Motorbike fires spark fear

by Thuy Ha

Failure to find their cause is even more scary than the mysterious fires that have destroyed hundreds of vehicles on Vietnamese streets

When a friend of mine began driving her bicycle everywhere, leaving her motorbike gathering dust at home, she confessed she was driven by more than health and environmental concerns.

She said she was afraid that it would catch fire or explode, and that she could not take the risk, having a family to look after.

Her fear is well founded. Hundreds of vehicles have been destroyed by mysterious fires and explosions over the last two years.

Ministry of Transport said in a meeting organised by several ministries recently that it would take them at least one year to find out the cause of these vehicle fires and explosions.

The announcement frustrated millions of commuters across the country who are anxious about their safety and that of their loved ones.

This, for me, is even more scary than the fires and explosions themselves – the fact that after hundreds, not one or two or three…, of vehicles have been gutted by these sudden explosions and fires over so many months, we are no closer to finding out what has caused them.

Is this merely a lack of competence? I wonder.

Speculation about the causes of the fires has been rife, of course.

When a woman and her child died in northern Bac Ninh Province late last year after her Honda motorbike exploded, questions were raised about the quality of the vehicle, flaws in its design and so on. Then there were rumours about industrial crimes, efforts to discredit one brand or the other.

However, these did not hold up to scrutiny as many more explosions occurred later in different places throughout the country, especially in Ha Noi and HCM City, destroying vehicles irrespective of model and brands.

The explosions and fires occurred more frequently late last year and early this year. Statistics compiled by authorities said 324 vehicles had caught fire in 2010 and 2011. As many as 115 cars and motorbikes caught fire in the first three months this year, injuring three people and causing damages of over VND20 billion (US$950,000).

One of the main suspects that emerged as the fires raged was the quality of fuel. This gained currency after the media exposed the fact that petrol stations as well as traders were adulterating the fuel with inflammable substances for ill-gotten gains.

Strangely, however, this factor has also been dismissed as a suspect with authorities saying testing of samples have not provided evidence of adulteration. No punishment or penalty imposed on those who violated the law has been made public. Some of the stations that were found selling bad-quality fuel are still operating.

Reasons unknown

The Ministry of Public Security earlier this year said they had found out the causes of the fires and explosions. These included crashes, short circuits, foul play and … unknown reasons.

At a regular meeting of the Ministry of Transport in March, deputy minister Nguyen Hong Truong said there are "groups of reasons" for the recent explosions and the majority group was "unknown reasons."

Early this year, a seminar to discuss the reasons for the explosions failed to reach any conclusion because "unknown reasons" accounted for 72 per cent of motorbike and 50 per cent of cars destroyed by sudden fires.

Scientists and relevant agencies seem to be very slow in their quest to solve the mystery.

Under public pressure, the Prime Minister asked four ministries – Public Security, Transport, Industry and Trade, and Science and Technology – to work together and find out what was causing these fires and explosions.

Motorbikes are the main means of transportation in Viet Nam by far. People have no other choice than to continue using them. Ha Noi and HCM City each has millions of regular motorbike users.

Given the poor control over fuel quality and the distressing lack of progress in finding out what has caused hundreds of vehicles to catch fire, the public can only wait, helplessly, for more fires and explosions to happen.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case.

Vietnamese scientists and concerned agencies have not been able to find out what has caused the strange skin condition in central Viet Nam that has so far killed at least 19 people. International agencies say they are willing to help, but that they have not yet been asked to do so.

In a situation fraught with uncertainty, my friend's decision to dump the motorbike and use the bicycle is a wise one, in more ways than one. — VNS

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