Sun, Dec 17, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Accident deaths highlight Vietnam's traffic crisis


It was a terrible coincidence that has focused attention on one of Vietnam's worst problems: In the past week, motorbikes hit and killed two beloved professors on the streets of Hanoi.

One, the president of Hanoi National University, died a day after he was struck during an afternoon stroll near his home.

The other, a professor emeritus from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, is in a coma after being run down on a busy street in front of his Hanoi hotel.

A chartered plane yesterday flew technology and education expert Seymour Papert, 78, back to Boston, along with family members, a nurse and a neurologist.

Papert, in Hanoi for an international mathematics conference, had been talking to a friend about ways to solve Hanoi's traffic problems when a speeding motorbike hit him on Dec. 7.

On Thursday, thousands attended the funeral of university president and mechanical engineering professor Nguyen Van Dao, 70.

"We must find a way to solve the traffic problems here," said Nguyen Thi Viet Thanh, a colleague of Dao's. "This is such a big loss."

Government statistics show traffic accidents, the leading cause of death in Vietnam, claim about 12,000 lives every year in the country of 84 million.

Some international organizations estimate the actual number is twice as high.

Ninety percent of accidents involve motorbikes, the primary means of transport in the developing country, where few can afford cars.

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City roads teem with speeding motorbikes. Traffic law enforcement is lax. Drivers routinely run red lights and go the wrong way on one-way streets.

Honking horns and chatting on mobile phones, they weave across lane markers.

Crossing the street is hazardous for pedestrians, especially tourists unfamiliar with local driving habits.

"The number of deaths is shocking, but the number of injuries is three times as high," said Nguyen Phuong Nam of the WHO's Vietnam office. "There are many serious head injuries."

Very few motorcyclists use helmets and many drivers lack experience, said Greig Craft, president of the Asia Injury Prevention Fund, a nonprofit group that makes low-cost helmets and promotes safe driving.

"I would call the traffic situation here an absolute crisis," Craft said. "In the West, if you run a red light, it is culturally unacceptable. But here, the young Vietnamese think it's cool."

Craft's group has been working for years to persuade Vietnam to make helmets mandatory, which he says would immediately cut traffic deaths by more than 30 percent.

Most Vietnamese believe strongly in fate, and that death will come when it is meant to. This contributes to a fatalistic attitude about traffic safety.

But the two professors' recent deaths have prompted many Vietnamese to call for a safety campaign. Newspapers have been filled with stories about the accidents. People flooded Internet chatrooms to vent frustrations.

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