Thai rescuers search for passengers of a bus that fell about 30 meters (98 feet) into the ravine on a curvy rural road in Lampang province, Thailand in October last year. Pic: AP.

A recent study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute confirmed what many already know about Thailand: that being on the road there can be a treacherous business. Thailand ranked number two in the university’s study of road fatalities in the world, with 44 road deaths per 100,000 people. It was second only to Namibia, which had 45 road deaths per 100,000. Fatalities from road accidents made up 5.1 percent of Thailand’s overall deaths.

The report compared road mortality rates with three other causes of death: malignant neoplasm, ischaemic heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease. Rates of road death were lower than the other causes in Thailand, but the mortality rates from road accidents were still alarmingly high.

The road fatality rate in Thailand is more than double the global average of 18. African countries dominated the 10 worst countries for road deaths, along with Iran, Iraq and Dominican Republic. In Asia, Mongolia was the next most dangerous country, followed by Malaysia, China and India. According to the study, the Maldives, Tajikistan and Malta are the safest places to drive in the world.

Pic: University of Michigan.

Thailand has made headlines on several occasions in recent years due to its appalling road safety record. The government announced in 2011 that it sought to cut road deaths by half by 2020, a commitment that is part of its decade-long campaign to improve traffic safety. In December 2013, the government said it would introduce measures to raise awareness of road safety and work across departments toward lowering fatalities, according to TTR Weekly.

In 2012, The Guardian reported that motorbike accidents were a top cause of death, with 11,000 drivers or passengers dying each year. The World Health Organization reported that 74 percent on road deaths in Thailand involved motorbikes. The Guardian quoted Thai officials involved in promoting helmet use, particularly among children. They argued that encouraging people to wear helmets, particularly getting children to wear helmets, would save thousands of lives each year.

The high accident rate is often attributed to reckless driving, including driving while intoxicated, and lack of safety precautions such as wearing a helmet. The WHO report indicated that 26 percent of road deaths in Thailand involve alcohol. Anyone who has been on a bus trip in Thailand has likely experienced the high speeds and frenetic driving that make these roads so dangerous.

Pic: University of Michigan

Expats and tourists often complain about the fast and frenetic driving experienced on bus rides and minivan trips. It’s not uncommon for drivers to take mountain bends at high speeds or to ride the middle line for an extremely uncomfortable distance in order to overtake other drivers. Some speculate that many drivers are overworked and not given enough breaks between runs. Others say they are on amphetamines, which explains the fast and reckless driving.

While the data used for the study – which came from World Health Organization 2008 figures – is a little dated, news reports show that road safety in Thailand remains a serious issue. Road accidents have continued to make headlines despite this being the third year of the country’s ambitious campaign to reduce road deaths to less than 10 people per 100,000. Twenty-nine people died when a bus headed from Bangkok to Chiang Rai plunged over the side of a ravine in late December. The New Straits Times quoted a police official as saying that law enforcement assumed the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, and that an eyewitness reported the bus was going very fast before it crashed over a divider and went into the ravine. There were several other disturbing incidents throughout the year, including an October crash in which one woman was killed and 32 other people were injured, an August accident in which a bus overturned and more than 20 people were injured, and an April accident in which five people died and 50 were injured in Phitsanoluk. Last summer, 22 people died in an early morning bus crash on the way to Bangkok. That crash took place only one day after another Bangkok-bound bus crashed and 19 people were injured, according to CNN.

According to the World Health Organization, formal audits are not required for new road construction, and there are no regular inspections of road infrastructure. As of the release of the 2013 report, the national road safety strategy aimed at reducing road deaths to less than 10 out of 100,000 was partially funded.