BANGKOK – With Songkrans the “Seven Dangerous Days” quickly approaching and the fact that Thailand is ranked second in the world in terms of traffic fatalities the World Health Organisation has recommended that road safety should be on Thailand’s permanent national agenda and not just raised as a seasonal issue during long holidays.
Dr. Liviu Vedrasco, World Health Organisation’s road safety expert speaking at The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand said seasonal campaigns such as the “Seven Dangerous Days” during New Year and Songkran may have the effect of distracting attention from the real problem as 66 people die on the roads in Thailand every single day.
Thailand is ranked second in the world in terms of traffic fatalities, with 44 deaths per 100,000 people (5.1 percent of Thailand’s overall deaths), according to statistics from the World Health Organization.
Dr Vedrasco suggested the government should increase penalties and, most importantly, enforce the law.
Nikorn Jamnong, a former deputy transport minister who claimed to have initiated the seven dangerous days campaign, defended it, saying it was meant as a long-term strategy and had been designed as a testing measure for national and local authorities to devise preventive measures that can reduce the death toll.
Mr Nikorn conceded that the seasonal campaign had failed because no data was being analysed for clues to improving the situation, resulting in repeated high death tolls during the long holidays each year.
Mr Nikorn, now a road safety expert with the National Reform Steering Committee, said the committee had come up with six-point safety strategy, including new laws and enforcement, management and safer vehicles to improve road safety.
Both Mr. Nikorn and Dr Vedrasco were speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand which was holding a forum called “Thailand’s Dismal Road Safety Record”.
While both speakers touched on Thailand’s dismal road safety record and that increased penalties and better law enforcement would reduce accident, neither speaker talked about drivers education.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
“The laws are outdated. Some are as old as 1979 with punishments tailored for that age. They aren’t sufficient for the modern day.”
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 programs 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
By Geoff Thomas