by Hai Van
The first day of 2012 was marked by an unprecedented move from the Prime Minister: making local government leaders accountable for the escalation of traffic jams and accidents in the areas under their control.
And, also for the first time, the Prime Minister publicly criticised top leaders of seven provinces for not reigning in the flood of traffic accidents and deaths.
To make his intentions clear, PM Dung ruled that the chairmen of provincial People's Committees will now double as Heads of Traffic Safety Boards.
This is bold action by the Prime Minister, given that no leader has ever been dismissed or disciplined for the 150,000 or more traffic fatalities that have occurred during the past 15 years - a statistic revealed at a session of the National Assembly session in November.
No doubt the public will be cheered that the Government is getting more serious about the 12,000 people now dying on Viet Nam's roads each year - a number equal to 75 per cent of the casualties that occurred during Japan's shocking earthquake and tsunami disaster last year.
The provincial chairmen should accept their new title as heads of traffic safety as a challenge as they know better than anyone that Viet Nam's traffic problems result from a combination of inadequate infrastructure, high population growth and, of course, people's poor awareness of traffic laws.
While there is no doubt about the seriousness of the PM's message, the question is where to get enough dedicated and qualified people to check on all the necessary changes?
Recent events in the transport sector leave room for concern by the Prime Minister and the public. A gambling scandal involving two senior managers of the transport sector shocked the nation. One of the officials apparently threw down a total of VND5 billion (US$240,000) a time on a game of chess!
Nguyen Thanh Leo, Deputy Director of southern Soc Trang province's Transport Department, and Tran Van Tan, director of a driving centre in the same province were caught red handed. This is appalling, particularly in Soc Trang which, in 2010, had the highest poverty rate among Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta provinces.
A simple calculation reveals that if Leo was paid up to the salary level of a Vietnamese Minister at VND8 million a month, he would have to work for 50 consecutive years without spending a penny to earn VND5billion ($240,000)! By the time of the arrest, Leo alledgedly admitted he owed Tan VND22 billion (more than $1 million) from numerous chess games held since 2009.
The scandal would not have been noticed if Leo had not decided to turn to the police for protection after he found himself unable to pay the huge debt. Police heard of alleged death threats issued by Tan.
And while the public was recovering from this, four officials from Loc Ha District People's Committee in Central Ha Tinh City were caught gambling last week.
Then, last October, you may recall that many public servants became enraged when newly appointed Transport Minister Dinh La Thang forbade all officials in his ministry from playing golf.
He said they should be paying more attention to working, adding that the time-consuming sport could be the reason why hundreds of transport projects were either on hold or had stagnated. Despite huge support from the public, the Minister was bombarded with accusations of violating human rights and abusing his power from anonymous subordinates.
This prompted people to believe that using work hours for hobbies and gambling may not be a rare scene among public servants. Perhaps a mission of equal importance on the Prime Minister's agenda would be to scrutinise the work ethics of public servants and also check their finances.
For now, the good news is the PM's approach to slashing the horrendous road toll. But if real action is not taken against those who fail to follow his rulings, don't expect the deaths and injuries to dramatically subside. Concrete sanctions should be meted out. _ VNS