Fining drunk driving not enough to fix Vietnam traffic woes

February 26, 2024 | 03:18 pm PT
Phan Tat Duc Expert on management
Before leaving for Australia I had held a Vietnamese driver's license for about 10 years.

But my driving skills and experience were non-existent since I could not afford a car and barely drove.

So when I first started driving in Australia I was a bit worried, but it turned out to be very simple.

I have since driven tens of thousands of kilometers in all kinds of places: crowded cities, mountainous terrain, deserts, between states, and along the coast through Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. There were trips where I drove thousands of kilometers, and 500-700 km a day became routine.

Despite such high-intensity driving, I always felt relaxed and safe.

Later, when I returned to Vietnam, though my skills had significantly improved, driving 500 km in a day would tire me out because I had to constantly be alert and maintain a high level of concentration.

There are many evident reasons for this difference: Australia's traffic infrastructure is better than Vietnam's and there is less traffic on the roads and fewer motorcycles. But in my opinion, an important reason is traffic etiquette.

In Australia, driving is easy and less physically demanding because everyone behaves consistently on the road. You don't need to be constantly on guard for unexpected, unpredictable situations; you just need to follow the rules, and all other drivers would do the same.

In Vietnam, you can never be sure what will happen next: a car that should give way might suddenly cut in front of you; another car, instead of maintaining the minimum speed, might slow down to a crawl, blocking other vehicles; while you're going in one direction you might suddenly encounter a vehicle coming from the opposite direction.

Even if you know and follow the laws, your life could still be in someone else's hands.

Often while driving on highways in Vietnam I've thought that if all drivers adhered to this one small practice, accidents would decline and traffic speeds would increase: vehicles driving slowly (at or just above the minimum speed) should stay in the right lane and the middle lane should be for vehicles going fast and the left lane for overtaking.

This way there will always be a lane available for vehicles wanting to cut in front of another. If all vehicles stick to their lanes, they can drive at high speeds while remaining safe. This is just one minor practice without even considering other traffic safety rules.

Besides the lack of compliance with the laws and incorrect interpretation of traffic rules on highways, infrastructure is also a cause for accidents in Vietnam.

Australia also has many two-lane roads without a hard median barrier, but the design and sign systems there are more detailed and convenient than in Vietnam, reducing the likelihood of drivers being pushed into unexpected, dangerous situations.

I once broke into a cold sweat while driving in Thanh Hoa on National Highway 1 while heading for Hanoi.

I was in a curve with limited visibility when suddenly a crossing section loomed ahead. Unable to see from a distance I had to brake suddenly when I saw a car crossing right in front of me.

In many countries around the world, practical experience on roads is highly valued and carefully implemented to optimize design and directions.

This is done in such detail that each curve has a sign indicating the speed you should drive at, helping even those unfamiliar with a road to anticipate its complexity.

In Vietnam, due to various reasons ranging from limited resources for comprehensive implementation to instant demand for usage, many highways are opened even before signs and support systems are completed.

Limited funds make everything difficult. I generally agree with authorities' decision to build traffic infrastructure in phases, balancing costs and benefits, but in times of scarcity it is even more crucial not to be negligent.

At the very least, experts and evaluators must ensure that a road meets basic conditions and the minimum requirements to support drivers in traffic are in place.

Statistics from the traffic police department show that during Tet this year, though the number of road accidents involving alcohol decreased from last year, the total number of accidents increased.

Cracking down on drunk driving has indeed helped reduce accidents and fatalities.

But that alone is not enough.

When people continue to drive recklessly, and those who obey the laws still have to leave their lives in the hands of others, reviewing and improving infrastructure and imposing heavy fines to raise public awareness are imperative.

*Phan Tat Duc has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Adelaide, Australia.

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