From the online version of "Asia Times"
February 3, 2000 atimes.com
AIDS and the art of motorcycle survival
By Tom Greenwood
HANOI - ''AIDS on the road'' was the sensationalist response of the
Vietnamese press to last year's death toll statistics from the Ministry of
In fact, the number of lives lost to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in 1999
accounted for a mere fifteenth of the 6,958 people who died on Vietnam's
Traffic accidents - where an average of 25 people die each day - have been
recognized as the country's largest single preventable cause of death and
injury. While last year saw no dramatic increase in the number of road
accidents, fatalities jumped an 16 percent over 1998 and injuries more than
10 percent. ''Unfortunately, the true figures are higher than those
reported and published,'' Le Ngoc Hoan, minister of transport and chairman
of the National Transport Safety Committee, was quoted as saying recently.
He added that, aside from the cost to human lives, hundreds of millions of
dollars were lost in labor, medical care and material damage.
A sharp rise in the number of motorized vehicles, notably motorbikes,
coupled with a widespread ignorance of road safety, is generally seen as
responsible for exceedingly high road deaths.
The government's policy of ''doi moi'' (economic openness) has led to
dramatic growth in prosperity over the last 10 years particularly for city
dwellers, whose average income per capita increased 3.7 times between 1993
and 1998, according to the General Department of Statistics. Much of the
nation's newly-acquired income has been spent on motorbikes, a symbol of
prosperity in a country that used to rely on bicycles. Ten years ago,
Chinese-made bicycles were the dominant mode of transport and the heavy,
smoke-churning Russian motorbike was considered a status symbol. But this
has changed. Ministry of Transport estimates last year put the total number
of motorbikes at around 4 million - one for every 16 urbanites or every 50
people nationwide. According to the Transport and Public Works Service in
Ho Chi Minh City, the city had a total of almost 1.5 million motor vehicles
last year - a 930 percent increase since 1975.
Unfortunately, the growth in motorbikes has not coincided with an increase
in road safety awareness. Traffic lights - only installed in the capital in
the last couple of years - are routinely ignored and stop signs are
non-existent. Cars and motorbikes veer wildly into oncoming traffic lanes
In September last year, a Traffic Safety Month promoting road safety was
credited for a slight drop in the number of accidents over the period. But
road-users, many of whom were unaware of the campaign, remained largely
unconvinced. ''I neither hear about nor care about the traffic safety
movements that the police launch,'' remarked one middle-aged motorcyclist.
''They say they are doing something to increase traffic safety but to me
everything seems unchanged - there is no difference.''
Although the cities' traffic may be characterized by mayhem and frequent
mishaps, the majority of serious accidents occur on the nation's highways.
Highway 1, Vietnam's main north-south artery and Highway 5 between the
northern cities of Hanoi and Hai Phong, were singled out as having 50-70
percent more accidents than other roads. Recently completed repairs have
given the roads smooth surfaces for the first time, allowing drivers to
reach perilously high speeds. Seatbelts in cars and lorries are not yet
The almost complete absence of motorbike helmets, particularly on city
streets, inevitably contributes to the number of injuries and deaths.
Almost all of the fatalities in motorbike accidents were a result of head
injuries. Although the government introduced a decree requiring
motorcyclists to wear helmets five years ago, it did not include punishment
for those violating the ruling and was thus ignored. ''Whether or not to
wear a helmet while riding a motorbike remains a controversial issue,''
Pham Cong Ha, deputy chief of the National Traffic Safety Committee, told
IPS. ''Only those who have experienced accidents wear one because they know
the price to pay for comfort and convenience.''
A survey carried out by the research group Taylor Nelson Sofres last year
found that only 5 percent of motorbike riders owned helmets - and only half
of those wore them. The biggest reason why road users eschewed the helmet
was discomfort, closely followed by a fear of ''looking stupid''. Only 8
percent of respondents mentioned expense.
Lap, a 24-year-old motorbike cleaner, sums up the views of many. ''Ordinary
people will never wear helmets because they find them inconvenient. I also
feel that wearing a helmet will make me look ugly. If someone in the city
puts on one of those robot-like things, they will be considered
unfashionable,'' he said. ''People prefer risking death rather than wearing
one, particularly in the summer when they would go mad from the heat.''
Hao, a motorbike-taxi rider, says it will take serious police work to
enforce the habit of using helmets.''Only when the police wait at main
intersections to check who wears a helmet and who doesn't, will people
think of wearing one,'' he pointed out.
That does not look like it will happen in the near future.
''We're still wondering whether we should reinforce the rule and punish
those who don't wear a helmet,'' pondered Hao. Meantime, he suggested,
''designers should find ways to produce a helmet which is light, small and
The need for more urgent traffic safety measures was also expressed at a
roundtable discussion titled ''Save Vietnam'' which brought Unicef, the US
Embassy and government agencies together in October.
Morten Giersing, a Unicef representative at the meeting, says the epidemic
of road deaths and injuries could threaten Vietnam's potential for future
social and economic development: for each of the 25 people killed on the
road each day in Vietnam, two were permanently disabled and 10 were
temporarily disabled to the point where they could not work.
An official from the Viet Duc hospital in Hanoi who chose not to be named,
told IPS that traffic accident victims place a giant burden on the health
sector. ''The [Viet Duc] hospital has to spend a huge budget mostly on
surgery for traffic accidents, mainly head injuries and broken legs.
Surgery for victims of traffic accidents account for 90 percent of the
hospital's budget for surgery,'' he said.
If the number of accidents was reduced, the money could be spent on
treating other patients, particularly those who come a long way from the
countryside and are forced to wait. ''People with stomach and heart disease
often have a long wait . . . many do not receive treatment in time,'' the
(Inter Press Service)