Drunk driving thrives in Vietnam because few pay the price

By Jan Rybnik   May 28, 2019 | 10:34 am GMT+7

Typically, law enforcement and self-discipline would ensure people do not drive under the influence. Vietnam’s not typical.

Jan Rybnik

Jan Rybnik

As they say, life is all about making choices. On any issue, people can choose to act or not. Either way, the choices have consequences. There is also another principle at work in making choices - in order to gain something one has to give/lose something. This can be money, time, effort or something else. In an ideal, rational world, people would make choices that bring them closest to their goals with the least cost involved.

The role of the law in guiding choices is more of the stick than the carrot, because that is its nature. The law is not there to reward good behavior but to punish bad behavior that can harm others. It’s meant to act as a deterrent. Once a law is in place, the choice is to follow or disobey it. In an ideal world, the laws are fair and people would make the choice to abide by it an easy, natural one.

But, as we know, our world is not an ideal one.

It is not difficult to see how drunk driving is an epidemic here and the source of much public sorrow. This wouldn’t happen if people made good choices, recognizing the price they and society have to pay for drunk driving.

Since that is not happening, the law has to step in.

This is where the law comes in. Punishing drunk drivers for endangering their own lives and that of others is a well-accepted course of action in society. However, it will not help matters if the law remains in the books and is not properly enforced.

A car is damaged after it hit and killed a street cleaner in Hanoi on the night of April 22, 2019. The driver said he had at least six glasses of beer pior to the accident. Photo by VnExpress/Phuong Son

A car is damaged after it hit and killed a street cleaner in Hanoi on the night of April 22, 2019. The driver said he had at least six glasses of beer pior to the accident. Photo by VnExpress/Phuong Son

I have a Vietnamese friend who I met in Canada when he was working part-time at a pharmacy near my place. He was your standard gregarious, funny, happy-go-lucky college guy. After finishing his studies, he returned to Vietnam and became the head of a certain company’s business division. After I came to Vietnam, we became much closer. We often hung out and drank beers and talked shop, normal stuff that friends do.

But one time I asked why he insisted on driving home himself, knowing that he had drunk quite a large amount of alcohol.

"Don’t you know that’s illegal? If you were still in Canada, you would have been in big trouble."

"It’s like that in Canada. But not here," he said, patting my back and laughing.

Friendly reminder: this guy once rammed his car into a road barrier and is lucky to be alive. Still, he confidently placed his hands on the wheel and drove away like nothing happened.

Here in Vietnam, people don’t get punished for drunk driving. The first thing that comes to mind when one is pulled over by a traffic cop is not guilt or repentance, but figuring out a way to get out of the situation. Some cry, scream and curse. Some use money to buy their way out of trouble, while others rely on personal connections. Extreme cases involve the police being beaten themselves.

For many in Vietnam, the price for drunk driving is easily settled, making it harder for old habits to die hard.

What are the long-term implications of this attitude? It erodes people’s trust in justice and legal systems. Like a disease in a tree, the rotting festers and eats the trust, without anyone noticing. Left untreated long enough, the entire forest will be destroyed.

Laws and legal systems are some of humanity’s most important inventions. They are the lifeblood of any functional society and prosperous civilization. There will be hell to pay if we let it run dry.

*Jan Rybnik holds a Masters degree in Modern Diplomacy from the University of Warsaw, Poland. He studied Vietnamese culture at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

 
 
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