Far from safe: Thailand’s traffic as fatal as ever

Charlie Claxton speaks to Dr. Kunnawee Kanitpong, Director of Thailand Accident Research Centre to see what can be done about Thailand's deadly roads.

By | Mon 1 Jun 2015

This April here in Chiang Mai, we welcomed the year 2558 BE with the usual water-soaked Songkran festivities. For most the Thai New Year is a time for celebration, but for an ever increasing number it now marks a period of mourning.

Each year hundreds die on the roads during the “seven dangerous days” of Songkran. This year was no different. At least 364 people lost their lives, making Songkran 2015 the most deadly since 2009.

These figures come as a blow to the military government, who recently stepped up their efforts to reduce traffic accidents for the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety. Under the UN mandate Thailand must halve its road death rate by the year 2020. Considering the current average stands at 26,000 deaths per year, this is no short order.

Thailand ranks second in the world for road fatalities, just behind Namibia, according to the World Health Organisation and The University of Michigan.

Taking a drive in Thailand shouldn’t equate to risking your life. On paper, the country seems well positioned to offer roads as safe as those in Japan or the UK. Thailand is the 11th richest country in Asia in terms of GDP. It’s a car trading hub, where modern cars are readily available. Plus traffic laws are established to keep us safe. But despite this, road deaths in Thailand continue to increase.

In many ways Thailand is a victim of its own success. As the economy grows, more can afford to own their own car and traffic congestion has soared. Couple this with a severe lack of public transport, both in Chiang Mai and intercity, and there are more people on the roads than ever before.

But sheer driver numbers alone doesn’t explain why Thai roads are so dangerous or why recent government efforts to reduce road deaths have, so far, been largely ineffective.

Rules. Made to be broken?

Part of the problem is road laws are rarely respected in Thailand. Drink driving, speeding and riding a motorcycle without a helmet — all illegal in Thailand — kill hundreds each year.

While there’s a certain apathy towards safe driving in Thailand, Dr. Kunnawee Kanitpong, Director of Thailand Accident Research Centre (TARC), believes widespread breaking of traffic laws stems from lack of awareness rather than calculated disregard.

“People aren’t aware of the law,” Dr. Kunnawee asserts. “For example, less than two percent of drivers know the legal speed limit and, although more people now know it’s illegal to ride a motorbike without a helmet, many still don’t realise helmets are mandatory for passengers.”

Flouting of traffic laws is common in Chiang Mai. On any given day you’ll see helmetless motorcyclists, drivers turning left on a red light where they shouldn’t, people exceeding the speed limit, bikes driving on pavements…the list goes on.

Piyapan Pattarapongsin, Police Colonel of Chiang Mai Regional Police Traffic Centre, deals with these transgressions each day and also blames lack of awareness.

“Mainly, people don’t respect the road laws because they’re not aware of them. If people were better aware of the law, there would be far less accidents.”

The dilemma is how to raise awareness.

Ineffective campaigns

The number of government-funded road safety campaigns have soared recently. Many campaigns aim to encourage motorcyclists to wear helmets, such as 2011’s “Year of 100% Crash Helmet Use” and last autumn’s “7% Campaign”, inspired by the shocking statistics that only 7% of Thai children wear helmets on motorbikes.

The results aren’t yet in for the 7% Campaign. However, a study by Jiwattanakulpaisarn Piyapong for Thai Roads Foundation (TRF), found the effects of the “Year of 100% Crash Helmet Use” to be minor, with helmet use up only 2%.

Most government-run anti-drink-driving campaigns boil down to plastering the slogan “Don’t drink and drive” at public events or artistic posters that lack substance — think the “Beer Suicide” ads.

A recent Thai TV advert attempts to deter drink driving by portraying a drunk man at the wheel of a car.
At no point are the possibly fatal consequences of his actions explored. When compared to the shocking, anti-drink-driving adverts seen abroad, where the consequences take prominence, the shock factor seems to be lacking in Thailand.

And still, drink-driving is attributed to 26% of Thai road deaths. That’s around 6,760 people each year.
Despite these depressing statistics, Dr. Konnawee believes drink-driving campaigns are starting to work.

“[The campaigns] have been fairly beneficial as people are more aware of the consequences,”

Dr. Konnawee suggests, “however, speeding is the number one cause of traffic accidents in Thailand. The government hasn’t done enough to combat speeding. According to Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapatisith, this is set to change. The year 2015 has been declared the year of speed control under the new slogan “Slow Down, Save Your Life”. But if previous campaigns are anything to go by, the results will be average at best. The problem is public awareness campaigns don’t address failures at the very root of Thai driving education.

Lessons. What are they good for?

The question must be asked: why are so many drivers unaware of traffic laws and dangers in the first place? Should this knowledge not be a prerequisite for getting behind the wheel?

Driving licences are compulsory in Thailand, but driving tests are notoriously easy. Currently, to receive a licence, learner drivers need only a passing grade of 75% in a 30-question theory test, as well as prove they can operate a vehicle. At no point during the test are they required to drive on an actual road.

According to Dr. Konnawee, this results in a nation of drivers with legal licences but little driving ability.
“Thai driving tests are too easy,” Dr. Konnawee asserts. “It’s time we introduced tough testing and lesson requirements like in Japan.”

She goes on to reveal that, “the only way people learn the driving laws is while taking their theory test.”
Perhaps here is a dangerous manifestation of the famously laidback Thai attitude. Thais are renowned in their ability to remain enduringly positive, capable of brushing off a bad situation with a smile and a cry of “mai pen rai”.

But mai pen rai doesn’t cut it when people die. While a positive outlook is often an asset in life, not recognising risks due to blind-faith that “it won’t happen to me” could be fatal.

“Thai people don’t see the inherent dangers of driving,” says Dr. Konnawee, “they don’t understand the consequences if something goes wrong, so they take risks.”

Where are the cops?

Of course it’s easy to break the rules if the gains outweigh the punishment; in Thailand, the penalty for breaking traffic laws is seen as lenient and police enforcement sporadic and unjust.

The most high-profile case is that of Vorayuth Yoovidhya, the grandson of the late billionaire founder of Red Bull. Vorayuth escaped jail time after killing a policeman in a hit-and-run in Bangkok. Similar is the case of Orachorn “Praewa” Thephasadin Na Ayudhya, daughter of an elite Thai family, who killed nine people when she crashed her car into a mini-bus. Orachorn, who was driving underage, only received a suspended two-year prison sentence.

But it’s not just the rich and famous who sidestep the Thai traffic law.

After 25-year-old Worapong Sangkhawat ploughed his truck into British cyclists Peter Root and Mary Thompson in Chachoengsao province, killing them instantly, he told police that he was leaning down to find his hat. He was charged with dangerous driving but handed only a two-year suspended sentence and fined around 1,000 baht.

With such low punishments for driving offences, no wonder people drive dangerously.
Countries with low dangerous driving rates generally enforce strict punishments to deter risky behaviour. Japan has some of the strictest drink driving laws in the world, with offenders risking hefty fines and jail-time. Despite the population of Japan being around 60 million more than Thailand, in 2009, only 438 people died from drink driving in Japan, compared to 3,579 in Thailand.

According to Piyapen, Thai road laws aren’t sufficiently tackling the problem.

“The traffic law is weak,” Piyapan says, “people aren’t afraid to break it. The fines are low and people have no problem paying them.”

Dr. Konnawee sheds more light on the issue: “The laws are outdated. Some are as old as 1979 with punishments tailored for that age. They aren’t sufficient for the modern day.”

However, even if stricter laws are introduced, Dr. Konnawee doubts they could effectively be enforced without dramatic changes to policing.

“Police enforcement on traffic laws is falling short. It’s not continuous nor always impartial. They simply complain they don’t have the technology, such as speed cameras, to do the job.”

No access to the technology is just the tip of the iceberg when wading through the murky waters of Thai police enforcement. Here in Chiang Mai, the traffic police are often accused of not doing enough to curtail accidents. No real surprise when, over the past year, we’ve seen only irregular bursts of traffic law crackdown — such as the controversial checkpoints — and poor organisation — with groups of police concentrated on one area, while others are neglected — but little sign of concrete results.

More needs to be done, that’s indisputable. But failures can, in part, be blamed on a severely limited budget.

“The traffic police have no budget,” reveals Piyapan. “We can’t improve road safety without budget.”
Speaking with the Bangkok Post early this year, road safety activist Thanaphong Jinwong called the government out on their poor investment in traffic policing, declaring that the “police are hampered in their efforts to curb [dangerous driving] by inadequate funding.”

Perhaps this explains why the Chiang Mai traffic police seem to focus on duties that deliver instantaneous payment; while people are regularly fined for not wearing a helmet, duties without on-the-spot fines, such as clearing pavements of vehicles, appear neglected.

Road Safety – A shared responsibility

Officials say that roughly sixty percent of road accidents in Thailand are caused by human error. Little is said about the condition of Thai roads, which often fall short of international safety standards, nor the limited funds available to those enforcing the law or the gaping hole in road safety education.

The common lexicon used by the government suggests accidents are the fault of the driver.

“The government needs to change its attitude towards road accidents,” insists Dr. Konnawee. “They say its human error. With this attitude they won’t see the need to improve road infrastructure, law enforcement or education. They must recognise that these are vital for safer roads.”

Whereas Thailand has the second most dangerous roads in the world, Sweden has some of the safest. Despite the amount of cars in Sweden doubling since 1970, road deaths have fallen by four-fifths. In 2013, just 264 people died in road crashes in Sweden, that’s an average of three deaths per 100,000.

How has Sweden achieved such impressive results? By aiming high.

In 1997, Sweden introduced Vision Zero. This new method of improving road safety sets the ambitious goal of zero road deaths or accidents without curtailing mobility. The focus is on engineering (although education and enforcement still play a part) with low speed limits, pedestrian-only zones and barriers separating traffic.

Vision Zero prioritises safety over speed, convenience or cost. It recognises that humans make mistakes but, instead of trying to change human behaviour, Vision Zero adapts the system to work for humans.

Speaking with the Washington D.C based news site CityLab, Matts-Åke Berlin of the Swedish Transport Administration, explains the Vision Zero approach.

“People make mistakes…Why put the whole responsibility on the individual road user?…let’s try to build a more human-friendly system instead.”

The Vision relies on a mutual agreement: citizens will follow basic road laws and the government will build roads designed against almost any fatality. It’s a revolutionary approach that shares the responsibility in terms of who has the power to do what; including road users, road engineers and the government.

Of course, Sweden and Thailand are worlds apart. But, just as many other countries have, Thailand could learn from Sweden’s success.

Attitudes need to change

Here in Thailand, few take the road safety responsibility seriously — an attitude that too often proves deadly.

While road users are responsible for not partaking in risky behaviour and the police must enforce the law, the government must first equip the populace with the tools to be safe.

The Thai government could drastically improve road safety by investing in engineering safer roads and by providing credible road safety education programmes. Dr. Konnewee believes the government are not doing all they can to achieve this.

“[Lack of knowledge of driving laws] can be tackled with better awareness campaigns and making driving safety education a part of school curriculum,” insists Dr. Konnewee,
“There are some cases of children being taught road safety in school but this is not widespread.”

Piyapan agrees that education needs to be a priority. His team has taught road safety in schools around Chiang Mai but believes the subject should be a part of curriculums.

“Teaching road safety in schools will help to reduce accidents. Adding it to the curriculum will help keep people safe.”

But if popular opinion is to be believed, the traffic police themselves are shirking their road safety responsibility. If attitudes towards risky behaviour on the road are to be challenged, law enforcement must be consistent.

With no budget assigned to the traffic police, it’s fair to say that the government aren’t equipping the police to do the job. But, while the police say its technology they need, Dr. Konnaee disagrees.

“I don’t dispute the need”, says Dr. Konnewee, “but I question the efficiency of simply handing the police technology. Say they’re given more speed cameras, then more drivers would be issued fines, but there’s currently no real system in place to ensure drivers pay those fines.”

“The enforcement system is broken and the police are only one part. Before the law can be effectively enforced the government must update traffic laws and install a credible system to punish those who break them.”

It seems everyone would benefit from the Thai government taking a more Swedish view on road safety. Thailand needs its own Vision Zero.

The road to safety

We’re all responsible for Thailand’s road safety, but ultimately, the power lies in the hands of the government. The government must equip the country by educating the public, funding the police and facilitating engineers to build safer roads.

Funding in road engineering is vital for roads on which accidents are less likely to occur. Similarly, public transport options desperately need improvement so people have alternatives to driving. Thailand needs to take a tough stance on dangerous driving by updating traffic laws that are backed by strict punishments.

Action must be taken to enable the public to use the roads safely. This requires more than intermittent campaigns; it calls for strict driving tests, driving lesson requirements, as well as comprehensive road safety education programmes within school curriculums.

Thailand has a long way to go before they can call their roads safe. But until the government pledges true commitment to tackling its high road death rate, many more lives will be lost.

To brush up on the rules of the road in Thailand, check out driving-in-thailand.com
For all other questions, consult the Land Transport Department in Chiang Mai at 053-277-156