How much does it take to send you into a fit when someone in front of you is swerving between lanes or a nudging their way into your path? Do you blast your horn? Flash a high beam at the lane trespasser? Do you roll down your window and scream obscenities?
I find myself cursing and honking and refusing to give way all the time. I am petty in my pursuit of a place ahead of you in the queue, and unforgiving of even the slightest driving faux pas. But then I pull up beside the offending motorist and see it is a meek old man or a nervous mother trying to steer while controlling her children, and I realise what a d&*k I’m being. Then when my own three-year-old son starts imitating me: “C’mon man! What the hell are you doing?” I reluctantly resign myself to mending my ways.
You see, road rage is a living phenomenon. It is a virus that is dormant within every society, but when it finally becomes air-borne it metamorphoses into a monster and reproduces exponentially. That’s what my former student, a young Spanish sociology major, told me many years ago when he explained the topic of his thesis: The phenomenon of road rage. He explained that the behaviour of a commuting society exists peacefully up to a point – until one man starts shouting at another; he in turns shouts at a woman; she shouts at someone else; and so on.
It was a philosophy I could instantly relate to. I was on my way back to Scotland, and had flown into London where I’d borrowed a friend’s car to drive north. It had been a few years since I had driven back home and I was a wee bit wobbly. The first roundabout I came to, I got nervous and tried to quickly zip in and out without getting entwined with other vehicles. Of course I cut someone off and he gave me a blast on the horn. Then the guy pulled up alongside me, zapped down his window, and as I veered off the junction, he vented his wrath…“W*$ker!”
Welcome to Britain, I thought. But within a few minutes behind the wheel, I was doing exactly the same: swearing, honking, chastising. I had been in the country less than two days and already I had caught the road rage virus.
“They need to know that what they’re doing is dangerous and stupid, and you should show them. In fact, you should punish them,” writes Jonathan Strickland in his paper, How Road Rage Works.
Another researcher, psychologist Dr Steven Albrecht, advises road ragers to…well, jai yen yen; take a Buddhist approach to the problem. In his thesis, The Psychology of Road Rage, he suggests we contemplate the dilemma thus: “What would the Dalai Lama do? Go forth down the road and be yourself, with compassion towards others. Stop caring about your ‘space’ and realise that road rage is ridiculous, life-threatening, and not something you have to participate in, ever.”
Chiang Mai & Noise Pollution
Anyone who has ever spent a night in a hotel in downtown Delhi, Hanoi or Jakarta will know what it’s like to be awoken at dawn by the delightful cacophony of car horns blaring. Your eyes are still closed and the alarm clock hasn’t even rung, but already you are cocooned in a repetitive drone of traffic — surround sound, like tinnitus, or a nest of wasps buzzing in your head.
That’s why we are very lucky to live in a friendly small city which does not have a culture of honking horns, where drivers are generally patient and courteous, and where road rage is still uncommon.
But that tranquility is in danger of disappearing. Traffic has doubled in the last five years — many of those new drivers are expats, Bangkokians and Chinese. And for all the complaining that farang like to do about traffic, it is we who are among the most aggressive and impatient drivers on the roads of this city.
Many expats I spoke to have lived here 20 or 30 years and had never seen a single case of road rage. Others view the increase in traffic as an infinite frustration, while many Western males in particular tend to think of themselves as role models of the road.
Chiang Mai is a passive city in terms of commuter frenzy. Anyone from Italy or Greece, for example, will attest to the fact that drivers will throw on the handbrake and hop out the car for a quick rant and rave as frequently as they stop for an espresso. Brits too, know full well that driving fury is endemic. And as for the USA, let’s not even get started.
Dangerous and even deadly incidents are on the increase; not just accidents, but fights — road rage. All too often Westerners are involved, and they seldom seem to win.
In 2010, Thomas Schuller, a 43-year-old German, was shot dead in San Sai after the briefest of confrontations with another driver. According to witnesses at the scene, the German man had been weaving through traffic on his motorcycle, prompting driver Pricha Rattanahongthong to honk at him. Schuller reportedly flipped the guy a middle finger, and when they pulled up at a traffic light, Pricha got out his car, knocked the German off his motorcycle and shot him twice in the back. He then got back in his vehicle and drove away.
American teacher Mark de la Fleur had a similar experience in May last year, but survived to tell the tale.
“I was on my motorbike just north of Chang Phuak on the road to Mae Rim when a guy came up from behind me — very fast — driving aggressively and flashing his lights. Naturally, I slowed down (perhaps a hint of passive aggressiveness on my part) and it sent him over the edge. We ended up at a red light. He rolled his window down and I rolled mine down. It was a 65-to-70-year-old man with two elementary-age children in uniform in the back.
“He saw I was a farang and started shouting ‘Go home! Go home!’ So I responded: ‘YOU go home.’ At that moment, in front of the two children, he reached into the door and pulled out a gun, and began to turn the gun towards me and my wife. The second I saw the gun, I reacted and shot through the red light. He shot through as well, and in no time, we were flying down the middle of the road, him on my tail waving the gun.”
While these particular incidents could be put down to machismo, they are certainly not isolated or atypical of situations many of us have faced in Chiang Mai traffic. And that is a shame, because this city was never like that before.
“Nowadays, everyone is in a hurry,” explained Pol.Capt. Weeraya Wongkaaew of Chiang Mai traffic police. “Ten years ago, drivers were calmer, more patient.”
He also puts the problem down to the expanding number of cars on the road. Chiang Mai Province now has 250,000 registered vehicles; that’s up from 200,000 the year before. “But road and highway construction only increases by 10% a year,” he said.
On the other hand, Lt.Col. Naratphong Udomsri of Chiang Mai’s Provincial Police Department says he doesn’t believe road rage is a big issue when weighed against the 500 accidents and 50 deaths on the roads of Chiang Mai every month. “Road rage is not a problem,” he told me. “Because people here are jai dee.”
Neither police chief thought that farang drivers are particularly problematic or bad-tempered. All the tuk-tuk and red cab drivers I spoke to agreed, though some pointed to farang and Chinese not knowing the traffic laws in this city. None would admit to any cases of road rage under their watch.
“It has never been a problem in my 24 years as a tuk-tuk driver,” says Deng, 52. “But then again,” he laughs, “I am a particularly patient driver.”
So we should count our lucky stars that we live in a city that is generally peaceful, and we each (myself included) must do what we can to keep the lid on the Pandora’s Box that is road rage.
Chiang Mai remains a place where you can drive around all day and not hear a single beep on a horn. In this day and age, that is quite remarkable. It is therefore down to each of us — especially Westerners and those from a different driving culture — to help keep the city serene.