by Tran Quynh Hoa
The Nga Tu So overpass in the western part of Ha Noi has helped cut down traffic congestion and accidents in the area — VNA/VNS Photo An Dang
HA NOI — Like many visitors to Viet Nam, Anne Hellinker is in a quandary – she wants to explore more of the country but doesn't want to die in the process.
The retired Briton is in awe of my steely nerves. "How brave of you to drive in all that traffic!" she says with a look of dread in her eyes.
And it's not an emotion limited to foreign visitors. Le Hoang Huy, a middle-aged Hanoian, refuses to let his 15-year-old daughter cycle in the city. In fact he trusts no one with his precious cargo. Instead, he insists on driving her himself to school, evening classes and her piano lessons.
"Crossing the street here is a life and death experience. The traffic is getting worse," he says.
Viet Nam is in what is called a "motorisation period", with the number of cars and motorbikes increasing by 12-14 per cent annually.
The population is also increasing by about 1 million a year. Unfortunately, infrastructure development is being left behind, Than Van Thanh, chairman of the National Traffic Safety Committee, says.
Road crashes account for 95 per cent of all transport accidents and 97 per cent of casualties, he says.
In comparison with other countries, the number of road deaths per 100,000 people in Viet Nam is high – 13 compared with 6.7 in mainland China, 5.2 in Japan and 3-5 in Europe. However, road deaths regionally are worse in Malaysia (23.6) and Thailand (19.6), according to a recent report by the Ministry of Transport.
Losses caused by road accidents in 2007 alone were equivalent to about 2.9 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, or VND32.6 trillion (US1.9 billion, 2007 exchange rate).
The number of accidents, casualties and injuries increased sharply in Viet Nam from 1999 (by 8.3-10.7 per cent on a yearly basis) and only began to fall after 2003.
More than 100 accidents
HA NOI – More than 100 traffic accidents left 115 people dead and 95 injured between April 10 and 13 during the national holiday commemorating Hung Kings, according to the Department of Road and Railway Traffic Police.
About 42,000 traffic violations were punished with total fines collected of up to VND10 billion (US$476,000) during the holiday.
The number of accidents was lower than the last five-day Tet (lunar new year) celebration which saw 370 accidents and 288 deaths. – VNS
The decrease, however, is "far from sustainable and stable", the report states.
To tackle the problem, the Transport Ministry drafted the 2011-20 National Traffic Safety plan. It is expected to get the Government's nod of approval in the second quarter. The draft aims to reduce the number of road deaths per 100,000 people by about 40 per cent to eight by 2020.
The country is aiming for "a safe living environment... full of humanity and without accidents," the draft report states.
Under the strategy, VND41 trillion ($2 billion) will be spent on various projects to improve law enforcement, traffic management, road upgrades, training and licensing, first aid, rescue and education.
Do Tien Duc, who helped draft the plan, says its goals have been "carefully worked out". However, World Bank transport specialist Tran Thi Van Anh says the draft's goals are "probably unrealistic given the current situation and scope of the problem across the country and the current institutional capacity".
"While it is encouraging to see a formal overall target set and many performance measures identified for several interventions in the draft strategy, there will need to be a large investment and very effective intervention to realise the targets set," she says.
Thanh, chairman of the National Traffic Safety Committee, agrees. "It will be very challenging to achieve the goals," he says.
To lift the GDP by 1 per cent, volume of transport must rise 1.5 per cent, he says.
"So if Viet Nam is set to have its GDP rise by 6 per cent a year, the volume of transport needs to increase by 9 per cent on a yearly basis," Thanh says.
But transport safety expert Takagi Michimasa, from the Japan International Co-operation Agency, says the draft's goal of reducing road fatalities by 40 per cent within 10 years was eminently achievable.
He said Japan managed to halve the number of road casualties between 1970 to 1980, even though the number of vehicles doubled over the same period.
Most accidents he says are the result of ignorance and unsafe driving.
"Once they get used to the new environment, they can learn how to avoid having accidents," Michimasa says.
This agrees with a report by the Transport Ministry that states most road accidents in Viet Nam (85 per cent) were the result of drivers breaking traffic regulations, with speeding being a primary cause.
Experience in industrial-ised countries indicates that the number of road deaths increases rapidly in the initial motorisation period and sharply drops within a few years if intensive traffic safety countermeasures are introduced, Michimasa says.
However, the number of road casualties in Viet Nam has remained virtually unchanged since 2002.
That suggests safety measures so far adopted are "not sufficient enough to enhance road users' knowledge and awareness," he adds.
WB specialist Van Anh says the Government has implemented several key important road-safety initiatives, such as the creation of the National Traffictraffic law in 2001. But she says more needs to be done. Safety Committee in 1997 and the introduction of a road
"There is still considerable work to do to improve the integration and co-ordination of multi-agencies activities, which, from the point of view of the population, still appears disparate and to not have had much impact on improving motorists' behaviour," she says.
Thanh says poor traffic education programmes a decade ago were largely to blame for the currently mayhem on the country's roads.
Teenagers, particularly those aged between 15 and 18, have already adopted dangerous ways of driving. That doesn't bode well for the future, he says.
Michimasa agrees that traffic safety education should begin at a very young age. He also says infrastructure needs to be upgraded and law enforcement stepped up, and that the emergency services should be improved.
Meanwhile, Dr Khuat Viet Hung, dean of the University of Transport's Transport Planning and Management Department, says priority should be given to improving traffic management rather than infrastructure.
"Before we're able to build new roads, we need to make the best use of the existing ones," he says.
A wary Hellinker says Viet Nam should improve public transport – as does Huy.
In the meantime, Hell-inker is busy Googling road safety tips in Viet Nam. As for Huy, he says he will only let his daughter cycle when she turns 18. — VNS