Vietnam rages against drunk driving as death toll mounts

By Bao Ngoc   May 21, 2019 | 08:02 pm PT
Vietnam rages against drunk driving as death toll mounts
Official data show that the number of drivers exceeding alcohol limits is increasing. Photo by Shutterstock/Freedomz
Social media was shaken by the image of a boy weeping in front of his dead mother on a street after a recent accident.

Le Thi Thu Ha, a Hanoi sanitation worker, had been hit by a car on the night of April 22.

She had been cleaning a street in the capital when a drunk driver lost control of his car and slammed into her. The alcohol level in his breath was very high, and he was not sober enough to talk to the police until the next morning.

Another accident a week later claimed two lives when a drunk driver crashed his car into a motorbike. He admitted he had drunk six beers and alcohol with friends before the accident. 

Official data shows there were over 4,000 traffic accidents in the country in the first quarter of 2019, leading to 1,905 deaths. Drunk driving was to blame in 274 accidents.

Alarmingly, the number of drivers exceeding alcohol limits is increasing, according to statistics from the traffic police department. 

Last year over 91,000 drivers had received sanctions for drunk driving, but in just four months this year the number is 50,000, a 45 percent increase over the same period last year.

A survey found that 90 percent of people drive after drinking alcohol despite knowing it is illegal, Tran Huu Minh, a representative of the National Traffic Safety Committee, said.

Experts said the lenient penalties for drunk driving are also to blame.

The increasing number of drunk drivers shows that "legal punishments are not strong enough to deter the behavior," Phan Thi Thu Hien, deputy director of the Directorate for Roads of Vietnam, said.

Public outcry

Heartbreaking images and the fatal consequences of some recent drunk driving accidents have caused a wave of public anger on social media.

Thousands of people have been expressing great apprehension about going in traffic every day. A reader wrote on VnExpress: "Going out is now frightening; at any time, in any place we could be hit from behind by a car."

"Drunk driving is no different from holding a knife to kill people," another reader wrote.

Following an accident that killed two people on April 30 many Facebook users began an online campaign against drunk driving. They put up profile pictures with slogans like "Don’t drive when you are drunk" to tell the community about the deadly consequences of the action.

A Facebook user named Hai Phuong uploaded a picture of her with a placard against drunken driving, saying: "Driving after using drugs and alcohol is a crime. People who deliberately drive when inebriated will sooner or later become murderers."

Besides, the Vietnamese drinking culture seems to bother many people. At almost any gathering or meeting, drinking alcohol has become a sine qua non, especially for men, and refusing a drink could even be considered impolite.

The belief that business negotiations tend to be smoother over a few drinks is well entrenched.

Vietnam is the biggest beer market in Southeast Asia, consuming nearly four billion liters in 2017. The country spends on average $3.4 billion a year on alcohol.

Vietnamese consumed 8.9 liters of pure alcohol per person in 2017, surpassing Japan (7.9 liters), China (7.4 liters) and India (5.9 liters). 

A netizen expressed disapproval of the old custom where people sometimes have no choice but to drink. "Stop forcing others to drink and stop letting others force you to drink," she wrote. "Customs are what people create, so we have to stop the harmful ones."  

The anger is spilling over into the real world. Early this month, 8,000 people marched against drunk driving in central Hanoi. 

Some of the organizers were friends of car crash victims and decided to march to demand a change in drinking habits.

"We just lost two friends in an accident caused by a drunk driver," Nguyen Duc Hiep, a participant, said. The sadness at the friends’ death was manifesting into determination to oppose drunk driving, he said.

Many people have begun to call for more stringent punishment for offenders. 

"I strongly recommend that we should permanently confiscate the licenses of people driving while under the influence," a reader wrote into an online newspaper recently.

In response to the public outcry, the Ministry of Transport is planning amendments to laws like increasing the fine and duration of license suspension, Le Van Thanh of the ministry’s department of traffic safety, said.

People are also calling for a change in the public attitude toward drinking. 

"If we don’t want to drink, no one can squeeze your mouth open and pour alcohol into it," Bao Thanh, a participant in the march against drunk driving, wrote.

"So improve your own awareness for the safety of your family and the community." 

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