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ROAD TO HELL

Songkran, that uniquely Thai festival combining sedate traditions with modern hedonism, is a time of joy for all who experience it. Yet it is also a time of mourning for many as the road death tolls soar with figures in recent years ranging from 361 to 638 over the 4-day festivities. While the increased traffic of upcountry migrant workers returning to spend time with their relatives is partly to blame, it is the combination of alcohol and Thai driving practices that plays the biggest role. Naked Farang decided to investigate further into the way Thais drive.

Learning to drive in England, I was taught the mantra: everyone on the road apart from me is an idiot. This was to encourage me to be a safer driver by never making assumptions. Just because someone was indicating to turn left, it didn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t, in fact, suddenly veer off to the right. Just because I had right of way, it didn’t mean that another car wouldn’t just pull out in front of me. In Thailand, this maxim is reversed. People assume that everyone else knows what they are doing so you can drive like an idiot.

Let’s go back a paragraph: learning to drive. I have never seen a learner driver or driving school in Thailand. A report of Thailand’s bus drivers even indicated that fewer than a quarter of them had taken lessons or passed any kind of driving test. The rest had simply been promoted from being a driver’s assistant where they had learnt by watching their erstwhile mentor.

However, most of the road deaths in Thailand, especially during Songkran, involve motorbikes. Drunken teenagers without helmets travelling at excessive speeds on motorbikes are accidents waiting to happen. Add to that the practice during Songkran of throwing buckets of water at them on already wet roads and it’s a recipe for disaster. Instant Death – just add water.

Throughout the year, motorbike accidents are frequent. Again, a lack of training in both riding the bike and the rules of the road can be blamed. It’s not uncommon to see kids as young as 10 riding motorbikes, most of them without helmets. It’s equally accepted to see motorbikes used as family saloons with both parents and a couple of kids aboard. You will even see young women in mini skirts sitting side saddle and applying make up while being taken to work on motorbike taxis in Bangkok.

The lack of official driving instruction at all levels explains why the vast majority of Thais have no understanding of any kind of Highway Code. Many don’t even know the most basic rules or international etiquette of driving. Indicators are rarely used even though Thais will meander from lane to lane at will. Overtaking on the inside is commonplace, even on motorways at high speed.

Traffic lights are more of a suggestion than a rule to Thais. During a trial run of cameras in early 2008, it was reported that in excess of 2,000 vehicles went through red lights at 15 Bangkok intersections in a week. I would suggest that the true figure was much higher and that the cameras were faulty.

In Thailand, 100 baht donations to the policeman’s benevolent fund cover most misdemeanours anyway. In road accidents that involve a farang, the police will invariably blame the foreigner simply because they are more likely to have insurance.

When I was working as an English teacher, I was teaching two young sisters. They were both university students who drove regularly. I asked them who they thought were better and safer drivers: men or women. Of course, I was expecting them to say women. However, they both concluded that men were safer. When I probed for reasons, I received a surprise. “Oh, men are safer because they drive much faster,” they agreed. “Women drive too slowly.”

I also had reason to set up a role play on several occasions and with hundreds of students over the years. The situation was that one student was driving a car and had to brake suddenly when a boy ran into the road. The second student was in the car behind and they ran into the first car. The role play involved them discussing the accident while they waited for the police to arrive. I learnt a lot during those role plays.

Most students wanted to sort everything out and leave before the police came, and few seemed interested in the boy who had run into the road. However, what was most shocking was that every single student who took part in the role play blamed the driver of the first car for stopping too quickly. Not one student knew that the driver of the second car was to blame for driving too closely to the first car and not being able to stop in time.

Despite all the evidence, I personally feel as safe on Thailand’s roads as in any Western country. Just remember, everyone on the road IS an idiot and you should be alright.

Paul Snowdon – April 20, 2008

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