The New Year traffic continued its deadly trend despite intensified official efforts to put a lid on the number of accidents. According to official reports, the seven-day period over the New Year from Dec 27 last year to Wednesday saw 3,176 accidents, 83 more than last year.
The number of deaths was reported at 365, 29 over last year, and the number of injured at 3,329, 46 fewer than last year.
As usual, motorcyclists made up the largest group involved in the accidents while drink driving and speeding were reported to be the two leading causes.
But, believe it or not, even in this bleak picture, one could still find some bright spots. Several years ago, the death toll normally exceeded 400. So the past road safety campaigns during New Year actually worked. Factoring in the number of new cars on the road during the past year of over a million, we could consider the accident statistics this year to be on the downward trend.
Despite my attempt at optimism, this is nothing to cheer about. The number of accidents and deaths are still horrendous by any measure. And it cannot help but highlight the fact that Thai drivers are not known for having good road habits.
Thai drivers hardly use their turn signals to make a turn or switch lanes any more. They use the road shoulder or emergency lane as an extra lane whenever there's slight congestion, and then swerve in where the lane ends, forcing drivers in their rightful lane to yield. They make U-turns from the far left lane, forcing cars in both directions to stop for them.
They make U-turns or right turns at the foot of bridges. They run red lights or go in the wrong direction. They park anywhere and everywhere. The list goes on ... and on and on ...
Given this near anarchic state of affairs it is hard to think anything positive about it. Yet it's amazing more accidents or deaths have not occurred. Most drivers still obey traffic rules. While a few drivers defy the red light in the absence of policemen, most continue to wait for the light to turn green.
Despite being cut in at close range by other vehicles several times a day, most drivers nonchalantly drive on. They may curse under their breaths, but we rarely see incidents of road rage that lead to violence.
And have you ever been amazed and wondered that, despite all the madness around us, we hardly hear a beep of the horn? The Thais' penchant for give-and-take and their much reviled mai pen rai attitude may have equipped them with the tolerance to get through it all.
However, all this does not detract from the fact that the poor road habits of Thai drivers have made driving in Thailand a mental challenge and dangerous pursuit for everyone. Over time the strain of driving under this condition could frazzle a driver's nerves and turn a normal person into a potential time bomb.
With more than a million new cars on the road last year, thanks to the government's populist first-time car buyer programme, the condition promises to turn for the worse.
The fact that many of the first-time buyers are also first-time drivers should give us pause. Nerves may start to fray more easily. We may begin to hear more horns honked and see incidents of road rage on a more frequent basis.
We obviously need stronger enforcement presence on the roads to improve traffic flow, calm nerves and mediate disputes. Unfortunately, the traffic police have sometimes been part of the problem rather than its solution.
Traffic checkpoints used to be a common sight in Bangkok, which resulted in heavier traffic jams without sorting out bad drivers. The police often commandeer the automatic traffic system and manually control it. Not only does it not help, it causes people to sit and fume in their cars far longer than necessary.
We've hardly ever seen police patrols on the roads to capture traffic violators red-handed. And why don't they ticket the cars that park at corners or on bridges?
The policemen are perhaps afflicted with the mai pen rai attitude or more serious discipline issues. They apparently need better training in traffic management and personal conduct as well as better incentives.
Traffic problems are mundane stuff that affects many other countries. But driving habits also define a nation's character. The Thai drivers are anything but disciplined. They will take advantage of others when given a chance. They do not respect the law because the law enforcers do not behave themselves in a way that commands respect.
So when some ministers in this government recently boasted about their development plans that would transform Thailand into a "developed country", I have to laugh. If they think increased GDP growth is the only indicator needed to make a developed country, they are setting themselves up for ridicule.
The way I see it, development is as much a state of mind as a state of material. It demands discipline, proper respect for the law, tolerance for different opinions and the right to participate in the affairs of the state.
Correcting driving habits may not take us right into the First World but it would lay the groundwork for a disciplined nation, which is a prerequisite for a developed country.
Wasant Techawongtham was formerly a news editor at the Bangkok Post. Currently a freelance writer, he also serves as editorial director of Milky Way Press, a publishing house.
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- Writer: Wasant Techawongtham