AUTOMOBILES, MOTORCYCLES AND ROADS IN THAILAND: DRIVERS, SAFETY, ACCIDENTS

AUTOMOBILES IN THAILAND

Thailand is the car capital of Southeast Asia. Some people even call it the Detroit of Asia. Automobile production reached the 500,000-vehicle level in 1996 (a three-fold increase from 1988). Automobile sales increased from 304,062 in 1990 to 571,580 in 1995 and 590,000 in 1996. In 1998 production plummeted 70 percent to 158,000 units. Some 915,000 were projected for 2000 but only 175,000 were sold in 1999 after the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98. Since them the numbers have been slowly and steadily improving.

Vehicle ownership is growing rapidly, increasing at a rate of between 5 and 10 percent annually. Automobile sales jumped to a record 1.43 million vehicles in 2012, an 80 percent increase from 2011, according to Toyota. Sales were boosted by government subsidies and pent-up demand after severe flooding in late 2011. Thailand’s automobile sales in 2010 jumped 45.8 percent to 800,357 new vehicles, the Thai unit of Toyota said. The increases was attributed to Thailand’s strong economy, low interest rates and pent-up demand. Commerical vehicles accounted for 56 percent of sales with passenger cars making up the rest.

At one time around 70 percent of the vehicles sold in Thailand were pick up trucks. In the 1990s, Thailand was the second biggest pick up truck market in the world. One-ton pick ups are popular for hauling stuff and using to transport people. The most preferred models are made by Isuzu and Toyota.

Automobile Companies in Thailand

In the 1990s Japanese car companies controlled about 90 percent of the car market in Thailand. They owed their success to brand image. after-service quality and availability of parts. Unlike Malaysia, Thailand doesn’t produce it own car. The top selling vehicles in Thailand in 1995 were: 1) Toyota Hilux; 2) Isuzu Spacecab; 3) Nissan Big M. Big sellers in 1997: 1) Honda City; 2) Toyota Soluna.

Toyota has about a 40 percent share of the Thai market both in passenger and commercial vehicles.

The sales of new Mercedes rose from 5,000 vehicles in 1992 to 14,082 in 1995, when Thailand became the eighth largest market for German cars in the world and the second for Mercedes. In 1996, sales dropped 45 percent. In 1999, after the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, only 2,500 were sold.. In 1997, the cheapest Mercedes, a C180, cost $53,640. How could Thais afford cars that typically cost around $80,000? Answer: low-interest car loan were easy to get with over-valued property as collateral.

Automobile Industry in Thailand, See Industry Under Economics

Roads in Thailand

Estimates vary on the length of roads in Thailand. According to a U.S. government estimate in 2000, Thailand had 57,403 kilometers of roads, 56,542 kilometers of which were paved and 861 kilometers, unpaved. Other sources indicate a lower total of fewer than 45,000 kilometers. According to CIA World Factbook there are a total of 180,053 kilometers of road, including 450 kilometers of expressways (2006). Streets in Bangkok are frequently gridlocked, with an overabundance of motor vehicles flowing into the central city via expressways. [Source: Library of Congress, 2007]

The road system in Thailand, which comprises major public highways, is open to transport and communication. National highways are the main routes in networks linking regions, provinces, and districts, while special highways such as toll ways and motorways have a minimum of junctions and allow traffic to flow at higher speeds.

Thailand has a good network of well maintained roads and highways between all the provincial capitals and major towns and cities in between. Most roads and highways are in good condition and have two or three lanes on each side, including a majority of the north-south route (between Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and the southern beaches). Road signs follows international convention and is posted in both Thai and English, though some signs are only in Thai (like 'Stop' and 'Give Way'). Buy a decent road map before you set off, though it’s well to remember that Thai words aren't always Romanized consistently (e.g. Petburi Road on the map and Phetchaburi Road respectively spelled on a street sign and a map are one and the same).

There are not many multiple American-style highways with exit and entrance ramps. Roads between the major cities and on the flat plains are paved, but those in mountains, forests and secondary raods hilly rural areas are primarily dirt and gravel. Some of mountain and rural roads are in poor condition, especially in the rainy season when they may become impassable. Even on paved roads traffic is often slowed by potholes and slow trucks. Mountain roads are often as narrow and passing areas are set up at curves to allow cars going in opposite directions to pass one another.

Traffic is sometimes a problem, especially during rush hour, weekends and holidays. On holidays and busy weekends the traffic jams can go for dozens of kilometers. Some roads are also filled with truck but Thailand trucks are generally smaller and less threatening than their American counterparts and truck drivers do much of their driving at night.

Major highways in Thailand: 1) Highway No. 1 Main highway – Phahonyothin Road; 2) Highway No. 2 Main highway – Mittraphap Road; 3) Highway No. 3 Main highway – Sukhumvit Road; 4) Highway No. 4 Main highway – Phetchkasem Road; 5) Highway No. 5 Special inter-city highway from Bangkok to the North; 6) Highway No. 6 Special inter-city highway from Bangkok to the Northeast (Motorway Bang Pa-in – Nakhon Ratchasima); 7) Highway No. 7 Special inter-city highway from Bangkok to the East (Motorway Bangkok – Chon Buri); 8) Highway No. 8 Special inter-city highway from Bangkok to the South; 9) Highway No. 9 Special highway – Outer Ring Road, Bangkok – Kanchanaphisek Road

The Association for Safe International Road Travel reports: 1) All major cities are connected by major highways; some with four-lane expressways. Main roads and highways are generally well maintained, however may be very congested in larger cities. 2) Truck traffic is heavy on inter-city roads; overloaded trucks sometimes cause serious road crashes. 3) Two-lane roads are common, especially in more remote areas. May be unpaved. Slow-moving trucks limit speed and visibility on these roads. 4) Road shoulders may not be adequate and protective crash barriers may be lacking. 5) Some road sections are poorly designed; others are too narrow for trucks and buses. 6) Mountainous roads are narrow and lack barriers. 7) Roads are often extremely slippery during the first heavy rain after a prolonged dry season. The rain forces oil in the pavement to rise to the surface, creating icelike driving conditions. 8) Poor drainage and inadequate maintenance leads to flooded roads. 9) Road signs are generally in English and Thai Sandscript. Traffic signals, signs and lane markings may be inadequate. 10) Traffic mix includes large numbers of slow moving vehicles, such as bikes with sidecars, tuk tuks, bullock carts and old, overloaded trucks in addition to cars, buses and newer trucks. 11) Freely roaming animals may wander into traffic any time. In more rural areas, be alert for dogs sleeping on road surface. [Source: asirt.org

Driving in Thailand

Driving in Thailand is on the left side of the road (different from United States and the same as Britain), the road signs are generally in Thai and English, and distances and speeds are measured in kilometers. The roads between the major cities are paved, but those in mountains, forests and rural areas are primarily dirt and gravel. Some of them are in poor condition, especially in the monsoon season when they may become impassable.

Driving in Thailand is not recommended in the cities but is reasonably safe in quiet rural areas in daylight. Even though the driving laws in Thailand are more or less the same as those in the U.S., people don't necessarily obey them, so drive defensively. In addition to cars and trucks, the roads are sometimes filled with bicycles, motor scooters, pedestrians, tuk tuks, water buffalos and other animals. Thai drivers pass around blind corners, honk their horns incessantly, and drive very aggressively. Gasoline is more expensive than in the United States and gas stations and mechanics are fairly plentiful. Even so, make sure your car has a spare tire, jack, spare battery water, an extra fan belt and an emergency triangle. There are also military checkpoints and lots of bored police so make sure papers and car are in good working order.

Driving at night is not a great idea as many of the truck and bus drivers are overworked and forced to drive throughout the night - and many resort to using amphetamines (yah-bah in Thai) to keep themselves awake. Even sober, they tend to have little respect for cars. Consequently, you should be aware that the bigger vehicle has right of way on Thai roads; be prepared to get out of the way quickly if there is a large truck behind you.

Passing on blind corners is not uncommon in Thailand, nor is it unheard of for cars or motorbikes to drive against traffic on the opposite shoulder or down the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic. Defensive driving is a must in Thailand (except for in Bangkok where it won’t get you out of the driveway).

The Association for Safe International Road Travel reports: 1) Use great caution when driving, as standards are poor. 2) Drivers involved in road crashes often flee the scene. 3) Avoid driving during heavy rains, as poor driver behaviors tend to increase sharply. 4) . Main roads often have motorcycle lanes at the side. Be alert for cyclists and motorized carts approaching against the flow of traffic in these lanes. 5) Be prepared to yield to larger vehicles. 6) Motorcyclists often weave in and out of traffic. 7) The spelling of the English equivalents for names of cities, roads, streets, districts, and provinces often varies considerably. 8) Officials overseeing driver’s license tests are very lenient. 9) Drivers and pedestrians view traffic violations as minor offenses. 10) Behaviors that most frequently contribute to road injuries and fatalities include driving under the influence of alcohol, speeding, substance abuse, and non-use of seat belts and helmets. 11) Drivers tend to speed and often fail to obey traffic laws, traffic lights and road signs. 12) Passing on the right, although illegal, is very common. Drivers frequently pass on hills and blind curves. 13) Drivers often fail to stay in their lane and frequently create a third lane in the middle of two-lane highways. [Source: asirt.org

14) Drivers of larger vehicles often assume they have right of way. 15) Commercial drivers often pass other vehicles irresponsibly in mountainous areas and commonly use alcohol, amphetamines and other stimulants. 16) Motorcyclists and motorized carts in motorcycle lanes frequently travel against traffic. 17) Slow moving vehicles, making U-turns on national highways, cause collisions with oncoming traffic. 18) Be alert when entering intersections. Motorcycle drivers tend to drift into the right hand lane (the wrong side of the road in Thailand) when making a right hand turn and then drift back into the left hand lane after completing the turn. 19) Drivers tend to use the horn frequently in traffic. They often blow horns for good luck when passing a temple or roadside spirit house. 20) The left turn signal means it is okay to pass. The right turn signal means someone is passing from the other direction. 21) Vehicles tend to be poorly maintained. 22) Social and economic losses associated with road crashes amount to about 2.13 percent of Thailand’s GDP.

City Driving in Thailand

Bangkok has to many vehicles, the traffic is often horrendous and driving is difficult for drivers unfamiliar with the city itself or city driving in general. Whilst Thai drivers are relatively courteous and considerate to other road users (horns are used very rarely), traffic directions often change during the day to help with rush-hour traffic flow. These changes are seldom posted on signs, and none of these are in English, hence unfamiliar drivers can end up a considerable distance from their desired location due to enforced traffic flows.

Parking and motor scooters drivers are problems in the cities. Directing traffic at some intersections in some Thai cities are traffic officers who sit in booths and switch the traffic lights by hand and shout insults at offenders out the window. In other places there are plastic policemen put there with aim of getting drivers to slow down through deception. In recent years, more traffic lights and bus lanes have been added to reduce traffic jams and cut the rate of automobile accidents. Pedestrian are notorious for jaywalking disobeying walk signals. In Chiang Mai, 2,000 unemployed people were hired to keep pedestrians in line at major intersections.

The morning rush hour often extends from 6:30am to 11:00am, with the afternoon rush hour 2:30pm to 6:00pm. If you dare driving there watch out for people who: 1) drive on the sidewalk; 2) suddenly sweep across lanes of traffic to make a quick turn; 3) drive in reverse to back up to a missed turn; 4) drive with their parking lights instead of headlights at night; 5) pass on the inside lanes; 6) squeeze in three cars abreast in two lanes; 7) drive the wrong way down one way streets; and 7) run red lights and stop signs.

The Association for Safe International Road Travel reports: 1) Condition and maintenance of roads is generally good. 2) Streets in larger cities are often congested; tend to be narrow. 3) Traffic signals, lane markings and road signs may be inadequate. 4) Drainage systems are often inadequate or lacking; risk of flooding during heavy rains is often high. 5) Freely roaming animals and animal-drawn vehicles increase road risk. 6) Elephants, wandering in the streets of Bangkok and other larger cities, sometimes become involved in road crashes. In Bangkok, anyone spotting an elephant is asked to call the elephant helpline. Phone: 1362.[Source: asirt.org

Driving Customs and Habits in Thailand

Driving Customs in Thailand: 1) Cars making a right hand turns have the right of way over people that are driving straight. Often people turn into traffic without even looking to see if there is any traffic coming. 2) Drivers suddenly stop, slow down and pull over. One reason for this is that the address system in Thailand is very confusing and drivers are often lost and looking around for a landmark. Thai streets don't have names and people usually don't carry maps. 3) Thai sometimes turn their engine off and shift into neutral when going downhill to save gas. They also turn their lights whenever they stop at a traffic light or stop sign.

One driving habit that is virtuous but annoying is when drivers stop out of the blue in front of a wat to pray. More annoying still are the drivers that bow their heads and clasp their hands in prayer while the car is still moving. As part of its effort to reduce car accidents, authorities have considered banning platform shoes, putting on make-up and holding babies while driving.

Despite the massive traffic jams, motorists sound their horns less than frustrated drivers in other counties. One Thai man told National Geographic that while stranded in traffic jams, 'we meditate. It is the Buddhist way."

Nearly every week women deliver babies in vehicles because that get through the traffic to a hospital in time. After 47 babies were delivered on the road in March 1996, the Thai Red Cross began giving police instruction on how to deliver a bay in a car. Among King Bhumibol’s projects for urbanites is a program to teach police how to deliver children to help women in labor stuck in traffic.

Thais: the World Worst Drivers?

According to the blog American Expat in Chiang Mai: “Some people say Thai drivers are the very worst in the world. They seem to make up their own traffic rules as the go. Driving in Bangkok is almost absolutely impossible for one trained to drive in the US or in Europe. Cars straddle two lanes, sometimes passing on the right or left when there is no lane there, and motorbikes will weave around cars loaded down with three riders (or more) with no helmets and the driver is talking on a cell phone. In Los Angeles, these actions could get you killed, but at the minimum you would have horns blaring and middle finger salutes along with a lot of choice words. But in Thailand, there is almost no horn honking, nobody gets excited, and drivers are very calm about their many near death experiences. “

Safety regulations are often loosely enforced. Thailand passed a law in 1994 requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, but bareheaded riders with policemen looking on are a common sight on Bangkok. In 1998, more than 500 motorcyclists paralyzed traffic for four hours in Phuket to protest a new helmet law.

An aggressive campaign against drunk drivers—that included setting up checkpoints throughout the city and giving breathalyzer tests to 24,00 drivers— in Bangkok is credited with cutting deaths and serious injuries by a third in Bangkok and saved the city $150,000 in repair costs for fixing up street lights busted up by drunk drivers. People caught drunk driving have to do community service after their first offense. For the second offense they face one month in jail and a $108 fine (a lot money in Thailand) and may have their license suspended.

Automobile Accidents in Thailand

Safety standards are generally poor in Thailand and deadly road accidents are common. By one count two people die in road accidents every hour and accidents cost the country 12 million baht every hour. Over 50 percent of traffic accidents are caused by drink drivers. Speeding, dangerous and driving while sleepy or fatigued are also blamed. Tourists periodically injured or killed in car, bus, motorcycle and tuk tuk accidents. A report by the World Health Organization said the country saw some 38.1 road deaths per 100,000 of population, compared to an average of 18.5 in Southeast Asia as a whole. [Source: AFP, 2013]

According to The Association for Safe International Road Travel: 1) About 60 percent of emergency room admissions involve road crash victims. 2) Four of five fatal road crashes involve mopeds or motorcycles. 3) There are 12 road fatalities per 10,000 vehicles in Thailand, compared to 2.0 in the United States. 4) Behaviors that most frequently contribute to road injuries and fatalities include driving under the influence of alcohol, speeding, substance abuse, and non-use of seat belts and helmets. [Source: asirt.org

The Songkran New Year holiday has traditionally been one of the most dangerous times to be on Thai roads as there are many people driving and a higher number than usual are drunk. A record 687 people died during a the five-day Songkran New Year holiday in 2002. Most of the deaths were attributed to drunk driving, amphetamine consumption and slippery roads. In 2009, a total of 226 people were killed and 2,329 were injured in the first three days of the holiday, 20 percent more than the previous years despite a crackdown on drunk driving. Almost half the fatal accidents were alcohol related. Speeding was another leading cause of death on the roads. On the second day of the holiday 83 people were killed in 851 accidents, with most dying in motorcycle crashes according to the Thai Interior Ministry. [Source: AFP-Jiji]

A number of accidents have been attributed to the theft of road signs by the thieves who sell the signs to scarp metal dealers. Sometimes the thieves use large trucks to steal signs that are up to six meters square and weigh 150 kilograms. Particularly dangerous has been the theft of signs that warn motorists of an upcoming dangerous curve.

In January 2007, 16 people were killed when a tour bus carrying schoolteachers in northeastern Thailand plunged off a mountain road. Another 30 were injured. In January 2008, 22 people were killed and 27 were injured when a bus carrying university students and teachers slammed into a hillside in eastern Thailand. The bus was traveling downhill on a steep, curvy road when it hot the hillside. An investigation showed the brakes in the bus had failed.

In October 2013, Associated Press reported: “At least 16 people were killed when a pickup truck crashed into a tree on a rural road in Thailand’s northeast, according to police. Police Col. Suthee Setthawong says the pickup truck carrying a number of construction workers slammed into a big tree next to a road in Ban Dan district in Buriram province. Police believe the driver fell asleep while driving, he said. Police found a tablet of methamphetamine in his pocket and a bottle of alcohol next to his seat. Buriram is 300 kilometers northeast of Thailand’s capital Bangkok. [Source: Associated Press, October 7, 2013]

One posting on Isaanstyle blog reads: “I still remember vividly a horrible crash I had attended a while ago where a drunk Thai guy (surprising) ran into some girls on a motorbike. One girl was killed instantly and she was not a pretty picture to see. Another girl was in a bad way. As the crowd of gawkers gathered to do nothing other than rubber neck, there were tiny kids standing in front of their parents looking at the scene while parents talked. It made me sick to see this and I couldn’t believe that people could be such terrible parents. There are things that kids can see and other things that they just shouldn’t see. [Source: Isaanstyle blog, February 26, 2009]

Round-the-World Cyclists Killed in Thailand

In 2013, AP reported: “A British couple's round-the-world cycling odyssey ended in tragedy when both of them were killed in a road accident in Thailand. Peter Root and Mary Thompson, who had been chronicling their journey in a blog, died when they were hit by a pickup truck in a province east of Bangkok, Thai police said. The couple, both 34 and from Guernsey in the Channel Islands, left Britain in July 2011 and had cycled through Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and China. [Source: Gregory Katz, Associated Press, February 18, 2013]

The trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the couple, who met in art school and spent six years saving money and planning their journey, Peter's father Jerry Root told the Associated Press in an interview. "They were both inspirational," Jerry Root said. "They didn't just talk about it, they did it. I couldn't be prouder of them." He said they were both experienced cyclists who knew the rigors and risks of extended bicycle travel.

Thai Police Lt. Col. Supachai Luangsukcharoen said Monday that investigators found their bodies, their bicycles and their belongings scattered along a roadside, along with a pickup truck that crashed between some trees. Supachai said the truck driver, 25-year-old Worapong Sangkhawat, was seriously injured in the crash. He told police his truck hit the cyclists as he was reaching down to pick up a cap from the vehicle's floor, Supachai said. The driver has been released on bail and faces charges of causing death by dangerous driving, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.

Thailand Bus Accidents

In April 2013, AFP reported: “Five people died, including a seven-month-old baby and a Belgian woman, and 53 were injured when a Thai tour bus plummeted off a hillside in northern Thailand after its brakes failed, police said. Passengers said the coach had swerved several times on winding mountain roads, before it ploughed through a fence and down a steep ravine, according to local police in Phitsanulok province 380 kilometers (235 miles) from Bangkok. “Five people were killed – two men and three women, including one woman from Belgium- and a seven-month-old baby boy,” district police captain Sane Promrut told AFP on by telephone. [Source: Agence France-Presse, April 8, 2013]

He said the bus, which was travelling from northeastern Udonthani province to the main northern city of Chiang Mai, plunged about 20 meters (66 feet) in the early morning crash. Police said the dead Belgian woman was in her early twenties. Hospital staff said the mother of the baby boy was in a critical condition, with internal bleeding, while the child’s father had suffered broken legs in the accident. A 30-year-old Belgian man and a Japanese man were also among the injured. “The bus had problems with its brakes and was speeding before it crashed over the cliff,” Sane said, adding that passengers had smelled burning and the driver, who is also in a critical condition, had stopped to try and fix the problem before the crash.

Twenty-Nine Die as Bus Plunges into Thai Ravine

In December 2013, AFP reported: “At least 29 people were killed and four badly injured when a bus plunged into a deep ravine in northeast Thailand, police said. The accident occurred around midnight Thursday-Friday in Lom Sak district, Phetchabun province while the bus was en route to the northern province of Chiang Rai. “We suspect the bus driver fell asleep,” Major General Sukit Samana, police commander of Phetchabun province, told AFP. Twenty-eight bodies were found in the ravine and one died in hospital, he said. Several others were in a critical condition. Two Chinese citizens were among the victims, Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency reported quoting the Chinese embassy in Bangkok, although there was no confirmation from the Thai authorities. The bus, which was carrying 40 passengers, was completely destroyed in the accident. [Source: AFP, December 27, 2013]

Transport Minister Chadchart Sitthipunt said the bus smashed through the safety barrier of the Phamuang bridge, whose highest pillar stands at 50 metres (164 feet) tall and which links north and northeast Thailand. “The accident may have been caused by a reckless driver as the bus was travelling at high speed going downhill and it crashed through the bridge railing before plunging into the 50- to 70-metre deep ravine,” he said. “The eyewitness who informed the police said the bus went very fast before it plunged into the ravine,” Sukit said. He said more than 100 police, soldiers, civilians and rescue workers had joined the rescue effort.

The accident occurred as millions of Thais are expected to travel during the New Year period to take advantage of a five-day public holiday. At least 20 people were killed in October when a tour bus carrying elderly Buddhist devotees plunged into a ravine in northeast Thailand.

Bicycles and Motorscooters in Thailand

Motorcycles and motorscooters are arguably the most popular and common modes of transportation in Thailand as they are inexpensive and fuel efficient. Both within cities and around the countryside, motorcycles are used by numerous Thais for work and personal travel. Many Thai people can both eat and talk on a cell phone while several family members are piled in front and back of them on the bike. Travelers can use a motorcycle taxi or rent a motorcycle or motorscooter.

Four of five fatal road crashes in Thailand involve mopeds or motorcycles. Even so safety regulations are often loosely enforced. Thailand passed a law in 1994 requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, but bareheaded riders with policemen looking on are a common sight on Bangkok. In 1998, more than 500 motorcyclists paralyzed traffic for four hours in Phuket to protest a new helmet law.

In 2003, Honda had a 70 market share of Thai motorcycle and motorscooter market and Yamaha had 12 percent. In 2004, Yamaha sold 340,000 units in Thailand up from 27 percent from the year before. These days motorscooters from China are more common sights but most Thais prefer Japanese-made ones for their reliability.

Many travelers to Thailand rent motorcycles and scooters. Particularly popular in northern towns like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai as well as the beach towns on Koh Samui and Phuket, Thai motorcycles are the leading cause of death of foreigners in Thailand, though they are both inexpensive and convenient if driven carefully. With the deposit of your passport you can rent a 100-125 cc semi-automatic scooter for as little as 150 baht a day (about $5). Fully automatic scooters cost slightly more and top-of-the-line 1000cc motorcycles will cost you upwards of 2500 baht a day (even more if you want to drive a Harley Davidson).

If you have to misfortune to get into an accident, it's likely to be judged as your fault (even if it wasn't) and you will be expected to pay (on the spot) for any damage caused (to vehicles and people). If someone is injured, the asking amount will be increased to cover the treatment costs - these amounts are definitely up for negotiation, strange as it may seem. Any serious injuries and deaths will definitely involve the police being called - you may still be able to get out of trouble by paying enough money, but it's not certain. Police often act as negotiators in the settlement of accident compensation. Oddly enough police tend to give the benefit of the doubt to those who report an accident. It’s a gamble any time the police get involved, but if they are going to eventually become involved, it may be better to be the first one to calmly report that they have been the victim of another person’s negligence.

Thailand isn’t really a bike bicycle-riding nation in part because many regard the weather as too hot for bike riding but also because people earn enough to buy a motorbike. In the early 2000s, then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra gave out 375,900 bicycles to students in remote areas of the nations to help them get to school.

Motorbike Accidents in Thailand

Thailand has the world's worst record on motorbike accidents, which claim 11,000 lives a year. The Guardian reported: “Official statistics suggest such incidents account for 70 percent of the country's road fatalities. Many die because they don't wear a helmet. According to a Motorcycle Safety Foundation report, unhelmeted riders in Thailand are between two and three times more likely to be killed, and three times likelier to suffer a "disastrous outcome"... Only 47 percent of those driving or riding pillion wear helmets. Official figures suggest neighbouring Asian countries fare little better, with motorbikes accounting for 61 percent of fatalities in Indonesia, 58 percent in Malaysia and 62.8 percent in Cambodia. [Source: Kate Hodal, The Guardian, May 15, 2012 ><]

“The region's high statistics are partly explained by the preference for cheap and easy motorbikes over cars, and their resulting ubiquity. But Ratanawadee H Winther, of the Bangkok-based Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF) – working with the Thai government and key stakeholders to meet road safety targets – believes there are also cultural reasons, not least a seeming indifference to safety precautions. "Thai people still lack awareness and take safety very lightly," says Winther. "They're also very superstitious when it comes to death – for example, they believe someone will not die if they're not 'meant' to." ><

Dr Witaya Chadbunchachai, the director of the trauma and critical care centre of Khon Kaen regional hospital's centre for injury prevention and safety promotion, which collaborates with the World Health Organisation, believes Thailand's rapid industrialisation is also a factor. "Mass public transport is insufficient and ineffective," he says. "We see wider, better roads into villages, but they've not been designed with safety in mind, and we have a high volume of vehicles on the roads – 22m motorcycles and 6m cars. It's too easy to get a driver's licence … and just because a driver has a licence doesn't mean he's a good driver." ><

“Both Winther and Chadbunchachai say unlicensed motorbike drivers are common because a lack of viable public transport means motorbikes are used for everyday tasks including carrying large and bulky items, driving at night (often under the influence), and going to school, work or the market. Many motorbike riders are under driving age. "Most students who live rurally have to go to school but are below the driving age of 18, so to get around they use motorbikes," explains Winther. "The police don't want to punish them for their situation, so they usually let them go on their way." ><

Efforts to Improve Motorbike Safety in Thailand

On efforts to improve motorcycle safety, The Guardian reported: “The government is inattentive towards its safety programme, depending on partners to help roll out national programmes, says Arun Pinta of Thailand's Road Safety Directing Centre. The centre, responsible for Thailand's road safety initiatives, is part of the same disaster mitigation and prevention department that deals with floods, earthquakes and land development. "There is a lot to do," says Pinta. This month, the AIPF and the government are piloting the Thailand helmet vaccine initiative, aimed at achieving a 100 percent helmet-wearing rate among children. The message is that wearing a helmet is an effective "vaccine" against injury or death, and the most effective way of protecting children on the roads. [Source: Kate Hodal, The Guardian, May 15, 2012 ><]

The pilot is part of a worldwide initiative to increase helmet use led by the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, AIPF and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, among others. It will build capacity among police and parents and work on public campaigns and education. The goal in Thailand, says Winther, is to focus on helmet provision, technical assistance and awareness through schools. But activists also want technology such as speed cameras, radar guns and breathalysers. ><

"If we had a 100 percent helmet rate, we'd save 3,000 lives every year, and 100,000 people would have fewer injuries and disabilities," argues Chadbunchachai. "Around 80 percent of those who die from motorbike accidents suffer head injuries, and roughly 5 percent of those admitted to hospital from motorbike accidents end up handicapped – that's about 40,000-50,000 people. They have spinal or head injuries and become dependent on relatives or parents, unable to work again."

According to Winther, helmet use depends on affordability, availability – children's helmets are often found only in larger cities, for example – and design. "In Thailand, standard-issue helmets are very heavy because they are based on EU standards, which are very stringent but formulated for cold countries where heat is not a problem," Winther says. "The helmets here are so heavy and ugly, it doesn't encourage people to wear them." Despite the difficulties Thailand faces, activists hope targets will eventually be met. "We have the expertise, the knowhow and the financial resources," says Pinta. "We just need to get more people to wear their helmets." ><

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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