Dicing with death: Thai motorists continue to play with their lives on the roads
During the Songkran festival, perhaps even more so than during other long holidays, the issue of road safety is taken seriously. The fact that we still call the Thai New Year holidays “the 7 dangerous days” and report the daily death and injury tolls says a lot about the situation. Pandemic or not, Thailand’s roads remain the deadliest in Southeast Asia, and among the top 10 in the global hall of shame.
As Thais travel for vacations or to their homes during the major festival, which this year ends on Sunday, April 17, the number of road injuries and deaths increases. The pattern is repeated every year and the reasons behind the injuries of fatalities are always the same – drunk driving, speeding, and not wearing helmets. Sadly, all the causes of accidents can be prevented.
Every time the road safety issue is highlighted such as during festivals or after shocking accidents, the authorities go on high alert and react. But most of the time, it is the same old Thailand where lax law enforcement, negligent police, and irresponsible drivers meet on the streets. That’s the reason why Thailand’s road fatality rate is more than double the global average of 18 per 100,000 population. In 2012, Thailand’s fatalities caused by road accidents were 36.2 per 100,000 people according to the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s report.
From April 11-13, 2022, the death toll was recorded at 113 with 869 accidents reported. Motorbikes usually account for 75% of road accidents and top the cause of death. The statistics don’t lie: the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department reported that motorbikes still dominated the cause of accidents during the first 3 days of the holiday. The obvious causes are speeding and not wearing helmets, so a lot of motorists die on the spot.
It comes as no surprise. Only 45 percent of motorcycle drivers in Thailand wear helmets, the Thai Roads Foundation says in its 2018 report. It’s even lower for passengers and just eight percent among children aged up to 15 years.
Although the law has required all motorcycle drivers and passengers to wear helmets since 1996, less than 50% observe the law. Ignoring safety is not something Thai people should be proud of as we are infamous for road-led deaths. The authorities who fail to enforce the law strictly should also feel ashamed as they are capable of saving people’s lives – and the country’s human resources.
The foundation’s study also found that 80% of motorcyclists and pillion riders in Bangkok wear helmets because of the strict law enforcement. The further the distance from the capital, the lower the rate of people wearing helmets. So it is obvious that traffic police and local authorities can seriously reduce accidents and save lives by stricter enforcement of the law.
Strictly setting up check-points all year round, introducing heavy fines or harsh punishments like seizing licenses would help make people wear helmets. If people protect themselves merely to comply with the law so be it. Don’t they fear death and injury? It amazes this writer to see a motorcyclist wearing a face mask to protect him or herself from COVID but riding helmet-free. Strange, because the virus isn’t only cause of death. They should be repeatedly told that road accidents are the leading cause of death globally, with 1.3 million deaths per annum. WHO research has identified that wearing a motorcycle helmet correctly can reduce the risk of death by almost 40% and the risk of severe injury by over 70%.
Thailand is way behind our ASEAN counterparts, especially Vietnam, when it comes to being safety conscious. In Vietnam, motorbike drivers wear helmets even in remote areas, far from the law enforcers’, reach as they realize the need for safety precautions. The helmet legislation in Vietnam has helped save 1,000 lives in a decade since the law came into effect in 2007. Perhaps Thai authorities and civil society should learn from Vietnam how to make an immediate and lasting impact. Helmet use increased from 6% to 90% overnight and prevented approximately half a million serious head injuries, according to AIP Foundation and the FIA Foundation.
Are Thai motorists not well-informed about safety prevention, or they are just a bunch of ignorant people or both? As for the authorities and traffic police, they must be aware of their failure by now. Why work intensively during the dangerous days every single year and pray for an improvement? Can’t they learn something from Vietnam? And why can’t we?
Civil society shares the blame too. Thailand, one of the top creative destinations in advertising, should have done better. Business and social enterprises can join hands and come up with attractive campaigns that strike a chord with the public. The initiatives by many organizations are spot-on but more are welcome to join the bandwagon. Now that so many businesses rely on the well-being of riders – for food and parcel delivery services alone – there really is no excuse. All we need is a strong will.
The battle will be tough if we want to see success. Thailand expected to reduce road-related fatalities to only 10 in 100,000 at the end of the campaign in 2020. Unfortunately, this is 2022 and we have not come close to our ambitious goal – not to mention that we are in the 3rd year of the outbreak which means traffic has been less heavy than during pre-pandemic Thailand.
Foreign experts say the best ways to reduce road fatalities are encouraging people to be aware of traffic rules and the stringent enforcement of traffic laws. Many local people entertain the idea of harsh punishments for traffic lawbreakers – with some even suggesting new legislation. We actually need everyone on board to achieve the goal. The government, lawmakers, authorities, motorists, pedestrians, families, teachers, and the media must unite to make it happen.
Hundreds of Thais may be celebrating Songkran for the last time this year, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Disrespect for safety rules prevails throughout the year, not just during festive occasions.
Only genuine safety-conscious minds can help save lives and prevent losses: we need real behavioral change, not anything else. First, we must talk about this on a regular basis and not just during a festival or when a major accident is reported. All those behind the wheel must be aware that being extra cautious about road safety is the “health vaccine” that can give immunity on the road. Vietnam has demonstrated success. If they can do it, what excuse do we have? Why can’t we do this, Thailand?
By Veena Thoopkrajae