Talk is not cheap

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Talking on cell phones while driving should be treated as a serious traffic offence, experts say

The launch of the latest program against drunk driving last week has elicited calls for an equally tough crackdown on the use of mobile phones while driving.

"Any action that impairs driving is a serious matter," said Greig Craft, President of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF). "The new phenomenon of cell phone use and texting while driving is now recognized as being as serous as drinking and driving."

In fact, scientific studies have conclusively shown that texting or talking on a cell phone while driving results in the same level of impairment as being drunk, Craft said.

Texting while driving is even riskier than driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, a British Transport Research Laboratory study found in 2008.

The study found that motorists who use their mobile phone to send text messages while on the road dramatically increase the likelihood of collisions. Their reaction times deteriorated by as much as 35 percent. Those who drank alcohol the legal limit, were found to be 12 percent slower. Those under the influence of cannabis were 21 percent slower.

In addition, drivers who sent or read text messages were more prone to drift out of their lane, the research found. Steering control among texters proved 91 percent poorer than drivers who devoting their full concentration to the road, the study said. This compared with a decline of 35 percent by drivers under the influence of cannabis. The ability to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front also fell while texting, it added.

Bikes x phones

Vietnam reported 11,500 traffic-related deaths in 2009, but experts say the actual number could be much higher. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the rate is about 19 deaths per 100,000 people, among the world's highest.

In a country of 86 million people, around 7,000 new motorbikes and 5,000 new cars hit the streets every day.

Hua Thi Tu Anh, a senior student at the HCMC's Pham Ngoc Thach University of Medicine, said she could not resist texting or using the cell-phone while driving.

"I don't think it's risky. I can text while driving without looking at my cell-phone," she boasted.

Health officials, meanwhile, have admitted that current data collection systems are not good enough to compile accurate information on the contribution of mobile phone use to collisions.

Dr. Tran Thi Ngoc Lan, deputy director of the Health Environment Management Agency under the Health Ministry acknowledged that texting and talking on the phone while driving has become a new road hazard. To date, no research has been carried out regarding the links between cell-phone use and road accidents.

"I think such research has to be done in the future so that hefty fines can be levied on the habit of using cell-phones while driving," Lan said.

In an attempt to clamp down on traffic violations in Vietnam, the government recently increased penalties up to seven times for various offenses.

The new law bans car drivers completely from drinking, while lowering the blood-alcohol limit for motorbike drivers from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

Fines for mobile phone use while driving remain fixed at VND50,000 for each offence.

"Sometimes we don't bother to fine those who text or talk on cell-phones while driving," said a traffic police officer in District 1, who declined to be named.

"Mobile phone use should definitely be targeted for enforcement for road safety in Vietnam but in a situation where police human resources [are limited], prioritizations often need to be made," said Dr. Jean Marc Olivé, the WHO representative for Vietnam.

"˜Nowhere in the world'

At Cho Ray, a major hospital in HCMC, doctors in emergency rooms work round the clock to handle the influx of patients, the vast majority of whom are victims of traffic accidents. The hospital recorded at least 800 fatal cases of road accidents during the first half of this year.

Tran Anh Minh, a medical student in HCMC, said he saw no reason to stop texting and talking on the phone while driving.

"I'm a doctor. So it does not worry me at all," he said.

In an interview last year, Vietnam War journalist Peter Arnett said what most scared him when he came back to Vietnam was the "crazy traffic" in HCMC.

"There is nowhere like it in the world. Nowhere in the world," Arnett said.

A man checks his cell-phone while driving in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. This habit has added to growing road safety concerns in Vietnam.

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