Reckless driving turns Vietnam highways into horror show

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Motivated by profit margins, transport firms and bus and truck drivers have an incentive to disregard human life, which has been blamed for the recent spike in fatal accidents on national highways

The scene in Quang Nam Province where a bus plunged off the road, killing three and injuring 27 others on June 9. Transport authorities are discussing imposing harsher penalties on those who violate the Traffic Law following a surge of highway accidents with multiple fatalities. Photo by Nguyen Tu 

It took Nguyen Van Thang three months to muster up the "courage" required to drive at high speeds on National Highway 1A carrying passengers on the Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh City route.

"All long-distance bus drivers frequently drive at terribly high speeds. They rarely drive under 100 kph even on sections with 60 kph speed limits," said the driver from the northern province of Ninh Binh.

He said the bus owner pays him a fixed rate for each trip and that he speeds to beat out competitors for additional passengers to earn as much as possible.

"Otherwise, I would surely starve," he said.

It is a commonly held view among drivers, which, together with poor infrastructure and the lax surveillance of relevant authorities, has been blamed for the recent increase in serious highway accidents.

According to the National Traffic Safety Committee, more than 2,400 traffic accidents took place nationwide in May, killing 799 people, injuring 2,480 others.

So far this year, there have been more than 12,050 traffic accidents that have killed 4,163 people and injured 12,171 others, amounting to an average of 27 people dying per day in traffic accidents.

The National Traffic Safety Committee has warned about the recent increase of serious crashes.

In one recent accident, seven people died and 22 were injured when a bus's brakes failed, causing it to collide with a mountainside near the coastal resort town of Nha Trang on June 7. The bus was then struck by falling rocks triggered by the collision.

On June 9, a bus lost control, plunging off the road in the central Quang Nam Province, killing three and injuring 27 others.

On the same day, six people on two motorbikes were killed when truck carrying frozen goods collided with them in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province in the south. Police said the truck had been traveling in the wrong lane while attempting to pass another truck.

Monetary incentive

Nguyen Hoang Hiep, deputy chairman of the National Traffic Safety Committee, said many drivers feel tremendous pressure to drive fast due to companies' method of payment that allots them a fixed amount per trip.

Since that rate tends to be quite low, drivers gradually form a habit of disregarding traffic regulations, which leads to accidents, he said.

Khuat Viet Hung, an official with the Ministry of Transport, said speeding is the most common cause of accidents with more than one fatality.

To make matters worse, many of the drivers speeding recklessly up and down national highways are exhausted.

"Many drivers violate the regulation that limits their time on the road," Hung said. The law limits drivers to four continuous hours and a total of 10 hours per day. "It's very dangerous when tired drivers speed to compete for passengers."

Vu Xuan Tan, a retired bus driver on the Hanoi-Ninh Binh route, said he quit the job several years ago after causing an accident in which a motorbike driver sustained a serious brain injury.

"I switched from driving a car for hire to a bus in order to earn more money. However, I had to keep my eyes continuously peeled to compete for passengers and avoid being fined by the traffic police.

"All bus drivers must sacrifice their conscience in order to make ends meet," he said.

He said most long-distance bus drivers are paid based on revenues from ticket sale. The more passengers they get, the more money they earn.

Many truck drivers also admitted to speeding frequently because they are paid per trip.

Nong Van Tin, a truck driver in Bac Kan Province, admitted that he often drives at high speeds, even on curvy mountain roads.

"Most container truck drivers often violate speed limits whenever there are no traffic police on the road. They even often inform other drivers about the presence of police checkpoints," he said.

"˜Black spots'

Poor infrastructure has also been blamed for fatal traffic accidents nationwide.

Many dangerous road sections have been labeled by transport authorities as "black spots" or "potential spots."

The transport ministry defines black spots as sections of road where at least two fatal accidents occur per year. Potential spots are those which have been the site of at least five non-fatal accidents.

According to the Vietnam Road Administration, the country's roads had 64 black spots and 251 potential spots as of the end of last year.

Nguyen Van Quyen, deputy director of the Vietnam Road Administration, said it has been difficult to improve traffic safety at these places despite his agency having had VND4 trillion (US$190 million) earmarked for this purpose.

"Only VND1.2 trillion has been disbursed. But even the whole amount is far from enough to repair all these road sections."

Inadequate punishment vs. ineffective enforcement

Hiep, the deputy chairman of the National Traffic Safety Committee, said besides the authorities improving infrastructure, drivers and their companies must receive harsher punishments for drivers' violations of the Traffic Law.

He said relevant authorities will begin issuing fines for drivers and companies that do not install black boxes (like those on airplanes, which record a vehicle's activity) in buses and trucks starting in July.

"There should [also] be stricter punishments such as suspending drivers with repeated violations. Any company with several violating drivers should have its business license revoked," he said.

At a recent teleconference on traffic safety, Deputy Minister of Public Security Pham Quy Ngo proposed suspending driver's licenses indefinitely for drivers who cause serious accidents.

Hiep said his agency proposed the measure, but it was rejected because it contradicted the Labor Code.

He said it would take several more years to modify relevant laws before the measure could be approved. Currently, two years is the maximum amount of time driver's licenses may be suspended.

He proposed imprisoning traffic law violators, especially drunk drivers who have caused accidents.

Nguyen Manh Hung, former chairman of the Vietnam Automobile Transport Association, said the country needs policies that improve the safety awareness of bus and truck drivers.

"Many companies ignore the Traffic Law and require their drivers to drive for 18-20 hours continuously, which can lead to serious accidents. The government should handle this problem."

According to Hung, if properly enforced, current measures are sufficient to deter violations.

"The problem is that relevant authorities do not enforce them properly or transparently and consequently, disrespecting the law becomes habitual among drivers."

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