Buckle up or shut up: Vietnam's road safety conundrum

By Simon Stanley   April 24, 2017 | 12:00 am GMT+7
Buckle up or shut up: Vietnam's road safety conundrum
Although Vietnamese law currently requires drivers and front passengers to wear belts, many don’t.

Whose job is it to keep the country’s new drivers safe?

“We don’t use those in Vietnam,” said the driver of a popular ride-hailing service with frustration as I searched for the rear seat belts in the depths of his shiny new car. When I found them still wrapped in plastic film, it was clear that they’d never been used.

It isn’t the first time this has happened. It wasn’t even the first time that day. With a six-month-old baby in a car seat, and both his mother and I living with first-hand experience of road accidents back home in the U.K., we’ve come to insist on all three of us having a seat belt before we ride anywhere.

Why? Because you’re twice as likely to die in a car accident if you’re not strapped in. And neither of us wants to die.

It seems we’re quite alone in this. Even among our British friends living in Saigon, all of us brought up watching the same shocking road safety videos, all of us well aware of the dangers, we’re often the only people in the taxi or the ride-share car bothering to buckle up. “We’re only going a short distance,” they say, or: “We won’t be going very fast.”

For the local population, in a country still going through the sort of mass car adoption that took place in countries like the U.K. three decades ago, one can forgive the lack of awareness. But I struggle to understand when expats and tourists, who would never do so at home, clamber into cars, often with inexperienced drivers, without taking a few seconds to pull the seat belt across themselves or their kids.

Although Vietnamese law currently only requires drivers and front passengers to wear belts, many don’t. Our driver that afternoon had him strapped across the seat behind him as he drove, only to prevent a light and warning alarm on his dashboard from being activated, and to enable him to pull it over his chest should he spot a traffic cop.

But even at 30kph, say many experts, a speed too low to activate airbags, an impact could potentially send an unbelted front occupant’s head forward with enough force to leave a nice crack in the windscreen. And it’s never just the speed of the vehicle you’re in. If two moving vehicles collide head-on, the combined speed is what matters.

In the event of two vehicles colliding, both traveling at a moderate speed of 25kph, the resultant 50kph impact could prove fatal. Where unsecured rear passengers are present, the risks of serious injury and death, to everyone in the vehicle, are increased substantially.

According to a 2002 study of 100,000 road accidents, conducted by Dr. Masao Ichikawa of Tokyo University, in the event of a crash with a combined speed of 50kph, an unbelted rear adult passenger is flung forward with an average force of around 3,000 kilograms, or between 30 and 60 times their body weight. Such force can obliterate the hinges and fixings of the front seats and crush anyone sitting in them to death.

“I think probably just 1 percent of my customers buckle the seat belt,” said Kathy Khanh, who also leases vehicles to other ride-share drivers like herself. “It makes them uncomfortable and the law does not strictly require it.”

Khanh added that while seat belts are available in all of her vehicles, it’s due to Vietnam’s relatively new relationship with the car that people don’t wear them. “They have not adopted the belt habit,” she said. “It’s the same with baby car seats. No car owner really uses them. [Instead] they’ll let their kids sit on their own or [they’ll] hold them in the front seat.”

From January 1, 2018, however, seat belts in the back will be compulsory by law in Vietnam. And it couldn’t come soon enough. But with many drivers happily flaunting the front-seat rule today, only with proper enforcement and public education about the risks (risks that can be far more costly than a VND200,000, or around $9, fine) will any law truly save lives.

Compared to riding a motorbike, of course, traveling in a car, even without a belt, is far safer.  Modern vehicles come equipped with a whole host of safety features, from front airbags and seat belt pre-tensioners, to automatic braking systems, rear and side airbags and more.

As car manufacturers continue to flood Vietnam’s cities with vehicles, and as people continue to buy them, the country’s lawmakers and public safety ministers are going to be playing catch up for some time.

And it’s not just in emerging markets like Vietnam where the ever-evolving auto market is leaving governments behind. In the U.S., for example, the advent of self-driving cars is still causing headaches for the country’s legislators.

Some vehicle corporations have made their own moves as the market booms. Mercedes-Benz Vietnam has reportedly been delivering driver safety courses to its customers for the past 12 years. Likewise, Toyota, the number-one selling car manufacturer in Vietnam today, has been conducting a road safety campaign in the country since 2014. Despite the current law, the campaign encourages both front and rear-seat occupants to strap in, a representative said.

With numerous plans for the future of Saigon on the table, including the proposed pedestrianization of a large chunk of District 1, and, of course, the forthcoming metro system, the emphasis seems to be on trying to move people away from their cars and bikes altogether.

But with the removal of vehicle tariffs on imported units next year, there’s no denying that the car is here to stay, and only the years ahead will reveal if Vietnam’s cities can cope.

Whether it’s pedestrian safety, driver and passenger safety, parking problems or traffic congestion, we may only be scratching the surface of the problems to come.

Nhung Nguyen contributed reporting