Prathet Thai Antarai (Dangerous Thailand): Accident Files in the Land of Smiles

18 Jun

Every morning, my company shuttles me and other employees between our dorm and the hospital in which we work. Today, the driver was burning up the road like crazy, as usual. So I fastened my seatbelt and upon the “click” sound, all eyes turned to me. It seemed they all found it weird that I didn’t want to die yet.

So I sent the fiancé a message: “They all chuckled when I wore my seatbelt”.

To that he replied: “Oh f*** them! If the van crashes you can laugh as you walk away and step over their corpses.”

Me: “Yes, in sky-high heels!”

Him: “That’s my girl!”

Don’t get us wrong. We are not really mean people and we don’t really wish any harm to anyone. Quite the contrary, we are both frustrated by the lack of precaution some people have…..

I’ll give you the gory facts straight up.

Up to 26,000 people are killed in road accidents every year in Thailand, which puts the country in the 6th rank worldwide in terms of road casualties.

Between October 2011 and September 2012, the total number of reported accidents in Thailand was a whopping…wait for it…54,384!!! (1)

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LIKE CRUMPLED PAPER.A distorted piece of metal that was once a commuter van

Between October 27th 2012 and January 2nd, 2013, in celebration of the New Year holiday, a total of 3,329 people were injured in 3,176 road accidents reported throughout the country. Meanwhile, 365 people were killed. I don’t know about you but this really creeps me out. That’s 365 bodies for 365 days of the year. What a morbid and unlucky way to start the year!

I am not very superstitious but I know death tolls as high as this can’t be good. While some say accidents are premonitions of things to come, to me, it’s rather the result of an action previously taken (or not taken). If I were to be so bold, I’d say it’s a reflection of the people’s attitudes towards personal safety and welfare.  On a macro level, it teaches us a lot about Thai society’s disregard for responsible road practices and also, how they value life.

Maybe it’s the “Mai bpen rai” attitude that the Thais embody so well…

The site “Things Asian: Experience Asia Through the Eyes of the Travelers” provides us with a clearer understanding on the matter:

mai bpen rai, mai mee bpunhaa

The first phrase roughly translates to “it doesn’t matter”, the second to “no problem.” Together, they typify the Thai approach to life: don’t get bogged down by small obstacles, don’t worry, take it easy. Much to the dismay of Westerners, Thais employ these phrases even in situations that are dangerous, even life-threatening. (Westerner: “The house is on fire!” Thai: “No problem.”) If a Westerner protests, he is swiftly reprimanded with “jai yen” (calm ).

I admit, I had a little bit of this careless attitude when Ian and I were planning our trips all over Thailand. We both agreed that we want to travel and see the sights outside of the Bangkok metropolis. Our incessant dilemma though was: How to get there? Warnings about the Thai public transportation did not escape our ears.

I was born and raised in the Philippines and I have ridden practically all of the means of transportation there is, horse and water buffalo (carabao) included.  So I wasn’t really scared.  But Ian had never been to Asia before and I was worried about him. If there’s one thing I like about America, it is their strict adherence to road safety.  That is what he is used to.

During our first trip to Koh Samed, I didn’t have a problem with taking a mini-van back to Bangkok. My idea was: hell, mini-vans cut the travel time by an hour. We’ll get to our destination faster than a bullet.

And fast it was. I didn’t realize how much of a terrifying experience it was for Ian because I was asleep and drooling on his shoulders by the time our half-crazy driver was playing “Catch Me If You Can” with his fellow motorists. Expressway Edition.

Halfway to Bangkok, I woke up to the sound of my fiance, calling on to Jesus like an old Catholic lady. My baby was sweating like a sun-burnt laborer, the small towel I put in his back was soaking wet…I realized, the passengers’ attitudes towards the drivers’ speeding is a very important factor in the perpetuation of this devil-may care behavior on the road. Inside the van, I looked around us and saw the locals were dozing off, even snoring, like it’s just another day.

I used to hear people say that if you can drive in Manila, you can drive anywhere, pertaining to the “kaskasero” (speed maniac) attitude of Manila/Filipino drivers. Ha! They probably have never been to Thailand! If it were in my country, the Old Catholic ladies would have already cursed the delinquent driver to hell and back! Speeding and swerving Bangkok-bound, no one even bothered to call-out the kon kap’s (driver) maneuvering techniques. For them, the faster the better.

I made a mental note:  I would never put Ian through that kind of torment again.

Visit http://www.thingsasian.com/stories-photos/2489 for the full list.

On a more scientific approach, Ponboon et.al, of the Thailand Accident Research Center cited in “Contributing Factors of Road Crashes in Thailand: Evidence from an Accident In-Depth Study” reasons such as roadside hazards, cargo load, panic -like steering and driver age for the mounting accident rate.

For this article, I read the Land Traffic Act, B.E. 2522 (1979) proclaimed by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej himself.  I don’t really know how the traffic authorities actually enforces these regulations (do they go on patrol, do they install checkpoints, do they penalize non-seatbelt wearing drivers or overloading of passengers, etc.). But whichever way they are doing it, I am not impressed.

My first-hand observations on the traffic conditions here are unbelievable.

Take this photo, for example:

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This exhibits a simultaneous violation of:

Section 121 (500B). …………..The passenger shall ride at the back seat provided for the passenger, or in the side car.

Section 122 (500B). The rider and the passenger of a motorcycle shall wear a motorcycle helmet.

Section 43 (400-1000B)
No driver shall drive the vehicle:

* while being intoxicated by liquor or other alcoholic drinks

(I have no proof that Mr. Driver has been drinking but one must be surely drunk to make irrational decisions such as to carry 5 human beings, the 4 being children on a tiny two-wheel vehicle)

*with carelessness or recklessness which may cause danger to persons or property

* in a manner not normally practiced in driving a vehicle or while unable to see the way in front or at the back or either/both sides clearly enough for safety

*without thinking about the safety or suffering of other persons.

I am putting emphasis on that last line.

Safety issues which could potentially lead to suffering of persons should not be taken lightly.  I do think there is a limit to when “sabai sabai” (could be translated into English slang as “everything’s chill” or “not a care in the world”) is appropriate. Adherence to road regulation is clearly not something we should be “chill” about especially when it could mean the lives of our fellow human beings…

Perhaps in the third world countries plagued by poverty, the lives of our fellow human beings have become so cheap that we don’t care if we lose…what’s the statistics again? 26,000 people every year excluding the unreported cases!

Surely, I am not the first person to make these observations. While researching for this article, I have come across lots of blogs and websites who are expressing the same degree of frustration as I have. Check out some of them:

http://womenlearnthai.com/index.php/motorcycle-safety-campaign-in-thailand/

http://superenglishsurat.blog.com/2012/12/20/riding-on-your-motorbike-thai-style/

http://www.pattayadailynews.com/en/2012/01/13/dangerous-overloaded-sattahip-songthaews-carry-30-students/

http://amusingthailand.com/hell-on-wheels/thailand-bottled-water-truck/

http://www.globalish.com/forum/threads/when-three-isnt-a-crowd.294/

As I read and discover more about the traffic situation, I realize I need to learn more. It seems, there’s more to this story than what meets the eye. Most of the blogs I’ve read focused on the motorbike problem. Some discussed the issue of traffic violations in general, detailing statistics, charting values of road accidents per type of vehicle, overloading, etc. The list is endless.

The facts are appalling but what I am truly puzzled about is the motivation. Why would these people subject themselves to this amount of potential danger? My impression was that the story is more about a sheer disregard for rules or safety regulations, an overly relaxed or daredevil approach in life. I mean, I would understand if a passenger cab driver does a 100-120 (minimum is 80) in an almost empty toll way. But speeding and swerving when other vehicles are also speeding and swerving is unacceptable. Especially when I tell him I am not in a hurry!!! Maybe he doesn’t care about his life but I do care about mine.

Once again, I wonder if it is only a true mindlessness or unawareness of the possible tragedies that lurk in the sidelines. I am doubtful because mindlessness is not a very Buddhist attribute. But then again, I could be just generalizing. Besides, reckless drivers are everywhere, not only in Buddhist countries like Thailand.

Despite my annoyance, I am still concerned about those speeding private vehicle drivers- those who race to death as if they don’t have families to go home to. How many children each year lose their mothers or fathers to drunk driving?

More so, I am very worried about the future of those children whose parents take overloaded public transport commuting to and from their workplace.

Those parents — do they pause for a while and contemplate what could be the consequence of their actions? Do they think for a second…hey, maybe if I ride this overloaded vehicle and something bad happens, what’s going to happen to my kids? How will my loved ones feel?

Maybe they never think about it because the forms of transportation they take daily are the only ones they’ve known since the beginning of their lives. Maybe they learned from their parents that taking overloaded “song thaews” is okay. “Riding the motorbike taxi without a helmet is okay; ask mother, she does it too”. Don’t worry.  In turn, their kids learn from them and the cycle continues. It becomes a societal habit. It is integrated into the culture. It becomes a “normal” thing. That’s when it becomes a bigger problem-when we don’t realize the hazards plaguing us even when they’re already staring us in the eye.

1r

2r 3r 4r 5r 6r

While writing this, I asked various co-workers about what they think of the traffic problem in Thailand. More specifically, I asked whether they had an issue regarding speeding drivers in their country. 3/3 said “120kph is normal. In fact, that’s not too fast.” The nurse manager in the next department said “Oh! I’m not the only one doing that. XXXX does it too”.

I am no cultural psychology expert or road accident specialist, but I do have common sense. Most of the time, that is all that it takes to know that there is something wrong.

I believe the government of Thailand has recognized this issue too, long before I wrote this article.  The Thailand Accident Research Center is incessant in their efforts to promote safety awareness. Or so their website says. Despite its prevalence, the government tells us the accidents have been significantly reduced in the last few years. I don’t know about that but the numbers mentioned above still look big  to me.

A public problem becomes more relevant based on how it affects people across the socioeconomic spectrum. The Upper-class may not need to take public transport, their kids may not need to ride motorbike taxis to go to school. The rest rely on public transport drivers to take them to their destination. No matter the differences, tragedy can strike anybody. It is a great equalizer. Some motorists drive slow and steady. But a speeding car could hit them and cause damage to life and property. Little children crossing the pedestrian could get hit by drunk drivers. Even a careful driver who forgot to wear his seatbelt could die when he gets hit by a big delivery truck. What I’m saying: our individual actions affect not only ourselves but the world around us. Every little thing we do or not do impacts our lives in varying degrees.

Having said this, I conclude that in facing this dilemma, both government and people must do their share.

Individual motorists and even passengers can start by thinking about personal safety before turning on the ignition key. A perfect example is securing their seatbelts on. I often notice that public transportations such as taxis and mini-vans don’t have safety belts except for the passenger in the front. Tsk! Had Princess Diana worn hers, it’s possible she would be alive now. Who knows? Of course, regard for personal safety must be accompanied by a social conscience, a responsibility for one’s actions keeping in mind that a rapidly moving ton of metal could hurt or kill someone. Pedestrians must also be wary of what’s happening around them before they cross the street. They must use the right crossing or an overpass. Motor accidents also happen when pedestrians are careless and do not follow rules of the road.

On the government’s side, the solution, for Thailand, and likely also for the other developing Southeast Asian nations that have poor safety standards and practices, is a combination of boosting the existing  public awareness programs and  effective enforcement. Maybe the commercial campaigns, TV, radio, sopy and billboard ads depicting road responsibility as well as the horrible consequences of dangerous behavior messages aren’t coming across, eh?   And seriously, somebody has got to penalize those speeding drivers and drivers who don’t wear their goddamn seatbelts. Even harsher mandates are necessary for securing children safely in vehicles.

If the above suggestions could be effectively employed, the state will reap the windfall created by punitive fines for speeders and reckless drivers, the revenue paying for the public awareness campaign and – who knows? Maybe some funds left over to improve the roads! (Though honestly, Thailand’s road system is waaay better than most countries)

The eventual result would be a decrease in accidents over the coming years, which translates to more lives saved. Less injuries, less health care costs…the benefits go on.

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