How Do You Cross the Street in Vietnam?

By Paul Atchley

The quick answer is “Slowly and predictably.”

My wife and I had occasion to visit Vietnam this summer.  What began as a trip to see family and do some vacation travel turned, for me, into a bit of a research trip.  As a researcher on traffic-related issues and one who thinks the Federal Highway Administration Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (the fabled "MUTCD") is a pretty good idea, Vietnam was a lesson on another model: predictable chaos.

In Vietnam, traffic obeys loose “guidelines” rather than rules.  Direction of travel, right of way and other things we take for granted are assumptions, at best.  Traffic enforcement is infrequent, and problems can usually be taken care of “on the spot.”  While cars are on the increase, the scooter still rules the road, providing transportation for everything from a family of four traveling three hours by road for the Tet holiday, to bags of goats, coffins, or whatever else needs moving.

Family of four traveling for the Tet holiday.In an environment of controlled chaos where first responders are likely to be a taxi driver and a Samaritan stopping to pick a body up off the roadway for transport to care, I thought traffic statistics for the country would reveal a nightmare of crashes and fatalities.  Indeed, in 2008 Vietnam reported about 11,600 fatalities on their roadways or about 12.8 fatalities per 100,000 people.  Compared to Japan (3.89), the United Kingdom (3.57) or Sweden (2.87), Vietnam is shockingly high.  But what about compared to us, with our fancy MUTCD, excellent roads, airbags/ABS/stability control/crumple zones, and traffic enforcement?  In the U.S. for the same period the number is 11.89 fatalities per 100,000 people (and that is down from a peak of 13.89 in 2005--one thing a bad economy does is reduce crashes).

So why the parity between the U.S. and Vietnam on traffic fatalities?  Given road conditions and the danger of two-wheeled travel, Vietnam is doing fairly well.  There is obviously no one reason, but I can offer a couple of observations.  First, Vietnamese drivers know how at risk they are and they seem to compensate. They drive more slowly, and they make fewer assumptions about what others on the roads will do.  There is a liberal use of horns as a warning tool (“I am here, FYI.”).

More importantly, I observed a level of seriousness among drivers that seems absent on our roads.  I did see some distracted driving like this fellow on the motorcycle, but it was very infrequent.  Drivers in Vietnam appear to place emphasis on driving while driving, even when laden by a stack of goldfish, bird cages, or a mass of bolts of cloth.  Where even the slightest lapse can mean a loss of lives or livelihood, drivers attend to what is most important.

Perhaps we suffer on our roadways from not enough perceived risk.  For example, in the “shared space” model of roadway design, traffic safety professionals in Europe are removing signage and seeing increases in safety.  Perhaps the lesson is that safety starts with responsibility, and responsibility can come from a realization that what we are doing carries real risk (also called the "risk compensation effect").  The Vietnamese experience it without choice.  Drivers on our roads will have to be motivated in other ways.
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