Vietnam's unending road of death

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Experts blame drunk or drug-addicted drivers, outdated roads, and bureaucratic failures for traffic accidents that have killed an average of 29 people per day in Vietnam so far this year

The two buses involved in a head-on collision on National Highway 1A in Khanh Hoa Province on March 8. Traffic accidents killed 2,599 people and injured 6,405 others nationwide during the first quarter of this year. 

More than two weeks after two buses collided in Khanh Hoa, killing 12 people and injuring 60 others, the central province's mayor took responsibility for the spike in traffic accidents under his watch.

"Khanh Hoa is the province with the top position in three categories: number of accidents, fatalities and injuries during the first quarter," Nguyen Chien Thang, chairman of the provincial People's Committee, said at a meeting this week.

"The number of serious accidents is also high. I accept any disciplinary measures [which might be handed down] by the central government," Thang said.

Thang made the statement at the conference held on March 25 to carry out the Party's instructions to "intensify the managerial role of the Party in ensuring traffic safety and order."

In Khanh Hoa's most recent traffic tragedy, just before 1 a.m. on March 8, both drivers and ten passengers were killed when two commercial buses traveling on National Highway 1A crashed head-on.

Police said nine people died on the spot, including the two drivers. They are still investigating what caused the accident.

In Vietnam, it is rare for a provincial mayor like Thang to take responsibility for traffic accidents, highlighting a worsening problem with an urgent demand for effective solutions.

At the March 25 conference, Le Hong Anh, the Party's de facto number two, said despite the many policies that have been proposed to solve problem of traffic accidents, they have not been thoroughly carried out and therefore have yet to produce results.

Traffic accidents in Vietnam increased once again in the first quarter of 2013, after reducing in 2012.

During the first three months of the year, Vietnam recorded 6,528 traffic accidents, with 2,599 casualties equivalent to 29 deaths per day while 6,405 others were injured. Last year, there were 36,400 traffic accidents, killing 9,848 people and injuring 38,064 others.

But the World Health Organizaion has sought to allay concerns that traffic accidents are on the rise in Vietnam.

"When looking at road safety data it is important to only compare like with like," the UN agency said in a statement emailed to Vietweek.

Compared to the first quarter of 2012, the increase at the end of the first quarter of this year is only 0.7 percent, the statement said.

"Comparing Q4 2012 results with Q1 2013 figures does not necessarily reflect a major increase in road trauma or cause for alarm that strategies are not working," it said.

 

"Month-to-month fluctuations in road traffic data is considered normal and in this case it is particularly relevant to note that the Q1 2013 data includes the Tet lunar new year holiday, which has always been a time of peak travel for large numbers of Vietnamese people placing many, particularly vulnerable road users, at much greater exposure to road trauma."

Drugs and alcohol

Cao Duc Khiem, deputy chief of Dak Lak Province Party Unit, said many residents had complained to him about north-south bus drivers they alleged were drug addicts.

In May 2012, Chu Ngoc Quang was convicted of driving under the influence of illegal drugs when his 24-seat bus crashed into a moving motorbike and bicyclist, as well as four parked cars in Thai Nguyen Province, seriously injuring two people. A Thai Nguyen court sentenced Quang to six months in jail.

Also last May, a bus heading to HCMC plunged into the Serepok River, killing 34 and injuring 20 others. Although there was no evidence directly linking bus's driver, Pham Ngoc Lam, who was among the dead, to drugs, Dak Lak investigators pointed out that Lam had previously served seven years in jail for drug smuggling.

Between November 2012 and January 2013, Dak Lak traffic police drug-tested 196 of the province's bus drivers. Eight of them tested positive for illegal drugs. All received fines, while the four found to have driven under the influence had their driver's licenses revoked.

Last September, the HCMC Goods Transport Association launched a pilot project which publicized the names of bus drivers who had been dismissed for serious violations.

According to the association, many drivers had taken part in robberies in order to feed their drug or gambling habits.

The Viet Duc Hospital in Hanoi, which admits an average of 20,000 patients involved in traffic accidents each year, has said that about half of the victims were found to have consumed alcohol.

A survey of more than 18,000 people hospitalized due to traffic accidents between 2009 and 2010 found that 36 percent of motorcycle drivers and 66.8 percent of car and other vehicle drivers had blood alcohol contents that exceeded the legal limit.

According to the Ministry of Transport, drunk-driving accounts for 15-17 percent of all traffic fatalities in Vietnam.

Outdated roadways

Vietnam has more than 37 million registered motorbikes and 1.6 million cars and the ever-increasing number of vehicles has dramatically outpaced the development of road infrastructure, according to the National Committee for Traffic Safety.

While the number of vehicles increases by an average of 15 percent per year, the rate of building of new roads and bridges and the widening of existing ones, remains under one percent, the agency said.

Thang, the Khanh Hoa mayor, said he has proposed widening the stretch of National Highway 1A that goes through Khanh Hoa Province, which has gone 40 years without an upgrade.

"The highway has only two lanes. So, if drivers lose control or drive in wrong lane, it can easily lead to head-on collisions," he said.

He said the central government had yet to approve plans to build a roundabout highway to replace the current one that runs through downtown Nha Trang, despite the province proposing it several times in recent years.

Fake licenses, faulty parts

Experts also pointed out that the periodical inspections of used cars have been ineffective, blaming it for the increase in traffic accidents.

Khiem, the Dak Lak leader, said many unscrupulous drivers have equipped their cars with new parts they merely borrowed in order to pass the compulsory inspection.

In late 2011, the Traffic Police Department and the Vietnam Registry conducted a quality inspection of vehicles traveling on the HCMC - Trung Luong Expressway in the Mekong Delta which revealed that many trucks and buses fells short of safety requirements, but had nevertheless managed to obtain inspection stamps. Several drivers admitted that they had borrowed new equipment to pass the inspection.

Furthermore, the prevalence of phony driver's licenses is also problematic. But many drivers said they were unafraid of being punished because they could bribe the traffic police.

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