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Decrepit buses and careless drivers have made for a perfect storm of horrifying accidents in Ho Chi Minh City


The scene of a bus accident on Saigon Bridge linking Binh Thanh District and District 2 in Ho Chi Minh City on Wednesday (November 24). Six motorbike drivers were injured after the vehicle's brakes gave out.

On October 22, 2002, a battered old bus rumbled down the bridge leading onto Huynh Tan Phat Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 7.

Traffic was at its peak as the bus descended the grade. At around 5 p.m., the brakes gave out.

The first to be hit by the bus was a 30-year-old woman who died an hour later. The bus continued on its fatal slide, crushing a man's arm and killing the couple next to him.

When it finally came to a stop, the bus had rolled 500 meters past its first accident site.

The driver was sentenced to seven years in prison. But an angry public slammed the authorities for permitting the man to drive a poorly-maintained bus from the 1970's.

Despite several projects to upgrade the city's bus fleet, similar accidents have continued to kill and injure local residents. The latest tragedy occurred last Wednesday (November 24) on Saigon Bridge linking Binh Thanh District and District 2.

The bus in question was heading downtown from Vietnam National University-HCMC in Thu Duc District when its brakes failed.

The vehicle crushed six motorbikes and injured as many drivers.

"It was around 7:15 a.m. when traffic was heading toward the city center," 37-year-old Pham Thi Hai told VnExpress, a local news website. "I heard crushing sounds behind me, looking back to see a bus plowing through a bunch of motorbikes. I was knocked aside also."

The driver quickly fled the scene. Police are investigating the actual cause of the accident.

The incident once again raises familiar questions about the seemingly unsustainable dangers of the current traffic situation: deteriorating buses piloted by careless drivers.

Driven to the brink

RECENT BUS ACCIDENTS

November 24, 2010: A bus's brakes gave out causing it to collide with six motorcycles on Saigon Bridge. Six people were injured.

April 26, 2010: A bus totaled a pair of trucks stopped at a red light on Hanoi Highway, leaving the bus driver's assistant injured.

September 9, 2009: A bus hit and injured a 74-year-old cyclist on Quang Trung Street in Go Vap District.

August 15, 2009: A bus on Binh Thanh District's Dinh Tien Hoang Street side-swiped a motorcycle injuring a three-year-old boy.

March 30, 2009: A bus on National Highway 1A in Thu Duc District suddenly pulled over, forcing a 28-year-old motorbike rider onto the pavement where he was fatally crushed under a passing vehicle.

March 26, 2009: A bus, driving in the wrong direction on District 8's Pham The Hien Street, hit and killed a 44-year-old man and his 17-yearold nephew. His 13-year-old daughter was hospitalized and died the following day.

Thanh Nien conducted an investigation and found that many buses in the privately held city fleet suffer from poor maintenance and ineffectual inspections. At the same time, traffic laws are often secondary to passenger quotas and drivers' exacting timetables.

Following the first gruesome accident in 2002, the city administration approved a plan to add more than 1,300 new buses to the existing fleet and to subsidize bus fares in an attempt to promote public transportation and reduce gridlock.

The subsidies surged from VND39 billion in 2002 to VND700 billion this year. A total of VND3.7 trillion has been spent on the bus fleet, to date.

A quick calculation reveals that each bus received an average of VND230 million per year.

Despite all the expense, the vehicles have not been properly maintained.

Many buses are marred by peeling paint, torn seats, and broken windshields and air conditioners.

Inky plumes of smoke emanating from worn-out engines hang heavy on city streets.

Many buses in Vietnam are privately owned. Bus owners then join cooperatives and companies but remain responsible for their own maintenance.

However, Phung Dang Hai, director of the HCMC Transportation Cooperatives Union, said most bus owners ignore regular maintenance schedules, which cost around VND380 million every three to four years.

"Most buses are driven to the brink of collapse before being temporarily repaired to drive again," he said.

An official at the vehicle inspection agency said all buses are required to be inspected every six months and many routinely fail to comply with basic emission specifications or brake safety standards.

At a recent meeting, Duong Hong Thanh, deputy director of the HCMC Department of Transport, admitted that more than half of the total 3,096 buses in the city failed to meet environmental requirements.

An official at the HCMC Traffic Safety Committee said that the municipal administration is looking for a solution to the issue, including a possible plan to enact strict vehicle inspections and get broken down buses off the roads.

However, he admitted, it would take time and money to push plan into action.

A race to the death

One HCMC traffic policeman told Thanh Nien that the most common violations among bus drivers are driving in wrong lane and stopping in illegal places.

He also said that many drivers jump into the faster motorcycle lane for fear of falling behind schedule.

Cao Minh Sang, a bus driver for Transport Cooperative No. 26 said many young drivers are simply careless. They cause accidents by simply trying to show off on the street rather than deliberately hurt anyone, Sang said.

Another driver said his colleagues tend to drive slowly, at first, to pick up more customers. Then, he said, they spend the rest of their shift rushing to keep up with their schedule.

Dinh Viet Thanh, a bus driver for the Saigon Bus Company, admitted to the Tuoi Tre newspaper that he often drove in the wrong lane.

"It would take forever to queue behind a long line of cars at a crossroads," Thanh said. "Passengers said they don't want bus driver to breach traffic laws but no one is ready to take slow buses."

Another bus driver, Ly Kim Binh of Quyet Tien Cooperative, said no driver wants to be involved in an accident and shifted the blame on dense traffic and careless motorcyclists. "No driver wants to face passengers' ire," he said.

On November 27, a Thanh Nien reporter witnessed a bus honking at motorcycles waiting at a red light at the corner of Tan Son and Quang Trung streets in Go Vap District. The bus proceeded to blow through the light at high speed.

During a half an hour at this intersection, three buses ignored the same light.

Out of nowhere

Five days after being hit by a bus, Bui Duc Ha says he can't believe he's still alive.

On November 25, the construction contractor left his house in Tan Binh District and headed to a job site in the southern Long An Province.

Thirty minutes later, while at a traffic light, a bus struck him from behind fracturing his skull and breaking his leg.

Ha is still being treated at Hospital 115 in HCMC for his injuries.

Ha's family says they've had to borrow tens of millions of dong to pay for his treatment.

What's worse, Ha says the driver and his company, the May 19 Bus Cooperative, have not paid any compensation.

"The driver told us he was running behind schedule and he failed to slow down fast enough," he said. "They don't view that as a shameless disregard for human life."

When contacted by Thanh Nien, the cooperative's chairman, Nguyen Van Trieu, said he was not aware of the accident.

Meanwhile, many injured victims and bereaved families say that bus drivers and bus company owners never own up to their roles in such accidents because of the fear the consequences.

The dead

That said, others have not been as lucky as Ha and his family.

Last December, a bus hit Nguyen Thi Thu Trang, a 21-yearold student at Hung Vuong University, and dragged her 30 meters down Phan Dang Luu Street in HCMC's Phu Nhuan District. She died on the spot.

In another case, Pham Vo Bao Trung and his two younger siblings from District 12's Tan Chanh Hiep Ward have come to be known as the "three orphan brothers" after their parents were killed by a bus three years ago.

"The accident claimed my parents' lives three years ago but I am still in shock," said Trung, who is now serving in the military.

His two brothers live in an orphanage.

"I wish bus drivers and owners could see what they have done to my family and start caring more about human life," Trung said. "Just by driving carelessly, those drivers turned a normal life into a living hell."

HAVE YOUR SAY

Most bus drives in HCMC show a criminal disregard for the road laws, other motorists and the environment of the place where they live. Blatant breaking of road rules, bullying of motorcyclists, continual honking of repeater horns from buses belching black smoke - their offences are almost limitless. But what do the authorities do? Sit on their hands and talk about how bad it is. When will those responsible take some serious action to address these problems. Will it take a bus-load of passengers to be killed before the indolent officials act?

Brian Lamprell

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