Speeding and handing the wheels over to unlicensed drivers is not uncommon practice among container truck drivers, an investigation finds
Rescuers carrying the body of a victim killed by an accident between a container truck and a bus that left 10 dead in Binh Thuan Province on November 7. The lack of container truck drivers and carelessness has led to an increase in the number of truck drivers roaming the highways without a license.
It is late in the evening, and a group of men are having a good time at a restaurant in the central province of Binh Thuan, drinking beer, chatting and laughing.
They are in no hurry to go anywhere, or so it seems.
This is surprising, because the men are drivers of container trucks and their assistants. The container trucks that they have to drive to Quang Ninh Province in the north are parked outside the restaurant, loaded with fresh fruit.
What if the perishable goods they are supposed to deliver within a certain time get damaged by the delay? Wouldn't they have to compensate if they were late and the goods got damaged?
Hai, one of the drivers, was nonchalant. They would just need to speed up later, he said.
"They [traffic police] rarely check for speeding vehicles at night," he said, adding that violations like speeding and illegal overtaking can be easily solved with some bribery.
After finishing another bottle, Hai and the others resumed their journey. He asked his assistant to sleep first, adding they would take turns to drive.
"He is just an assistant. Another co-driver quit early this month. This guy, he doesn't have a driving license but can drive very well," he said. The assistant was illiterate and not qualified to obtain a license, he explained.
It was November 8. Asked if he was not afraid about something untoward happening given a terrible accident that took place a day earlier in Binh Thuan, Hai turned philosophical. "When heaven orders, man must obey."
The previous day's accident that killed 10 people happened on National Highway 1A in Binh Thuan Province.
Five days later, on November 12, police detained Nguyen Dao, the driver of the container truck that was involved in the ghastly accident.
Dao is believed to have handed the wheels over to his 22-year-old assistant, who had no license to drive. The assistant, Tran Tu Thien, was among those killed in the accident, after the truck brushed against a bus going in the opposite direction before crashing headlong into a 54-seater behind it.
Drivers like Dao and Hai are apparently common on highways nationwide, a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper investigation found.
On November 10 on National Highway 1A in Binh Thuan's Bac Binh District, many container trucks were speeding in the night rain at speeds far in excess of the legal maximum of 50 kilometers per hour.
"They are speeding at some 70-80 kph. At that speed in the rain, the driver of a truck weighing 100 tons will never have a timely response to sudden incidents," said Kim, an experienced container truck driver on the highway.
Sometimes, the licensed drivers hand over the wheel to their assistants, who have no license, in order to take a nap on the long road. They have several ploys to avoid being fined.
On November 11, a container truck was carrying beer from Ho Chi Minh City to the central city of Da Nang. On board, Viet was licensed to drive, while his assistant was only qualified to drive smaller trucks.
Near Phu Yen Province's Song Cau District, Viet asked Dung to drive and he began to sleep.
Only minutes later, Dung spotted some police in the front and the duo quickly changed seats while driving. The traffic police let them go after finding that Viet has a valid license.
In another ploy, drivers without a FC (for container truck) license often present a document issued by traffic police in an earlier violation showing that their license has been temporarily seized.
Normally, these documents didn't record what type of license has been seized, so it is easy to tell the traffic police that it was an FC license. This would help attract more lenient fines than driving without license.
"Many people driving container trucks without a FC license often break rules deliberately while driving smaller trucks and get their license (for smaller trucks) revoked. They get a document recording the temporary revocation to show other traffic police when they drive container trucks," said Cuong, a container truck driver in Dong Nai.
Many drivers even use forged FC driving licenses, whether they have a real one or not, to show traffic police because they would not mind if it is revoked.
There are some who drive heavy container trucks without a license.
On November 11, drivers of two containers trucks were found to be operating without the required FC licenses when they were pulled over by traffic police in Khanh Hoa Province, home to the coastal resort town of Nha Trang. Their vehicles were temporarily seized.
According to senior lieutenant colonel Nguyen Van Khai of the Khanh Hoa Police Department, the Cam Ranh traffic police station has issued fines for 397 container trucks so far this year. Common violations included driving without a license, speeding, illegal overtaking and drunk driving.
Meanwhile, traffic police in Phu Yen fined 217 drivers of container trucks over the first ten months this year for similar breaches of the law.
In Vietnam, a FC license application requires a truck driving license with three years experience of at least 50,000 kilometers (31,069 miles) of safe driving.
Le Tanh of Khanh Hoa Province's Transport Department said the driving experience certified by transport companies, who usually own container trucks, can be incorrect.
But "we have to trust in their certification because it's the only way," he said.
Tanh said most container truck owners in Khanh Hoa have their drivers' experience falsely certified by transport firms.
Nguyen Xuan Thao, deputy sales manager of Nguyen Hoang Transport and Trading Company in Nha Trang Town, said he recruited drivers only after watching them drive.
"It is difficult to know exactly for how long they have been driving a truck," he said.
As to the habit of handing the wheel over to unqualified driver's assistants, most drivers said they were forced to do so for financial reasons and because of a lack of qualified drivers.
"Container trucks are heavy vehicles that often travel long distances continuously to transport goods. Accidents are clearly possible if there is only one driver driving around the clock," a driver admitted.
He said many drivers also speed up to make more trips and get more money, usually paid per trip.
Pham Hong Luan, a 35-year-old driver from the southern province of Dong Nai, said he often carries goods from the south to the north and drives for between 21-24 hours on the first day and about 15 hours on the second.
"Sometimes, I have to let the assistant drive although he doesn't have a license because I am exhausted. However I have often been scared when he has a close call involving other vehicles."