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Vietnam begins drunk-driving crackdown as official statistics show that social calamity claims 30 lives a day

A traffic police officer checks the blood alcohol content of a driver in Hanoi via breathalyzer. Police in many cities and provinces have beefed up enforcement of drunk driving laws during Traffic Safety Month in September.

A drunkard leaves a funeral at 2 a.m. after drinking more than five liters of alcohol with his friends.

He gets on his motorbike to drive home but a friend snatches his key and asks that he stay the night instead. But the driver gets the key back after promising to drive safe and threatening to beat up his friend.

As he drives off he can be heard talking to another friend on his cell phone: "Dang nhau o dau?" "Where are you drinking now?"

This scene took place in the town of Soc Trang, capital of the eponymous Mekong Delta province, but it can be seen regularly anywhere in Vietnam.

Men here almost never take a taxi or ask someone else to drive after a bout of heavy drinking. They always drive by themselves. A common local saying goes: "No drunk man admits that he's drunk." Unfortunately, this is true for all too many with keys to motorbikes.

But this September is Traffic Safety Month and authorities hope to make an impact on the problem by rounding up as many drunk drivers as possible and slapping heavy fines on each and every one.

In Hanoi, dozens of groups of police have patrolled the streets and set up temporary checkpoints near restaurants. Each group has two plainclothes officers keeping a close watch at the restaurant's exit to inform their teammates of suspected drunk drivers seen leaving.

Tran Ngoc Anh of the Hanoi Police Department said nearly 800 drivers have been fined for drinking and driving during the first ten days of the campaign that kicked off early this month. All their vehicles, mostly motorbikes, were temporarily seized, he said.

In Can Tho, the Mekong Delta's economic hub, 114 drivers have been fined for drinking and driving out of 2,619 Traffic Law violations since early September.

Meanwhile, similar campaigns in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang have not been as successful for a variety of reasons.

Under a pilot project to reduce the number of drunk-driving incidents in Da Nang, traffic police in the central city will be supplied with eight modern alcohol testing devices. However, the tools have yet to be fully distributed days after the Traffic Safety Month was launched by the National Traffic Safety Committee.

With a lack of equipment, Da Nang traffic police have only fined four people for drinking and driving over the past few days.

In HCMC, 95 alcohol testing devices have been distributed to traffic police since early this year but only 491 fines have been dished out for drunk-driving offences.

A HCMC traffic police official, who wished to remain anonymous, admitted that some police didn't want to carry around the bulky device.

Change in values, not just law enforcement

Jonathon Passmore, technical officer for Road Safety & Injury Prevention with the World Health Organization (WHO) Vietnam, hailed Hanoi and Can Tho for their recent actions against drinking and driving.

"Witnessing police actively enforce against drink-driving is a very effective mechanism to increase the perception in road users that they too could also be caught and penalized if they drive after drinking alcohol, so the visible and noticeable enforcement in Hanoi and Can Tho is a very positive step forward," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Passmore said he is aware of limited equipment and human resources but added that traffic police in many provinces have calibrated and registered alcohol breathalyzers at their disposal to incorporate drink-drive enforcement into their regular patrol operations.

He called for a long term commitment and sustained actions by the central government and the community to prevent drinking and driving, arguing that at least 70 percent of surveyed participants admitted to driving a car or riding their motorcycle after drinking alcohol.

He also said there should be more campaigns to reduce the social acceptability of drinking and driving.

"Such behaviors are not only unacceptable to police and road safety authorities, but to the general population as well. This change in community expectation supplements the existing serious penalties for drink-driving, greatly contributing to overall behavioral change," he said.

"With alcohol being seen as important to social interaction in Vietnam, there needs to be an attitudinal change here where knowledge, understanding and acceptance of the dangers and potential consequences means that after consuming alcohol they will find an alternative means of transport and also intervene with their friends, family and colleagues to stop them if they try to drive a vehicle after consuming alcohol," he said, adding that effective prevention of drunk-driving requires constant vigilance and action.

Bad habits hard to kick

Most drivers in Vietnam are unaware of the consequences of drinking and driving, even though 33 percent to 69 percent of fatally injured drivers had consumed alcohol before their crash in low- and middle-income countries like Vietnam, said Greig Craft, President of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, a US non-profit organization that seeks to reduce traffic crash injuries and fatalities in developing countries through public education campaigns.

"The goal of decreasing the number of drunk drivers in Vietnam can be achieved by several different measures, and the timeline depends completely on when and how these are implemented," he told Thanh Nien Weekly, recalling that following the launch of a decree in 2007 making helmets compulsory for motorbike drivers, helmet use rates abruptly increased from nearly zero to 95 percent.

"A similar scenario can come about for drunk driving. If a law is passed, people are educated about the law and the disastrous results of drunk driving, and police forces are given the tools to enforce this law, I believe that the number of drunk drivers can be seriously reduced," he said.

However, Craft also pointed out some possible differences between the "no drinking and driving" and "helmet" laws.

"Each public health issue is unique, and specific factors, such as the addictive nature of alcohol, must be taken into account as well. Other cultural and societal factors come into play as well, such as the amount and type of alcohol as a demographic drink," he said.

The WHO suggests that individuals should not drink more than three glasses of alcohol each day, but a 2006 survey by the Health Policy and Strategy Institute found that Vietnam's per-capita consumption is 6.4 glasses. The consumption has reportedly increased since then.

Craft advised that the high production of "home-made" alcohol produced in many Vietnamese rural homes, which is estimated at 250 million liters per year, should be taken into account as authorities aim to reduce drunk driving.

According to the Road and Railway Traffic Police Department, more than 23,000 traffic accidents nationwide over the first half of this year have killed 5,662 and injured 25,600 others, meaning around 30 lives have been claimed on a daily basis.

Some 70 percent of total traffic accidents were related to motorbikes. The country, with 86 million in population, has 32 million registered motorbikes and the number has increased by 10 percent over the past few years.

The National Traffic Safety Committee reported that 13,713 road traffic crashes nationwide led to 11,060 deaths and 10,306 injuries in 2010.

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