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Motorized anarchy in Vietnam

Motorized anarchy in Vietnam

Tuesday, February 24, 2015, 16:05 GMT+7

Editor’s Note: Stivi Cooke regularly contributes stories to Tuoi Tre News from Hoi An Ancient Town in central Vietnam. Cooke works as an English teacher there.

I stole the title from Facebook. It seemed to sum up Vietnam’s troubled love affair with freedom of the road. I’m in Cambodia at the moment on a visa run, and what strikes me the most? No horns... no honking, no longer five second burst of ‘let me through no matter what!”

I know Cambodia’s traffic isn’t much better than Vietnam’s but it’s more advanced for giving way, going slowly and people wearing realistically protective helmets – in the main towns anyway. As I started the run five days ago thanks to Vietnam’s new twist on visas, the pressure building up on Facebook from irritated, spooked out, exasperated expats complaining about running the gauntlet of Tet (Lunar New Year) traffic mayhem, seemingly worse than last year, has become an annual ritual.

Tuoi Tre News has run a number of reports on this year’s road death toll and other factors, such as excessive drinking and brawling, contributing to the carnage. No surprises there...


Three people died in this accident that happened in Dong Nai Province in southern Vietnam on October 28, 2012. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Can it change? Can Vietnam find another way to bring some sense of order to the nation’s motorized population’s amazing disregard for even the basic rules of the roads? Yes.

I don’t blame the police. It’s a big landscape with highways, byways, dirt tracks and so on and simply not enough police or militiamen to crack down on traffic violations. Add to that the lack of ‘road awareness’, training, education or whatever else we’d like to blame.

So what can be done? For a start – Vietnamese lawmakers should make the penalty fit the crime more harshly.

There is a precedent – the introduction of the upgraded compulsory helmet laws on December 15, 2007 and heavy penalties. Paying for bad road behavior worked as a deterrent. It still does.

And I believe over time, phony helmets, no headlights at night, five on a bike and much more will become a thing of the past. Police at the northern Chinese border, in Da Nang and in the Mekong Delta provinces did a good job on this in 2014.

If you are rich or poor – pay up for your mistakes, big time – and strict jail time for physical injuries resulting in death or serious wounds, particularly among the owners and drivers of cars, trucks and buses. Does anyone remember the slap on the wrist for the driver who ran his bus up onto the bridge? He was fined a mere VND350,000 (US$16) for driving his sleeper bus onto the railing of a bridge in Can Tho on February 2. In Australia, he’d never drive a bus again – ever.

Vietnam’s laws are still too unclear on these issues. The rich cannot be seen to get away with death or injury by paying their way out of trouble. It sends the wrong message to the public – why should I obey if they don’t? Compensation is expected, however, it doesn’t bring about permanent change in behavior unless the penalties are enforced.

Compensation cannot and should not replace punishment. 

Got a fancy car and smashed it into the innocent? Let the government seize and sell it off – every time – and face jail time. Used a government car and had a serious accident? Lose your job and your license. 

Got drunk at the wedding and insisted on riding home even though you couldn’t stand up straight? Your bike is on the government auction list, tomorrow. 

Killed someone because you were drunk or didn’t obey the road rules? Jail. End of story. This happens already in most countries – regardless of social status.


A road accident victim is seen being treated at Cho Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Curiously, it is a major surprise to my students to learn how much other countries spend on road education, road safety advertisements and changing attitudes.

Australia, like Vietnam, has a strong culture of drinking and the young male’s “macho man” right to speed on a road. However, Australian media, driven by government needs to cut hospital and health costs, not to mention the impact on working families where the young breadwinners die early, have managed to reduce road death rates by using advertising to strike at the heart of the macho culture that accompanies drinking and aggressive road behavior.

No more driving up the middle of a road regardless of what’s coming the other way. Stay in your lane. I do. I go very slowly and give people on side streets time to deal with me.

Finally, two simple ideas: everyone, regardless of age or status, obeys the same rules. No more kids running the red lights as school finishes. No more parents causing chaos as school starts or finishes. No more ‘bigger fish gets to go first’.

Secondly, look, slow down – before you turn. That should be a mandatory offence in the Vietnamese law books. If the police were allowed to put the revenue from this into their funds, every province could probably buy police cars and equipment for the next five years! 

Everything I’ve written is not new. Now, at the end of Tet, there are families grieving all over Vietnam instead of celebrating. Young people who should have out-lived me, cut down.

Stivi Cooke


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