Hundreds caught in Vietnam's new drunk driving dragnet

By Phan Anh, Ba Do, Nguyen Hai, Anh DuyJanuary 6, 2020 | 07:03 pm PT
Hundreds caught in Vietnam's new drunk driving dragnet
A driver is tested for alcohol level in Hanoi, January 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.
A South Korean man was among the first persons fined as a new law against driving under the influence took effect this year.

Choi Won Ouk was found with an alcohol level of 1.335 mg/l on his breath while driving a car in the northern province of Bac Ninh last Friday.

He was fined VND35 million ($1,500) and had his license revoked for 23 months in accordance with the Law on Preventing Alcohol's Harmful Effects. 

Choi was among hundreds that received similar punishments in the first days of the new year. Reports said many tried to talk their way out of the situation, called for help or provided excuses for drunk driving.

In Hanoi, Vu Quoc Dung, 38, was fined VND4.5 million ($194), had his license revoked for 17 months and his motorbike confiscated for seven days last Friday. His alcohol level was 0.262 mg/l.

"I attended a year-end party with my friends and drank just two glasses of beer, so I thought I would not be violating the law against drunk driving," Dung said.

Another one, Nguyen Duc Hai, 47, was found with an alcohol level of 0.556 mg/l while driving his car. He faces fines of between VND30 million ($1,300) and VND40 million ($1,724), and could have his license revoked for 22-24 months under the new law.

"I knew that driving after drinking would result in heavy punishment, but I had to receive guests due to family business. It's something that I could not refuse. I don't remember how much alcohol I drank," Hai said.

In Saigon, police had already punished more than 200 cases of drunk driving in the first six days of 2020.

Nationwide, from January 1 to 4, police have dealt with 668 drunk drivers and imposed fines of around VND890 million ($38,350), said Nguyen Quang Nhat, an officer with the traffic police department under the Ministry of Public Security.

The new law, which has harsher punishments for drunk drivers, including fines up to VND40 million for car drivers and VND8 million for motorbike riders, has sparked a public debate over their severity.

According to the new law, the mere presence of alcohol in one's system already amounts to a violation, while an alcohol level of 0.4 mg/l of breath or 80mg/100ml of blood would attract the most severe punishments for drunk driving.

"It doesn't really make sense if one could be fined just for drinking one gulp of beer or alcohol," said one reader of VnExpress.

"It’s okay to make the punishments harsher, but it’s not very appropriate to reduce the alcohol level [that constitutes a violation]," said another.

Under the old regulations, any amount of alcohol was a violation for car drivers. Alcohol levels from 0.25 mg/l of breath, or 50 mg/100 ml of blood constituted a violation for motorbike riders.

Businesses suffer

Some restaurants and bars that sell alcoholic drinks have felt the brunt of the new law, with customer numbers falling in recent days.

Nguyen Nguyen, a waiter at a restaurant in Saigon’s District 4, said the number of customers dropped compared to last weekend.

"Ever since the law went into effect, the numbers of customers really have dropped. If this goes on for long, it would be hard to do business," he said.

Another restaurant employee in the same district said: "I have worked as a waiter here for a long time... People come here mainly for some snacks and some beers, not too much drinking.

"It is true that the number of customers have dropped recently. It’s rare to see such a few customers around this time (9 p.m.)."

In response to the new law, some restaurants and bars have introduced measures to keep their customers drinking, including driving their customers home later or providing discounts for those who opt for a ride-hailing service back home.

Hanh, owner of a restaurant in Hanoi’s Mai Hac De Street, said his restaurant is offering to drive customers home if needed.

"We don’t intend to generate profit through this service, it is mainly to keep our customers. Otherwise, the number of customers would drop. We also want to uphold the new law to keep our customers and other people safe on the road," he said.

Tran Vu To Nguyen, another restaurant owner in Saigon’s District 1, said her restaurant would provide a 50 percent discount on a ride-hailing trip for customers after drinking.

"It has been well-received. Many customers have said they want the discount offer to last longer, so they are more comfortable enjoying their meals at the restaurant."

Alcohol, especially beer, is widely consumed in Vietnam. Data collected by the Ministry of Health shows Vietnamese citizens consumed 305 million liters of liquor and 4.1 billion liters of beer in 2017, making it the biggest alcohol consumer in Southeast Asia and third biggest in Asia after Japan and China.

The country spends an average $3.4 billion on alcohol each year, or 3 percent of the government’s budget revenue, according to official data. The figure translates to $300 per person while spending on health averages $113 per person, according to the Ministry of Health.

40 percent of traffic accidents in Vietnam are linked to excessive drinking, according to the WHO, which said it was an alarming rate for a country where road crashes kill a person every hour, on average.

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