It's a gruesome set of options that Dr. Nguyen Duy Tuyen has to explain three or four times a night. By midnight his E. R. fills up with scores of patients suffering from broken wrists, mangled legs and head injuries incurred in motorcycle accidents. "Every year gets worse than the last," Tuyen says. Vietnam's highways now claim 1,000 lives a month, double the rate of just five years ago. It's part of the price of modernization as a newly-moneyed citizenry moves up to motorized transportation. But there's a strange twist to this familiar developing country saga. The government has started to treat motorcycles like dangerous drugs. It wants to curtail the blacktop carnage by cutting off the supply?imposing stiff import quotas on motorcycle manufacturers operating in the communist country.
Caught in the government policy switchback are three of the biggest names in the business: Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki. The quotas, announced in September, will cost the Japanese manufacturers an estimated $267 million in lost revenue this year. Honda and Yamaha each has had to shut down its Vietnam factory until the end of the year, and Suzuki says it will also run out of parts any day. Japanese executives are fuming, hinting the abrupt policy shift could hurt Vietnam's bid to join the World Trade Organization. After a delegation from the big three bikemakers were snubbed earlier this month by Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan?the Japanese were told Khoan was too busy to meet and talk about the issue?Honda director Tatsuhiro Oyama organized a press conference in Tokyo to declare his exasperation, calling the trade dispute "highly regrettable." He added, with polite Japanese understatement, "We are deeply concerned."
Many nations go through a motorbike phase, but "It's happened much faster (in Vietnam) than in almost any other country," says Charles Melhuish, a Manila-based transportation specialist with the Asian Development Bank. Bikes now account for 94% of all vehicles in Vietnam, the highest percentage in the region.
The new mobility comes with a dark side. Only about half of the riders are licensed. The country's underdeveloped road network is jammed with children and teens riding at breakneck speed in heavy traffic. Adults use motorbikes as beasts of burden, dangerously overloading them with goods bound for local markets. Entire families go for rides, dad doing the driving, mom on the pillion seat holding a baby, while a young daughter perches on the handlebars. A recent survey found only 3% of riders wear helmets. "I've never worn a 'rice cooker'?it's too much hassle," says Nguyen The Hung, 40, doing his weekend shopping with his wife and 12-year-old son on his Honda Future. "Anyway I'm a good enough driver to keep us safe." The only piece of safety equipment that sees regular use is the horn.
Little wonder, then, that traffic fatalities are expected to top 12,000 this year. The cost of healthcare and other accident-related damage is mounting, and now amounts to about 2% of the country's annual GDP, says Greig Craft, president of the Hanoi-based Asian Injury Prevention Foundation. "The hospitals are gridlocked with accident victims," he says. "The doctors can't treat anyone else. It's a huge crisis."
Alarmed by the rising death toll, Hanoi's bureau- crats are using trade rules as an air bag. The country is not directly restricting motorcycle production. It is doing so indirectly, by limiting the flow of parts that go into bikes. In September, the government announced it was slashing the number of "assembly kits" manufacturers are allowed to import this year from 2.5 million down to 1.5 million?effectively cutting the motorcycle output of Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki by some 40% at a time when they are already feeling pressure from cheaper Chinese-made bikes.
The dispute is costing Vietnam goodwill with Japan, the country's biggest aid donor and trade partner. Officials in Hanoi last week pleaded with the corporations to be sympathetic. "This is an issue of human life," government spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh said. But to the Japanese, the quotas don't look like a rational attempt to cut down on roadkill?maybe a helmet law would be a more logical first step?they look like old-fashioned protectionism.
The Japanese have always been required to use some Vietnamese-made parts during assembly, under deals made with the government allowing them to set up factories in Vietnam. But there's been a running spat over whether Japan is living up to those contracts. Hanoi in July accused Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki of falsifying records to make it look like they are buying more local parts than they actually were. "These companies use the fact that they are big investors to strong-arm our government," complains Nguyen Van Khoa, president of the Vietnam Association of Motorcycles.
Japan's bikemakers deny falsifying records and say they are living up to their accords?and if Vietnam doesn't relax the new restrictions, there may be an ugly backlash. The country's bilateral trade agreement with Japan?a prerequisite to WTO ascension?has already been delayed. At least one Japanese parts manufacturer looking to set up shop in Vietnam has put investment plans on hold, according to Oyama, the Honda director. "This is not just a motorcycle issue," warns a senior Japanese official. "People everywhere are watching closely to see whether Vietnam is really committed to opening up to investment." Even a safety advocate like Craft is mystified as to what Hanoi hopes to achieve, "They're playing with an 8,000-pound gorilla here, and it's giving Vietnam's reputation such a black eye. Why piss off Japan?"
Hanoi is considering alternative measures, such as a moratorium on the licensing of new motorcycles. The country is also working on a national traffic safety strategy?less likely to enrage trading partners?which might be ready for implementation in 2005. One thing Hanoi will not be able to do, however, is keep their citizens off the road. "The market economy requires mobility," says Melhuish of the Asian Development Bank, "and people everywhere like having their own vehicles." The trick is finding a way to keep riders out of the emergency room.