Hai Phong City cracks down on drugged drivers as experts call for stricter measures to prevent highway accidents
A container truck that crashed into a roadside barrier on National Highway 5 between Hanoi and Hai Phong. Experts are calling for more actions nationwide following a recent crackdown on drug-addict drivers by Hai Phong City authorities. Photo: Luu Quang Pho
Thai Nguyen provincial police are investigating Mai Linh taxi driver Hoang Van Minh, who was accused of selling drugs to drivers at the Thai Nguyen Bus Station.
The 26-year-old driver was arrested on February 11 with 19 packs of heroin in his cab’s door.
Minh confessed to be a drug user and that he often sells drugs at the bus station, police said.
Although local media have long been reporting about drug use among long-distance truck and bus drivers, it was not until recently that Hai Phong City became the first locality to suspend drivers for using drugs.
Hundreds of drivers were suspended in all, though some were not accused of using drugs and were relieved of their duties due to optical or hearing problems instead.
Adding bite to the bark
The inspection that led to the dismissals was conducted on nearly 7,500 drivers from July 2013 to January 2014.
Nguyen Quang Hieu, chief of the transport management section at the Hai Phong transport department, said his agency was well aware of drivers using drugs and also knew that many drivers did not meet regulated health requirements.
He said it had been difficult to conduct the inspection before recent instructions by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on traffic safety because transport companies were not willing to cooperate.
Following PM Dung’s orders, his agency has forced transport companies to conduct medical checkups for their drivers as a requirement to issue or renew relevant certificates and licenses.
So far, the Hai Phong transport department has inspected all local passenger transport companies and 80 percent of goods transport companies.
“We told the companies to terminate contracts with drivers that tested positive for drugs and with those who refused to undergo medical checkups,” Hieu said.
Nguyen Van Huyen, chief inspector of the Ministry of Transport, said Hai Phong was the only locality in the country that had dismissed professional drivers, including drug users, en masse.
Transport agencies nationwide will now require drivers to submit to periodical and surprise medical check-ups, including bus, taxi and truck drivers, to detect alcohol and drug abuse, he said.
“This is a practical move that has positive meanings for the transport sector and will help reduce traffic accidents caused by unqualified drivers,” he said.
Major General Do Van Tuyen, director of the central Road and Railway Transport Police Department, said people have reported drug abuse among drivers for many years, with long distance bus and truck drivers seriously threatening traffic safety.
“Hai Phong’s move is a good example for other localities,” he said.
Wheels on drugs
According to Lieutenant General Do Dinh Nghi of the Ministry of Public Security, drug driving is a common problem not only in Hai Phong but across the country.
Nguyen Hoang Hiep, deputy chairman of the National Traffic Safety Committee, said unofficial statistics found that around 15 percent of container and heavy truck drivers use drugs.
The proportion among bus drivers is smaller, he added.
Up to 15 percent of drug users being treated at a detox center in Hanoi are professional drivers, Nguoi Dua Tin (The Messenger) news website reported. The center is offering treatment for around 1,400 drug addicts.
At the Hoa Binh Rehabilitation Center, one third of more than 200 drug users are drivers.
Hiep said almost all tragic accidents involving long distance buses and trucks happened at around 5-6 a.m. on National Highway 1 in the central region, from Quang Nam to Binh Thuan.
“In some cases, the authorities investigated the black box and found that there was no vehicle speeding. Meanwhile, accidents mostly occured when a vehicle was driving in the wrong lane and collided head-on with another.
“A regulation that bans long distance drivers from driving more than 4 continuous hours has been ignored. It is easy for a tired driver to cause accidents,” he said.
Dr. Nguyen Van Dung of Hanoi’s Bach Mai Hospital said the pressure of serving an increasing number of passengers during holidays like Tet (Vietnam’s Lunar New Year) is one of the circumstances that prompt drivers to use drugs as stimulants to stay awake.
“But using drugs also makes them lose control and they can easily cause accidents,” he said.
Among reports about bus drivers suspected of using drugs, a driver heading to Ho Chi Minh City plunged his bus into the Serepok River in Dak Lak Province in May 2012, killing 34 people, including himself, and injuring 20 others.
Although there was no evidence directly linking the bus driver, Pham Ngoc Lam, to drugs, Dak Lak investigators pointed out that Lam had previously served seven years in jail for drug smuggling.
Vietnam's high number of traffic accidents slightly reduced in 2013. Last year, there were 29,385 traffic accidents, killing 9,369 people and injuring about 29,500 others. In 2012, traffic accidents killed 9,424 people nationwide.
Vietnam has more than 37 million motorbikes and 2.03 million cars. The country’s population is 90 million people.
Experts said there should be an effective mechanism to make sure transport companies employ professional drivers who are not drug users, as well as specific health criteria they must meet to be hired.
According to Hiep from the country’s traffic safety committee, inspecting drivers for drugs is mainly the responsibility of transport companies while transport inspectors only sometimes conducting surprise inspections.
“But it makes no sense when some companies are well-aware that their drivers use drugs and ignore it,” he said.
The transport ministry recently drafted a circular on health requirements and medical check-ups for automobile drivers but the circular does not include an article about drug use, he said.
Hiep said current regulations already require medical checkups for drivers with transport companies. However, they only need to be checked once upon hiring and then do not need another inspection until they renew their licenses 5-10 years later, he said.
“Another important issue is that one can buy a good health certificate for a few hundred thousand dong to apply for a driving license or job,” he said.
Driving under influence of drugs is banned under the Traffic Law. A decree on implementing this law stipulates that automobile drivers caught under the influence of drugs have their license revoked for two years on top of fines from VND8-10 million (US$380-474).
However, traffic police and transport inspectors have reported a shortage of personnel and equipment needed to enforcing these regulations.
Vu Van Gioi, Hai Phong’s chief of traffic police, said his agency is planning to use a device to test drivers for drugs on the street this year.
“In many accidents, traffic police could not detect whether the involved drivers used drugs or not.
“Although there are regulations banning the use of drugs when driving, it is difficult to implement them due to a lack of equipment. Otherwise, we could reduce the number of accidents caused by drugged drivers,” he said.
But Lieutenant General Nghi of the public security ministry said it would be difficult for traffic police to tackle the drugged-driving problem because they have a number of other tasks, like controlling traffic and patrolling to detect other more common violations.
“Inspecting drivers for drugs requires investment in equipment, issuing relevant regulations and training traffic police to test for drugs,” he said.
Nghi said relevant authorities should tackle the drugged driving problem by dealing with the transport companies that employ the drivers.
Nguyen Van Thanh, deputy chairman of Vietnam Automobile Transport Association, also said companies whose drivers test positive for drugs should be punished.
“Only then will transport companies become serious in requiring drivers to conduct periodical medical checkups and only then will they dismiss drivers who use drugs.”