Citylife: Can you tell us about what you do.
Pol. Col. Thapanapong: Unlike other cities in Thailand, where the traffic police is embedded into each police precinct, Chiang Mai is unique in that we have our own standalone office and we report directly to the Chiang Mai chief of police. This happened when the SEA Games came to Chiang Mai in 1995 and it was decided that the traffic police needed to have its own office. We have 300 policemen, with just over half of them working in the facilitation, control, solutions, prevention and help with accidents while the remainder are support staff and admin such as mechanics.
Citylife: What are the challenges?
Pol. Col. Thapanapong: There are many unique challenges in Chiang Mai. When we have big events, our city roads can’t handle them and it requires much strategising to manage. We also have a school rush hour problem as most of the schools are near the river and cause massive congestion twice a day. Then there are the old small soi and city roads, many of which have been there for hundreds of years and they aren’t equipped to support just a fraction of the two million cars that are now in Chiang Mai province. Apart from that, so many important things such as schools, markets, hospitals and malls are clustered in the city so people have to come into the city every day, in and out, which also causes congestion. There is also a lack of public transportation. And last but not least, we are a culture of convenience. People will get into a car to drive a few hundred metres just so they don’t have to walk, do an illegal u-turn so they don’t waste driving time, or park illegally to pop into a 7/11, for instance. Thai people as a whole have little respect for the law and have no discipline. Farang have more understanding about how their actions can affect others and understand not to do that. We are too sabai.
Citylife: You think we need a public transportation system?
Pol. Col. Thapanapong: Of course! There has been study after study on this issue; there is always funding for studies…but never a budget to make it happen. This is frustrating. Look at this book here [he points to a 100+ page book], a massive study by Chiang Mai University on our traffic problems. But what are we to do with no budget? So, as traffic police, we can only put out fires and problem solve, we never have the luxury of planning or prevention.
Citylife: One issue our readers have been very upset about is the daily checkpoints which appear to target foreigners for cash. Can you explain why you do this?
Pol. Col. Thapanapong: Many foreigners do not have the proper licence and while this should be the responsibility of the vehicle hiring company, many of them do not listen to our numerous requests for them to only rent to those with licences. We keep trying, but I don’t have the negotiating power. That is the responsibility of the provincial office of commerce. If it is true what you say that some policemen have taken advantage, I want you to tell your readers to come straight to me or to complain to their consulates. There are CCTVs all over the city to record what is going on, you will be protected. If you have not broken the law and someone is shaking you down, I guarantee you you will get justice and protection. We stop 2-300 vehicles per day and the fines go to the municipality to fix things such as traffic lights. Between 10-20% of the fines go to the police or groups of police, depending on the type of fine. Corruption is unacceptable, though I admit that it does happen. But we now have CCTV and social media also helps. We have fired a few officers for such behaviour, so we do take this seriously. Right now the CCTV system isn’t connected to us, as it is controlled by the municipality. But the governor has talked about integrating it with our office which would be a great help.
Citylife: Is the fact that you lack jurisdiction in many matters a problem?
Pol. Col. Thapanapong: Yes, very much so. I would like to clean up many pavements, but I can’t because it is the jurisdiction of the public health and hygiene department or the municipality. Our responsibility is only the road surface; it ends at the start of the pavement.
Citylife: What would you like to see happen?
Pol. Col. Thapanapong: We need to adjust the law. There needs to be far harsher penalties. A few hundred baht fine, who cares? Have you ever heard of anyone getting their licence revoked? I haven’t during my entire career! Drivers’ licences are easy to issue but impossible to rescind. Then there is the fact that our laws are not seen as sacred, but negotiable and navigable — like seatbelts and people sitting at the back of a pickup truck. Did you even know that that was illegal? We turn a blind eye to many things because people say that it is our culture. But laws should be applied and respected. 300 of us is also not nearly enough when we are talking about 2 million vehicles. We also never have enough money. Our tow trucks are 20-30 years old. We have to often fundraise to cover repairs and machinery — hence the sponsored traffic boxes. This is not ideal but we have to solve problems anyway we can. Often we have to paint over old traffic signs because we can’t afford new ones.
Citylife: Any parting words to our readers?
Pol. Col. Thapanapong: Plan your trips! Use social media, Google maps. Join our Line and Facebook groups, we have constant updates on traffic [in Thai only]. Keep communicating with us; we are trying to reach out to the communities more; so tell us your problems.
Lind ID: @trafficcm