Give a Vietnamese driver a phone. Tragedies happen

By Dien Luong   December 24, 2016 | 11:00 am PT
Letting distracted driving go unpunished is an invitation for more disasters. 

Apparently oblivious to the panic of the passengers behind him, Nguyen Quoc Tuan kept driving the bus, one hand on the wheel, the other on his phone.

His divided attention lasted for five minutes while the bus was moving at 50 kilometers (31 miles) per hour, not a low speed given Vietnam’s road conditions and traffic density.

A passenger filmed him and posted the video on the internet, prompting the bus owner to fire Tuan a week later. After the video went viral last month, many netizens weighed in, saying such reckless act is far from rare in Vietnam. In fact, not all drivers are as lucky.

In October 2014, Nguyen Trung Hieu killed a family of three when his truck crashed into their motorbike. The father and his three-year-old son were crushed; the mother succumbed to critical injuries en route to hospital. Police in the central province of Nghe An, where the accident happened, later said Hieu had been talking on his cellphone.

Texting and talking on a cellphone while driving is common in Vietnam, where road accidents claim tens of thousands of lives every year. The problem is serious enough to get health experts and officials fretting, compelling the authorities to take action.

In an unprecedented move, starting next year Vietnam will slap fines of VND600,000 ($26) to VND800,000 ($35) on car and truck drivers caught using their phones while driving. So far only motorbike drivers have been subject to such fines.

The rule, which will take effect on January 1, has received strong backing. Le Tu, a senior traffic police official in Hanoi, told local media that the fines would be able to deter drivers from using their cellphones. To many other experts, the non-existence of penalties against the violation has so far rendered this hazard invisible to many.

“Using a cellphone while driving is definitely a major road hazard in Vietnam," Greig Craft, the founder of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF), a U.S. non-profit organization that seeks to reduce traffic crash injuries and fatalities in developing countries through public education campaigns, said in a past interview.

"[But] many people are not yet aware of the extreme danger they are placing themselves and others in when they indulge in this behavior," Craft said.

One of the glaring pitfalls in Vietnam is there has been few, if any, studies on the links between cellphone use and road accidents. Meanwhile, different reports have shown that nearly 40 percent of the population of around 92 million have a smartphone. Eight in 10 Vietnamese are projected to have the device by 2020.

On the other hand, international research on the connections between cellphone use while driving has highlighted the danger involved. Studies suggest that drivers using a mobile phone are approximately four times more likely to be involved in a crash than when they do not, according to the World Health Organization. Text messaging, specifically, creates a crash risk 23 times worse than when driving while not distracted, according to, an official U.S. government website on distracted driving.

Traffic deaths remain high in Vietnam, killing an average of 24 people on a daily basis.

To crack down on traffic violations in Vietnam, the government has repeatedly increased penalties for various offenses. Last May, it revised a decree and increased fines across the board for traffic violations, especially drunk driving, in yet another attempt to reduce road crashes and fatalities.

The updated decree, which took effect last August, set fines at up to VND18 million ($803) for car drivers with blood alcohol content of over 80 mg per 100 milliliters, or breath alcohol content of 0.4 mg per liter. Previously, the range was VND10-15 million.

While experts welcome the upcoming fines on drivers and truckers who refuse to put the phone down, they remain cautious about whether new fines on motorbike drivers for similar violations have been an effective deterrent. Since August, motorbike drivers who use cellphones, audio devices or umbrellas have already been fined up to VND200,000, compared to VND80,000 previously.

Experts lament that in motorbike-dominated Vietnam, the risk of texting or using cellphones while driving has been taken too lightly by many.

"Any action that impairs driving is a serious matter," said Craft of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation. "The new phenomenon of cellphone use and texting while driving is now recognized as being as serious as drinking and driving."

On a busy day in late December, a motorcyclist snaked through a rush of traffic in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, encroaching into the car lane on the one-way Huyen Tran Cong Chua Street. He was busy texting. He only wiggled out of the car lane when the bike got too close to a truck ahead. The texting continued.

Elsewhere, another motorcyclist abruptly stopped her bike in the middle of the Ong Lanh Bridge, which links the city downtown with District 4. Speeding cars and huge trucks were only inches away from her. She was talking on the phone.

In an interview several years ago, Vietnam War veteran journalist Peter Arnett said what most scared him when he came back to Vietnam was the “crazy traffic" in Ho Chi Minh City.

"There is nowhere like it in the world,” Arnett said. “Nowhere in the world."

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Higher speed limit blamed for accelerated traffic accidents in Saigon

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