More motorbike fires, but official agencies clueless

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Bike owners are worried, sales down before Tet, authorities continue to dither


Remains of a motorbike that caught fire due to unknown reasons in
Hanoi on December 12. More motorbikes have seen fire scares on Vietnam's roads and users are alarmed while official agencies are busy shifting the blame on each other.

With more motorbike fire scares on Vietnam's roads with no one the wiser as to the reasons, users are alarmed while official agencies continue to shift the blame on each other.

On December 18 Nguyen Vinh Hung was parking his Chinese-made motorbike in front of a shop on De Tham Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1 when he found smoke coming out from under the seat.

He quickly lifted up the saddle and turned off the anti-theft alarm he had installed: its wire was singeing.

On the same day Nguyen Van Ha was waiting at a red light in HCMC's Tan Binh District when other drivers saw smoke coming from his bike, an imported Honda PS he had bought in 2008 for VND160 million (US$7,600).

He turned off the engine in panic and found sparks in an electrical wire.

Hung and Ha were lucky to have detected possible fires early, but some others have not been so lucky, with almost a dozen motorbikes going up in flames. A pregnant woman and her daughter were killed recently in Bac Ninh Province after their bike exploded.

People have become wary.

Bike sales have been hit at a time when they usually soar in the run-up to Tet - on January 23 this year - and sellers hike prices of models in demand.

An employee at a shop in HCMC's District 4 said many Honda scooters are being sold at lower than recommended retail prices. A Lead is VND34.09 million instead of VND34.99, and an Air Blade is VND36.3 million instead of VND36.99, he said.

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Many shops said there has been only a slight increase in the sales of Yamaha, Suzuki, and SYM bikes.

Service shops have seen an increase in the number of bikes brought for maintenance.

"Some people brought their bikes for maintenance earlier than recommended and others got them checked just days after the regular maintenance," a mechanic said.

Vu Thi Bach Nga, head of the Consumer Protection Agency at the Vietnam Competition Authority, told Thanh Nien that her agency had asked Honda if the fires were related to product quality.

On December 13 the Japanese company, commenting on the fires, said it had not detected any fault in its products that could account for them.

While motorbike fires have been a recent phenomenon, cars made by Hyundai, Daewoo, BMW, Mercedes, Ford, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Kia, and Toyota have all been hit by blazes in the last 12 months.

A Mercedes 300E was completely destroyed in Hanoi on December 18 after a fire broke out suddenly.

According to the Hanoi fire brigade, there have been 42 cases of motorbike and car fires since December 2010.

The buck doesn't stop here

It is not known yet why the fires are occurring, and no official agency has come up with answers.

Do Huu Duc, deputy head of the Ministry of Transport's registry department, said his agency would inspect all motorbike manufacturers and assemblers without specifying when.

Commenting on the fires, he said since there were no official investigation results it was unclear if they had occurred due to production faults or unsafe operation.

Drivers have to protect themselves until the police identify the cause, he said.

Nga said her agency is responsible for protecting consumers but does not have the authority to investigate the fires.

The registry said it is only responsible to ensure manufacturers strictly follow the registered production process and bike design.

Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper quoted To Xuan Thieu, deputy director of the Hanoi Fire Prevention and Fighting Police Department, as saying that firefighters are only responsible for extinguishing the fires and it is the police who should investigate their causes.

But Dao Thanh Hai, chief investigator at the Hanoi police, said his agency does not have the responsibility of investigating the fires and pointed a finger at the fire service.

Thus the buck-passing continues.

GAS LEAK, SHORT CIRCUIT SUSPECTED

A leak in the fuel tank can cause either a fire or blast in motorbikes, Colonel Nguyen Duc Thang, director of the Center for Fire and Rescue Scientific Research, said.

After a number of cars and motorbikes suddenly caught fire on the road, the Ministry of Public Security's Fire Prevention and Fighting Police Department asked the center and local fire-fighting units to identify possible reasons and come up with solutions.

But the investigation has encountered challenges because many people did not report to local authorities after their bikes caught fire, Thang said.

"Meanwhile, in most cases the mishap scene did not remain intact when our researchers arrived due to efforts to put out the fire or clearing for traffic," he said.

He speculated that the reason could be a combination of a gasoline leak and a short circuit in the wiring.

"When gas leaks from the fuel tank, it creates fumes and a blast when ignited," he said.

"A full gas tank cannot explode, only catch fire. Combustion can only occur if there is a mixture of gas and air."

Since most scooters had a fuel tank adjacent to the enclosed helmet space under the saddle there was a higher possibility of a fire or blast once there was a gas leak, especially with many people installing new horns and lights, he said.

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