Traffic Jams: A Painful Sign of Progress


HANOI, Vietnam -- As homeward-bound workers on bicycles and motorbikes wend their way through a busy Hanoi intersection, a photographer clambers to the roof of a police command car and takes aim at the traffic.

He is documenting the chaos for An Ninh Thu Do -- Capital Security, the weekly newspaper published by the local police department and available to all on the city's many newsstands.

Billboards offer the admonition that "Traffic safety is happiness for all."

As economic reforms put more money in people's pockets -- and as Hanoi's population continues to grow -- the Vietnamese capital is beginning to suffer the first pangs of traffic congestion.

The bicycles that make up most of Hanoi's traffic are joined by a growing number of motorcycles and cars.

The chaos is made worse by the complete absence of stop signs. With the exception of a handful of street corners where traffic signals are turned on during rush hour, nothing gives one stream of traffic priority over another.

Traffic police stationed on pedestals in the middle of a few major intersections during the busiest morning and evening hours offer only a hint of relief. Right of way belongs to the vehicle large enough or the driver canny enough to claim it.

"There is a great gulf between law and order," comments the national police weekly Cong An Nhan Dan -- People's Police. "The state decides the law, but people on the street have their own order. As soon as the shadow of the policeman vanishes, one-way streets become two-way" and other traffic hazards multiply at alarming rates.

In the first nine months of 1988, the paper reports, Hanoi had 435 traffic accidents which killed 151 people and injured 36 others. The nationwide traffic toll for the same period was 3,146 accidents with 1,650 killed and 3,405 injured.

The toll, which works out to nearly 35 deaths a year for each million people in Vietnam, seems low compared to the annual figure of almost 200 deaths per million people in the United States. But for Vietnamese, the numbers are sobering.

The city is fighting to restore order to the streets with traffic safety classes, exhortations to children not to play soccer in the streets and stiff on-the-spot fines for traffic violations. Results are uncertain at best.

Near the Dong Xuan market in northeast Hanoi, two policemen on foot patrol shoo a cluster of bread sellers off the street onto the narrow, crowded sidewalk.

Hardly a minute later, after checking to be sure the officers are out of sight, the vendors reclaim their positions on the pavement.

Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 11, 1989

Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.

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