By Fergal Barry-Murphy
The stats, when you think about them, are frightening. In 2011 almost 10,000 people died on Thailand’s roads. In Britain, which has a comparable population, that figure came in below 2,000.
Thailand’s appalling road safety made the headlines again this week when 19 people were killed and at least 20 were injured when a double-decker passenger bus caught fire after a vehicle collision on one of the country’s busiest highways.
On an average day almost 30 people die on Thailand’s roads. This figure spikes alarmingly during holiday seasons. Bangkok-based journalist Patrick Winn writes:
Figures compiled last year for my piece on the Songkran [Thailand’s water festival in mid-April] death-by-drunk driving phenomenon (Thailand’s Week of Joy and Death) indicate that from 2000 to 2010, about 5,050 people died and 187,300 were injured during the holiday. It’s a staggering figure.
The Christmas-New Year period is also a major culprit. Thai English-language daily The Nation reported that there were 335 deaths and 3,375 injuries in 3,093 road accidents over the 2011-12 New Year Festival. This, apparently, was an improvement on the previous year.
The reasons behind this ongoing tragedy are manifold and have been chewed over countless times on local, national and international media. One telling figure is that, according to the WHO, 74% of Thailand’s road deaths involved motorcycles. Considering only an estimated 7% of Thai motorcyclists wear helmets, this is not a surprising figure.
There are other contributing factors at play too. Drink driving is rife and the enforcement of road safety laws is extremely lax. That said, there have been concerted publicity campaigns to discourage drink driving and motorcycle helmet spot checks appear to be on the rise. Road deaths, though still unacceptably high, have fallen significantly since 2000-10 when there were around 12,000 road deaths every year.
One worrying fact that remains, however, is how easy it is to get a driving permit in Thailand. New drivers have to complete a theory test and pass a rudimentary test of driving skills – such as reversing and driving between cones – in an enclosed car park. Drivers can easily get a full permit and legally drive without any real-world driving experience.
With 22 million tourists visiting the country last year alone and a sizeable expat population, foreigners inevitably get caught up in the carnage. Again, alcohol, inexperience and poor judgment often play their part, but many victims are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In February of this year, a British couple’s round-the-world cycling odyssey ended in tragedy when both of them were killed in a road accident in Thailand. Peter Root and Mary Thompson from Guernsey in the Channel Islands, left Britain in July 2011 and had cycled through Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and China. Their once-in-a-lifetime road trip came to a sudden and tragic end when they were hit by a pick-up east of Bangkok.
The sad truth is that Thailand’s roads are among the most dangerous in the world, and Western governments have been quick to point this out to would-be travellers to the ‘Land of Smiles’.
The British Foreign & Commonwealth office warns:
With motorcycles so widely used in Thailand the majority of road traffic accidents involve motorcycles, contributing to around 70% of all road deaths. If you’re riding a motorcycle in Thailand take extra care. According to Thai law, safety helmets must be worn.
Serious accidents involving other vehicles including cars, coaches and mini-buses also occur. Many accidents are due to poor vehicle and driver safety standards.
The U.S. Department of State’s advisory is similarly damning:
Speeding, reckless passing, and failure to obey traffic laws are common in all regions of Thailand.
Commercial drivers commonly consume alcohol and amphetamines. Bus crashes occur frequently, especially on overnight trips, and sometimes result in fatalities.
Still, there is hope that the negative press and international attention has sparked a genuine effort to tackle the problem. Thailand is now into the second year of a WHO-backed ‘Decade of Action’ on road safety. If the figures are to be believed it’s having an effect. Let’s hope it’s a lasting one.