Thailand’s road safety track record is disturbing to put it bluntly, with over 400 people killed over the New Year period alone and a shocking ongoing count of 66 deaths on the road per day, second only to the front-running leader of road death fatalities, which is currently Libya. So what is going on? Why is the fatality rate so distressingly high?
First of all, let’s be fair before analyzing the root causes of so many deaths on Thailand’s roads; Thailand is still a developing country, so empathy is needed more here than just blindly assigning fault. Even so, let us not hold back on constructive criticism here, as people are tragically loosing their lives every day.
73% of all fatalities on Thailand’s roads are from motorbikes. In fact, if you stay in Thailand for any length of time you are bound to see your fair share of roadside corpses, lying alongside twisted mangled heaps of what were once motorbikes. You will notice, on the back roads that motorbike riders sometimes look suspiciously around the age of 12-14 years old at times, and unless someone has discovered the fountain of youth in Thailand, your suspicions will probably be correct. There are also many babies and toddlers being transported around on motorbikes, sometimes without wearing helmets; but compassion should be exercised here as a family that may be poor might have no option but to take their children to school etc, on the only means of affordable transport available to them.
The Back Light Mystery
Many motorbike riders take their back light out for inexplicable reasons in Thailand; just count the number of bikes with their back light missing next time you are out at night if you haven’t already noticed this. To confound you even more so, when you ask people why half of the motorbike riders take out their back lights, they won’t be able to give you a clear explanation. Is it a gang sign? Is it to hide their number plate because they haven’t got insurance or tax? Who knows? If anyone does know (and good luck trying to find out the explanation), then please enlighten us as to why in a comment below.
Ghosts in the Rear View Mirror
Most motorbikes you will notice on the roads have their wing mirrors turned inward, out of fear of seeing a ghost in the rear view mirror. While this may seem strange to some other cultures, and may pose the nagging question of how a ghost would be able to keep up with an accelerating motorbike, it is a fact that in Thailand ghosts are taken very seriously. However, together with many people not wearing helmets on side roads, youngsters riding motorbikes, the back light taken out and maybe a helmet-less baby on board, it’s not hard to see why so many motorbikes end up being a one-way ticket to death. Add to this holidaying foreigners not used to the roads in Thailand in tourist destinations, who sometimes fling common sense to the wind, and it’s a recipe for disaster.
Luck and the ‘Big and Small’ Road Science
Fortune telling and luck is a big part of Thai culture, with tattoos protecting people even against bullets, let alone a road accident. Which is why some motorbike riders (especially young men) ride their motorbikes around like they could never come a cropper. You’ll see motorbikes doing wheelies, going the wrong way around motorway u-turns and zig-zagging for fun at high speeds. Also, the general rule for insurance on Thailand’s roads is that ‘the bigger vehicle will be at fault’ for any accidents; some car drivers have even been stationary when a motorbike has crashed into them and they still sometimes are held liable. I doubt even Einstein would be able to figure out the logic behind the ‘big vehicles will be at fault over small vehicles’ road science equation, apart from deducing that it entails less paperwork. As you can imagine, these aforementioned elements create recklessness on a large scale that is plainly visible.
Rich Kids, Fluffy Toys, Flashers and Whistle Blowers
It is a sad fact that rich kids from very wealthy families often appear in the newspapers, crashing into other cars, crashing through traffic barriers and even ploughing into innocent bystanders to relieve stress. In short they often get away with it and it is so obvious as to why that it hardly needs to be said.
Fluffy toys and stickers often take over the entire rear windscreen (and occasionally) the front windscreen in some cars and taxis, which doesn’t help, but the good news is that only a few cars turn their wing mirrors inward to avoid seeing ghosts. There is a clear signal for telling people to ‘stop I’m coming through’ by flashing your headlights, but you will have to be very creative in making up a signal to tell people they can go, to give way to anyone, or to stop and let someone cross the road. In fact, half the time, if you stop to let someone who is perilously standing in the middle of a road trying to cross, they will sometimes look at you with a puzzled look. Thankfully, the other half realize you are being kind and nod or wave.
A strange but true occurrence you will notice is that some guards blowing whistles and telling you to exit at a junction, or from a shopping centre onto a main road, are not paying any notice as to whether it is clear for you to pull out. Having said that, most guards will wait till the road you are joining is safe and clear. Just be aware that the lackadaisical ‘whistle blowers’ are out there, in a perpetual whistle blowing trance like state, just waving you on into the path of oncoming vehicles.
The Unwritten Rule for Foreigners
For a foreigner driving in Thailand, if you stop and help at the scene of an accident, most of the time it will be seen as a gesture that you will be taking care of the entire hospital bill, for people you don’t even know but want to help or give first aid to etc. This is a sad fact, and adding to this fact that it is often dangerous to stop at the scene of an accident, so what do you do? The only alternative is that you will just have to . . . drive past, which is a sad state of affairs. Not every time you stop at the scene of an accident this will happen, but it is a fact that half the time you will encounter these difficulties. If you don’t believe this, stop at a few accident scenes and you will quickly grasp this harsh realization.
Whilst not as common if you drive outside of Bangkok, in Bangkok you will come across ‘drifters’ who drift left and right, and who sometimes drive slap bang in the middle of both lanes, which are usually people on mobile phones or taxi drivers drifting around looking for potential passengers. Seasoned drivers in Bangkok know only too well to keep an eye on cars to the left and right as well as ahead for signs of the inexplicable drifting phenomenon.
Despite having the second worst traffic fatality rate in the world, to be fair, Thailand has some positive points that need to be preserved. The first thing is that road rage in Thailand is not that common; at least not as common as in a lot of other countries. After car accidents you will usually see Thai people resolve the problem calmly, (especially the driver of the smaller vehicle). Yes, there will be the odd horror story reported by the press, but the reality is that road rage is not that much of a problem. The second positive point is that most people in Thailand do not drive dangerously fast, compared to drivers in the UK, Spain or Russia for example.
Again, Thailand is a fast developing country and there have been visible attempts to cut down on drink driving, and against drivers using mobile phones etc. Plus attempts to bolster the quality of driving tests by warning new drivers of dangers on the road. In time traffic laws and their implementation should hopefully become stronger as Thailand develops and sets an example as one of Asean’s potential leaders.