The blue plate specials

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A Thanh Nien investigation finds that official vehicles are above the law

An official vehicle known, as a "blue-plate", dips into the motorbike lane on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, Ho Chi Minh City.

It's Monday afternoon and a line of cars is inching forward slowly on Dong Khoi Street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

Suddenly, an official vehicle, known as a "blue-plate" in Vietnam, to be distinguished from normal vehicles with white number plates, swerves into the motorbike lane and zoom ahead.

Numerous traffic violations are committed in HCMC by vehicles assigned to state agencies, without any apparent repercussions from traffic officials. All of the following violations were observed by Thanh Nien reporters, aided by reader tip-offs.

Most of the violations occurred while the vehicles were not on duty. They could not be attributed to emergency response or isolated error.

Instead, the vehicles committed multiple violations at a time revealing a culture of official disregard for traffic laws.

"It seems like traffic safety campaigns are only designed for normal residents," said reader Nguyen Huu Loc. "Blue-plate vehicles seem to be an exception to the rules."

The findings

On the afternoon of December 2, Thanh Nien observed three public vehicles, identified by their blue license plates, cut into the oncoming traffic lane on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street in District 1 to turn into a nearby intersection.

The three violations occurred within the course of ten minutes. Drivers appeared to be annoyed but had to veer out of the cars' way to avoid a collision.

Early this month, a public vehicle entered the motorbike lane before running a red light at the intersection of Le Lai and Nguyen Thai Hoc, also in District 1.

Another vehicle, carrying several uniformed policemen, entered the motorbike lane on Ton Duc Thang Street before making an illegal turn onto Dinh Tien Hoang Street. Another public vehicle violating traffic rules was discovered to have been assigned to the Customs Department at Tan Son Nhat International Airport.

Meanwhile, another blue-plate ran a red light at the intersection of Hai Ba Trung and Dien Bien Phu. Two uniformed traffic police officers stationed on the corner made no attempt to intervene.

"Even if the traffic police attempt to pull over the blue-plates, can they address the violation or will they get trouble for doing so?" reader Nguyen Ngoc Son wrote to Thanh Nien. "Many officials have abuse their power and consider themselves above the law."

The extent to which public vehicles are protected remains unclear.

However, the passengers of one blue-plate vehicle that had swerved into a motorbike lane cast a baleful stare at Thanh Nien reporters when they discovered they were being filmed.

Parking, parking everywhere

On December 7 a line of blue-plate cars sat parked below a "No parking" sign in District 1 on December 7. Several civilian cars soon followed suit.

Many drivers around Ly Tu Trong Street made annoyed faces when asked about blue-plate vehicles, which are notorious for parking on city sidewalks.

Even traffic inspectors don't appear to give a damn about the laws.

Early this month, Thanh Nien observed four officers park their official vehicle halfway on a District 12 sidewalk, while they spent an hour eating breakfast.

Punish regardless of plate

"Department policy requires officers to strictly punish any vehicles that violate traffic rules," Vo Van Nhuan, head of the Road and Railway Traffic Police Department under the city police force, said during a Wednesday interview.

"Every vehicle on the street is required to follow traffic rules... there's no difference between white plates or blue plates."

Nhuan said the city police will also punish any traffic police officers that are found to treat public vehicles with kid gloves.

Traffic laws are only suspended for emergency response vehicles during the commission of their official duties.

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