80 lives lost every day: Why are Thailand’s roads so dangerous?
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80 lives lost every day: Why are Thailand’s roads so dangerous?

ANOTHER week in Thailand, and with it another spell of fatal traffic accidents: Three Chinese tourists died after a bus plunged down a hill in Phuket on March 25, and seven migrant workers from Burma (Myanmar) were killed the day before when the truck carrying them was hit by a train in Chiang Mai. These were the headline-making accidents, on average around 80 people died each day on Thailand’s roads last year. Road tragedies are something we expect to hear about in Thailand on a regular basis, shocking stories made slightly less shocking due to their certain frequency.

Thailand is ranked second in the world in terms of traffic fatalities, with 44 deaths per 100,000 people (5.1 percent of Thailand’s overall deaths), according to statistics from the World Health Organization and The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in the United States.

Perhaps an indicator of just how dangerous Thailand’s roads are is the fact three visitors to the country, who were all attempting to cycle around the world, and were on the final leg of their journeys, were killed after being hit by vehicles in Thailand. Chilean national Juan Francisco Guillermo was killed when he was hit by a truck in north-east Thailand in February this year, and British couple Peter Root and Mary Thompson, were killed when they were hit by a truck in Chachoengsao Province, east of Bangkok, almost exactly one year before. The three cyclists had covered most of the globe before their endeavors were cut short on Thailand’s brutal roads. In the latter case the driver, Worapong Sangkhawat, told police he had been bending down looking for a hat when he hit the pair. He was given a suspended two-year prison sentence and fined around $30.


British cyclists Peter Root and Mary Thompson were killed by a pick-up truck east of Bangkok. Pic: AP.

In most parts of the world traffic deaths and injuries are increasing, according to the Bloomberg Global Road Safety Program, and Thailand is no exception. In 2009 WHO reports state that death per 100,000 people was 19.6, and then in 2010, a year before the United Nations with the Thai government introduced its ‘Decade of Action Plan’ promoting and initiating road safety, that number shot up to 38.1. It’s now 44. It’s likely that traffic fatalities didn’t double within the space of a year; the sudden spike may relate to when, and how, the statistics were compiled. It should also be noted that statistics taken inside Thailand only includes victims who died at the scene, while WHO statistics include persons that died within 30 days of the accident.

There are significantly more vehicles in Thailand now than there were in the last decade, which could be a small factor relating to the sudden increase in road deaths. But that doesn’t answer why Thailand is particularly dangerous to drive in, and why, in spite of various police crackdowns and government road safety campaigns, is lack of road safety in Thailand so recalcitrant?

Why aren’t the crackdowns working?

In all the above cases alcohol was not reported to be involved, although it often is. It’s said drunk-driving is to blame for around 26% of road deaths in Thailand, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In an interview with Chiang Mai CityNews, rescue services told the reporter that alcohol was involved in as much as 80% of road accidents.

Thailand has never enforced its drink driving laws to any notable effect. While for the last few years police have somewhat cracked down on driving under the influence, setting up road blocks around many of the big cities, drinking and driving is still normalized behavior. In large cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai party-goers can be seen on any given night drinking, and later driving away from whatever establishment they have been in. In smaller towns too persons under the influence can be seen leaving bars and driving away on any given night.

It’s also taken widely accepted in Thailand that the law applies more to some than it does to others. A stand-out case in this respect is Vorayuth Yoovidhaya, the Red Bull heir, who was charged with drink driving in 2013 when his Ferrari mowed down and killed a policeman in Bangkok. He was never jailed for the offense and its unknown how the trial has progressed. While this is an unusual case, it is widely accepted in Thailand that people with enough wealth to have connections, will be granted some kind of leniency if they are ever pulled over by the police. Harsher drink-driving laws, implemented fairly, would certainly help reduce the number of road accidents in Thailand.


Vorayuth Yoovidhya. Pic: AP.

Campaigns have been set up to lessen the amount of drink-driving, and posters showing the results of horrific crashes with the ‘don’t drink and drive’ slogan can be seen throughout the country’s streets, but at the moment they don’t seem to be having the same kind of effect that similar, but more shocking campaigns had in western countries in the ’80s. Thailand is a long way from demonizing drink-driving. Also, of considerable note, pertaining mostly to the provinces outside of Bangkok, is that Thailand’s public transport system in the wee hours is virtually non-existent.

Ostensibly in an effort to cut down on the amount of road carnage in Thailand the police have for many years been an almost omnipresent feature in the lives of Thais in the form of daytime roadblocks, previously only pulling motorcyclists over, and fining them (sometimes an on-the-spot-backhander), for not wearing a crash helmet (only 43% of motorcyclists regularly wear helmets), but lately police have also been checking to see if riders have licenses, or even fining them for illegal modifications on their bikes.

There is some controversy surrounding these roadblocks, relating to the on-the-spot fine, but also to their effectiveness in tackling the damage done by road accidents. One point is that any kind of helmet can be worn, and often they are nothing more than a hard hat that you might see on a construction site. Unfortunately a crash helmet that met with standards in most Western countries would be unaffordable to most Thais even if more stringent standards applied to Thailand. Thailand, in the footsteps of Vietnam, could take advantage of the Asia Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation, in developing low-cost helmets.

It’s widely reported that head trauma of motorcycle riders is the main cause of death, while the WHO repots 74% of fatalities on the road are motorcycle riders. But a question not often raised is how effective are most of the helmets used in Thailand, and also how many perhaps unavoidable deaths involve a motorcyclist being hit at high speeds by a reckless car driver? If police initiatives have focused mainly on fining Thailand’s motorcyclists for not wearing a virtually useless helmet, or not having a virtually useless license, might this be one of the reasons why these crackdowns have not made any significant progress concerning the number of fatalities? Safety initiatives are perhaps not tackling the most relevant problem.

Even if a Thai national does have a license for driving, or motorcycle riding, the test is notoriously easy. Although in 2014 more questions were added to the test to try and improve safety standards, the practical part of the test involves nothing more than seeing if you can actually operate a vehicle. A possible solution, as most people would not be able to afford driving lessons, would be driving education in high school, or at least a more thorough practical, not theoretical driving test.

In the above CCTV footage of vehicle crashes that was released by the Chiang Mai municipality this year to make people aware of traffic accidents, it is evident that most of the accidents are sheer negligence on the driver’s part, perhaps a result of drink-driving, perhaps not. However, it is noteworthy that in one accident in which a motorcyclist dies after being hit head-on by a red car (local taxi), the news presenter puts the cause of death down to the rider not wearing a helmet. Negligence, not helmets, is often to blame.

But how do the police tackle negligence, or perhaps more cynically, gain from it? It’s also evident that many crashes happen when, as is often the norm in Thailand, drivers are running red lights or leaving when the light is not yet green. Cameras at all junctions in Thailand might help reduce the amount of dangerous driving. The release of this footage, however disturbing, has probably been helpful. For many years now Isuzu, the manufacturer of the top-selling trucks in Thailand, have invested in long ‘cultural’ infomercials that can be seen at cinemas prior to the film starting. Perhaps Isuzu are in a position to create something affects the way people think about reckless driving in Thailand.

More than human error

Bus crashes are common in Thailand, and frequently large numbers of people are killed. Regarded as one of the worst accident black spots in the country is the road between Mae Sot and Tak in the north of Thailand. In 2014 alone there were a streak of accidents, all of which consisted of buses leaving the road and falling down steep ravines. The worst of these crashes saw 31 retired government employees die, and a further 20 injured. The driver told police the bus’s brakes had failed on a corner. A month later a truck crashed only 500 meters away from the aforementioned tragedy, killing 14 people. Again, the driver blamed brake failure. It’s reported that in 2013 there were over 300 hundred crashes on this stretch of rugged highway that twists through the mountains on the way to the Burmese border.

The Department Land Transport (DLT) states that to register and use a vehicle as a public bus, the bus must be “stable and strong and is certified by a mechanical engineer”, according to a 2008 report into the safety of Thailand’s public buses by professor Lamduan Srisakda from Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Engineering. The report details the reasons behind some of Thailand’s worst bus tragedies. In most cases it states that often the driver is incapable (or incompetent) of negotiating difficult roads safely, but also once the bus has crashed it does not have the superstructure adequate to protect passengers. The report says that often the roads are dangerous themselves, having not been maintained, something of a problem throughout Thailand, especially in the rainy season.

In most tourist guides it is acknowledged that tourist buses are often cheap, but that they are also often poorly maintained. One of the most hair-raising experiences for any traveler to Thailand might be taking one of the overnight buses up and down country, whose drivers often break the speed limits at almost every section of the journey. Minivan drivers are also notorious for driving at very high speeds, and as this article shows, accidents and fatalities occur often.

As we approach the ‘Seven days of death’, the name given to Thailand’s New Year holiday period in which the country sees the highest frequency of road accidents and traffic fatalities, we might bear a few things in mind:

* The police initiatives to make Thailand’s roads safer have not worked yet, and will likely not work if they concentrate only on fining motorcyclists during the daytime for not wearing helmets. If road blocks are to be enforced, apropos road safety, then alcohol consumption and reckless driving should be the main reason why people are being stopped and charged. The police should invest in safe driving campaigns, and also ‘no double standards’ campaigns.

* All public buses and minivans should be maintained properly and the transport office should clamp down on any companies using vehicles not fit for the road.

* The government should attempt to introduce safer helmets to Thailand at a reasonable cost.

* The Thai driving test should include some amount of practical driving lessons, or driving education should be introduced to Thai schools.

* Public transport running at night should be available throughout the country.