."

Many bus drivers speed on less crowded streets, honking repeatedly, to scare away other vehicles, he said.

Phung Dang Hai, general director of the HCMC Union of Transport Cooperatives, which manages nearly 1,000 buses in the city, said a number of strict measures by transport agencies have failed to deter bus drivers from these violations.

"There have been strict requirements set for recruiting bus drivers over the past several years. They have to take specialized courses and be accompanied by experienced drivers during their first months of driving.

"All buses are equipped with a black box to record the journey information that is monitored directly by an operator at the center. Violators face strict punishment including dismissal," he said.

Hai said excusing a bus driver because of the pressure of continuous driving on a fixed schedule amidst heavy traffic or because of competition with other buses for customers was unreasonable.

"Buses are subsidized and a driver is paid a monthly salary of about VND8 million ($384). It means they don't have to compete for passengers like in the past. Also, we allow them to be late in case of traffic gridlock," he said.

He also said bus drivers have a break time of about half an hour between journeys.

"But some drivers speed up to arrive at the terminals early in order to play cards with other drivers," he admitted.


Hai said he has received many threatening text messages from a strange number ever since he terminated a contract with a driver who had chased and hit another bus due to some personal conflict with the other driver.

The incident happened in March last year and passengers and passers-by were terrified as driver Nguyen Cao Ky chased a bus driven by Tran Quoc Chien.

After blocking the other bus, Ky broke several of the vehicle's windows and lights and two passengers suffered minor injuries due to broken glass.

"I know it was him who threatened me because I refused to ignore his case. He is the son of a retired colonel and had often fought with other drivers for minor things," Hai said, adding that a trial is pending in the case.

Hai said he was only threatened, but one of his colleagues was seriously injured in another case when an unidentified bus driver reacted to being subject to strict surveillance.

On March 18, Ly Truong Duy of the HCMC Union of Transport Cooperatives was on the way home from work when two men on a motorbike attacked him with two swords.

One of the slashes left a deep cut in his arm while the other almost severed his hand at the wrist.

Earlier that day, he and inspectors from the HCMC Public Transport Management Center had detected violations by several buses on National Highway 1 in Thu Duc District.

"It was a terrible occupational hazard," Hai said. "He has undergone several surgeries but is still unable to use his hand."

Following the case, Hai has notified the HCMC Public Transport Management Center that his union will not assign employees to assist them in inspecting violations of bus drivers.

Easily bribed

A 34-year-old bus driver with eight years of experience said many of his colleagues did not hesitate to violate traffic laws just to be able to drive easily through crowded roads and they were not afraid of the traffic police.

"Just give them VND200,000 ($9.6) and they will let you go without any fine. Some drivers have given VND500,000 as bribes on demand from the police," said the driver, who only wanted to be identified as T.

Hai said the police should impose stricter punishments against violations by bus drivers.

"The enterprises and cooperatives have done their best to improve the services. Police should do a better job. Many bus drivers are not afraid of violations because they know they can bribe traffic police and skip fines," he said.

He proposed that the government issue regulations that include as a deterrent compulsory labor at hospitals and morgues. Whether such measures will be enough to control the gangster-like behavior of many bus drivers remains to be seen.

The HCMC Public Transport Management Center has a hotline, (08) 3 821 4444 that the public can use to lodge complaints or provide information on accidents or reckless driving.

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