Vietnam new plan to curb drunk driving far from popular

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Restaurant owners and drinkers disdain a traffic police proposal to nab drunk drivers soon as they hop on their motorbikes or into their cars upon leaving restaurants


A traffic copadministers a breathalyzer test to a motorist on a street in Ho Chi Minh City. A proposal to station traffic police officers near restaurants to stop drunk drivers from getting on to their vehicles has been controversial. Photo by Dam Huy

Unable to establish a drinking curfew, Ho Chi Minh City authorities have announced a new, perhaps equally controversial, measure that would set up checkpoints outside restaurants to catch drunk drivers before they cause accidents.

"Fine anyone attempting to drive after drinking immediately!" Nguyen Huu Tin, HCMC's vice mayor, said at a meeting last week to discuss traffic safety measures for the rest of the year.

"There's no need for further debates. We have to solve this problem without delay," Tin said.

He instructed the traffic police to strictly punish frequently reported cases of suspected drunk drivers who refuse to take alcohol tests.

Tin said it was impossible to approve previous proposals to ban restaurants from serving alcohol after 10 p.m. because it would affect several other industries.

"In addition to patrolling, we have to stop drunk drivers as soon as they get on (or in) their vehicles," he said.

Tin's instruction aims to reduce traffic accidents in the city of more than 7.5 million people and 6.2 million vehicles, of which 5.7 million are motorbikes, with a preponderance of traffic accidents involving alcohol.

There have been more than 2,060 traffic accidents in HCMC so far this year, killing 310 people and injuring 1,716 others. At least 12,000 traffic accidents occurred across Vietnam in the first five months of this year, killing 4,163 people 28 more than the same period last year, official figures show.

Tran Thanh Tra, HCMC traffic police chief, said drunk drivers are responsible for up to 70 percent of traffic accidents in the southern hub.

In April, Tra proposed banning alcohol sales after 10 p.m. to reduce the number of accidents caused by drunk driving. He revised the proposal in May, extending the curfew to 11 p.m., but it was rejected once again.

In Vietnam, the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) for motorbike drivers is 50mg/100ml, equal to one can of beer or 30 milliliters of brandy. The threshold for those who drive cars is zero.

The plan to set up traffic police checkpoints near restaurants has prompted criticism from both restaurant owners and customers, as alcohol consumption is pervasive throughout the city.

Many restaurants owners fear the presence of the traffic police nearby will scare away customers.

"It's no different than closing down my restaurant," said Oanh, owner of a restaurant on District 8's Ta Quang Buu Street.

A representative of Hoa Vien Restaurant on District 1's Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street said most of his restaurant's customers are office workers who only drink a little to relax after work.

"No one is badly drunk when they leave. Anyway, a party is not happy without alcohol," he said.

Bui Thanh Luong, managing director of the wedding restaurant chain Adora in Go Vap District, said 90 percent of his male guests drink beer, consuming an average of three cans each.

"If the plan is enforced, restaurant owners will lose revenue for sure," he told VnExpress news website.

The news website, which has reported extensively on drunk driving, has attracted more than 100 readers' comments, most of which dislike the proposal, or express doubts about its feasibility.

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"There are numerous restaurants in the city. The traffic police force is too thin to be assigned to all of them," Chi Tai, a reader, wrote.

There are more than 28,000 restaurants and eateries in HCMC and many people are concerned that the plan would not be thoroughly or fairly enforced.

Another reader, identified as doivanthe, said the police might demand bribes from restaurants to keep them away: "They could watch out for months to scare away guests if a restaurant refuses to pay."

Major General Nguyen Van Tuyen, director of the Road and Railway Traffic Police Department under the Ministry of Public Security, also admitted that it would be virtually impossible for the traffic police to keep an eye on all restaurant goers in big cities like Hanoi and HCMC.

"We can focus on certain areas at a time. We would also instruct our men to be objective and transparent," he told Tien Phong (Pioneer) newspaper.

Tuyen said the traffic police are doing their best to reduce traffic accidents, but could not compete with the alcohol industry.

A survey of 7,757 people conducted by VnExpress showed 75 percent of respondents thought the plan would be unfeasible, while the remaining 25 percent believed it would be effective.

Opponents of the plan say by only targeting would-be drunk drivers, the authorities are focusing on the wrong target. The bottom line is, the critics say, the government should impose higher taxes on alcohol to reduce consumption.

A survey conducted by industry analyst Euromonitor International found Vietnam consumed 2.6 billion liters of beer in 2011, the most in Southeast Asia.

In 2011, beer production in Vietnam increased by 240 percent over the previous year. There are currently about 500 factories nationwide with a brewing capacity of 1.2 billion liters a year.

Cao Tien Luan, another VnExpress reader, wrote: "I wonder if there is any country that sells beer as cheap as Vietnam? At less than VND10,000 ($0.48) per bottle, anyone can afford it.

"Why don't we increase taxes by four or five times? If a beer costs VND50,000, the number of drinkers will significantly decrease and the traffic police will not have to try to hunt for all the drunk drivers, a task that is beyond their capabilities."

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