Songkran, Thailand’s Buddhist New Year festival, ended earlier this week but the holiday’s dark legacy of high road deaths continues to cast a pall. Thai PBS reported that 277 people died in road accidents during the first six days of the holiday, and 2,926 sustained injuries in nearly 2,754 reported accidents. As of Friday, the Bangkok Post reported that 322 people had died altogether in the seven-day period. Despite campaigns to reduce the holiday death toll in recent years, the number of accidents this year increased by 173, according to Thai PBS. The official death toll, however, was about the same: last year, 321 people died during the seven-day holiday period.
Chiang Mai had the highest accident rate with 116. The northern city is the most popular place in the country for Songkran celebrations, with throngs of people gathering in the Old City and around the famous moat for the festival. Speeding and drunk driving are cited as top causes of death during Songkran, and enforcement of regulations often seems lax at best. In Chiang Mai, signs decreeing no alcohol around the moat, where much of the activity is, were hung weeks in advance of the holiday. But when the time came, it wasn’t exactly a challenge to wander the area openly drinking or ordering from bars located around the moat. The Bangkok Post reported that 192 people were arrested for alcohol-related activities during the first several days of Songkran, including selling alcohol in prohibited areas, selling at a discount, and selling to minors.
Road accidents are an ongoing concern in Thailand. The same tactics frustratingly seem to be rolled out year after year, though campaigns telling people not to drink and drive lack teeth when it’s easy to purchase booze and there’s little follow-up. Reckless driving isn’t the only concern either. Last week, this author wrote about deadly crashes involving poorly made and poorly handled double-decker buses, and concerns about the high numbers of people who would be traveling via these vehicles during the holiday. However, most accidents during this year’s festival involved motorbikes and pick-up trucks, according to the Bangkok Post.
That publication also lamented the fact that so many of the Songkran deaths, and tragedies that occur throughout the year, are preventable.
Figures from the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation in the past seven years reveal about 40% of the deaths and injuries were attributable to drink-driving. A further 20% were related to speeding and about 12.5% were put down to unsafe overtaking. That’s nearly three in every four deaths. So many lives could be saved from simply sobering up and slowing down.
While the government clearly needs to employ more effective campaign tactics to encourage better driving practices, it is shocking to see the risks people will take with their own lives. Many, many people can be seen at all times of year driving motorbikes without helmets or any kind of protective gear, which becomes more troubling during Songkran, when this risky behavior is combined with excessive drinking and buckets of water being thrown everywhere, including at riders.
Aside from Songkran, fines are in place as one deterrent to reckless driving – although as many will tell you, there’s a strong chance you’ll be able to buy off a police officer instead of having to show up to the police station and pay a fine. The charges range from relatively small – about 200 baht for failing to produce license or registration – to stiffer fines for more serious offences – 20,000 baht for drunk driving.
Costs increase with the significance of the offense, so driving without reasonable consideration for other drivers is 400 baht, and driving without due care and attention for other road users is 1,000 baht. But again, whether and how these are enforced seems to depend on which officer pulls you over and the kind of mood they’re in.
The tragedy of Thailand’s road death crisis is that so many are preventable. In addition to improved policies and incentives, there is a real need for education and personal responsibility when people get on the road. Wearing a helmet, not driving after drinking, and using caution while on the road are fundamental to reducing road deaths. Ultimately, the people can be given the information but need to conduct themselves better when driving. And there need to be real education campaigns and consequences if there is going to be a significant change.