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Xe om

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I’ve changed my mind about travelling by motorbike. I started taking xe om around Hanoi when I gave up on the taxi thieves. Two wheels - it’s the only way to travel.

Taking a xe om through the streets of a city is a nerve-wrecking and thrilling experience. Mopeds, cars, trucks and cyclists pour through the streets on independent courses. The flow is chaotic. They have to weave past pedestrians, forced on to the roads by the absence of pavements. Traffic lights – many built with money from the French government - are obeyed only at some junctions. Those who want to turn left do not wait for the opposing traffic to end; they just dive in. So the traffic flows through in four directions. To get through, drivers have to judge their own and predict others’ positions to within a couple of inches. On the whole they do, although I’m always conscious that my knees stick out at the sides of the moped more than the average passenger’s.

While the traffic is a marvel to behold, the Vietnamese drivers are not displaying wonderful skill. On the contrary: they are shit drivers. Their skills in positioning vehicles are mitigants born of the complete absence of any useful driving ability.

You see some driving that is so crazy, so apparently suicidal, that you have to laugh. Almost no-one – truck driver, biker, cyclist – looks before pulling into traffic. No-one uses the mirrors. Vehicles approaching any other vehicle from behind therefore have to hoot constantly. On a highway the average bus driver will probably give a prolonged blast once every five seconds during the day. You know when you are within 200 metres of a road in Vietnam because you hear the horns.

It is misleading to say that they drive on the right. The inner lane of a main road is, in practice, reserved for bikes and mopeds going the other way. So you have to cycle in the second lane. In order to overtake, vehicles will use any part of the road, including the part you are on. Speeding, weaving, under-age driving and drink-driving are also normal.

Most of the time they get away with it. But not always: Vietnam has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world. Nearly 13,000 deaths were recorded by the government in 2006. By way of comparison, in Great Britain, the number of people killed in road accidents in the same year was 3,172 (source: DfT). So that’s a lot of dead people who shouldn’t be.

According to the World Bank, Vietnam has an official fatality rate of 8.3 persons per 10,000 registered vehicles, an injury rate of 10.7 persons per 10,000 vehicles and an accident rate of 12 cases per 10,000 registered vehicles. Only China has a worse record. In OECD countries the average is 1 to 2 fatalities per 10,000 registered vehicles. (Source: FIA Foundation press release of 2005.)

This is partly because they have more crashes, and partly because deaths per crash are higher. According to a BMJ article in 2002, the high rates in Vietnam and elsewhere are due to frequent crashes involving multi-passenger vehicles, including buses, trucks, and minibuses.

Road traffic injuries in developing countries mostly affect pedestrians, passengers, and cyclists. According to the BMJ article, in the US over 60% of road crash fatalities occur in drivers, whereas drivers make up less than 10% of the deaths due to road traffic injuries in the least motorised countries. In Vietnam, motorcycles account for 59% of injuries in traffic collisions, bikes 24%, pedestrians 11% and motor vehicles only 4%. (Source: WHO).

According to the WHO, there are several risk factors in the VN figures, such as non-use of helmets by two-wheeler users, speed, poor road conditions, traffic mix, alcohol and poor visibility of road users. Other risk and impact factors might also be suggested: seat belts, corruption and non-enforcement of traffic laws, absence of emergency facilities.

It is getting worse. In 1990 the VN rode bicycles. Then the country started getting rich fast. Within a decade, most people in Hanoi and HCMC were using mopeds that they didn’t know how to ride. Now there are 20 million motorbikes on the streets each day, and the number is rising fast. (Most people in the countryside still use bikes.)

So fatalities are rising. There were 4,907 in 1994; 11,900 in 2003; 13,000 in 2006.

Now Vietnam is on the threshold of an income level at which large numbers of road users switch to cars. Within the next decade income per head will have doubled, and Hanoi may look something like Bangkok does now: choked.

The cars might be safer for their drivers but they are more dangerous for everyone else. In developing countries, cars are a status symbol at least as much as a means of transport (mopeds are much more practical in cities.) SUVs are prevalent, and they are usually driven by idiots. I have been run off the road by several.

In 2000 only 3% of riders wore helmets (source here). Vietnamese motorcycle helmets were hot and heavy, and known as ‘rice cookers’. In this climate you need a helmet that doesn’t cover the face. Fashion concerns also limited usage (really). Head trauma was, therefore, very common. (Head trauma usually means comas, paralysis, vegetables.) According to Greig Kraft in the article just cited, every day in 2000, 25 riders were killed and over 50 others suffered brain damage or other permanent disabilities. Their injuries absorbed more than 75 per cent of urban hospital budgets.

An NGO called the Asia Injury Prevention Foundations, run by Kraft, stepped in to manufacture cheap, ventilated helmets called Protec and to sponsor the provision of free helmets for children, TV adverts and billboards promoting helmets.

Even so, fatalities have continued to rise as more people switch to motorised transport.

The government belatedly passed a law on 15 December 2007, and most riders now wear helmets. The fine is 150,000 dong, about $10 – enough to deter. Serious traffic injuries fell by 50% within weeks. A similar helmet law was tried in 2001, requiring helmets on highways outside cities, but protests killed it. The fine for violation was very low, and it was not enforced.

The next stated priority for the WHO is drink driving. They must also be considering a campaign for cycle helmets, not least since perhaps half of cyclists are children.

One day, perhaps, the government will set and enforce high standards for driving tests. And a couple of decades after that, the Vietnamese will be able to drive.

Posted by Wardsan 09:14 Archived in Vietnam

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