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Computer Guru's Accident Highlights Vietnam's Traffic Woes

  • Matt Steinglass

A renowned professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States has been in a coma in a Hanoi hospital since December 5, after being struck by a motorbike. Seymour Papert is a computer education pioneer who was working on a computer model of Hanoi traffic before the accident. The tragedy has brought attention to the high death tolls on Vietnam's roads. In Hanoi, Matt Steinglass has more.

The 78-year-old Papert was in Hanoi for a conference on computers and education.

While crossing a six-lane road between his hotel and the National University of Technology, Papert was struck by a speeding motorbike.

Papert's former student, Northwestern University professor Uri Wilensky, was walking beside him when the accident occurred. The two had been discussing how to construct a computer model of Hanoi's notoriously chaotic traffic.

"What we were trying to do was see if we could come up with some rules that would generate the patterns that we saw in Hanoi," he said. "We were thinking that it would be a fun demo to do at the end of the conference, because everybody was sort of so nervous about the traffic."

Traffic in Hanoi is dominated by swarms of motorbikes, which often ignore lanes and traffic signals. The accident rate throughout Vietnam is high, and rising. In the first nine months of this year, 9,400 Vietnamese died in accidents - up eight percent over last year.

The issue has featured in the local press, particularly since a Vietnamese Engineering professor died after being hit by a motorbike in Hanoi last week.

Vietnam's minister of transportation, Ho Nghia Dung, expresses his regrets about the traffic dangers.

Dung says the accidents pain him, and should send an alarm to all related agencies and to every community.

Dung said the government would establish safety lanes to try to tackle the chaos.

Le Sy Hoang works for Asia Injury, an organization that tries to persuade Vietnamese to follow traffic rules and wear motorcycle helmets. She says the situation is getting worse.

"You see the accident rate is increasing, and it seems that drunk driving and running the red light happens all the time, without the enforcement of the police," she said. "The doctor who is in charge of head injury in Viet Duc Hospital, it seems they should be most aware of the problem, but still, it seems that 90 percent of the [doctors] there do not wear a helmet."

Papert is also the inventor of a programming language called Logo, which is often used to model unpredictable group behaviors, like swarming bees - or Hanoi traffic. Wilensky says Papert was fascinated by Hanoi's traffic in part because it seemed to obey so few laws.

"Hanoi is one of the first places I have ever been, Delhi to some extent but Hanoi even more so, where it really is more organic. It is not controlled so much from the outside. It really is more like a herd of buffalo," he said.

Wilensky, who is staying in Hanoi to help care for Papert, says the minister of education and senior officials from the Transportation Department have visited him in recent days to express their regrets.

Wilensky says he told the officials that if any good could come out of Papert's accident, it would be that they begin to really pay attention to the chaos on the roads, because the traffic is "really crazy and out of control".

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