Road toll tallies only tell half the holiday follies

We're now only a heartbeat away from Songkran, and like Christmas (at least in the southern hemisphere), that means it's time to rejoice in the baking heat.

Already, the year's most horrendous holiday exodus is well under way. And with all the new vehicles bought under the first-time car buyer scheme, the tailbacks will doubtless be longer and the delays more frustrating than ever.

A leading economist has estimated that if the more than one million new cars bought under the scheme were to be lined up bumper to bumper, the jam would stretch from Chiang Mai to Singapore, and that's a time zone away.

Many more cars are expected to hit the roads during Songkran, and that's bound to slow, and probably stop, the flow. But could the slower-moving traffic actually help to reduce the number of holiday road accidents and, ultimately, lower the death toll?

We might find out when the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department, under the Interior Ministry, issues its fatalities reports on the festival.

While most of us enjoy splashing about on the streets, the agency likes to keep the public informed of exactly how many people are being killed and maimed on a daily basis on the nation's roads.

The figures are very precise, relayed from medics and rescue workers and volunteers at the scenes of accidents. But how reliable are they?

The use of the word "toll", which is commonly heard during the Songkran holidays, is equivocal at best. Are all of the deaths and injuries we're told about a direct result of the Songkran activities? Or does the figure also include those people killed in accidents that were totally unrelated to the festival, but that just happened to coincide with it?

Take this example: A motorcyclist breaks his arm after his bike side-swipes a car filled with booze intended for a Songkran party, but which had not been consumed. Does this count as a Songkran-related injury?

There is also the issue of possible duplication of counting, and the confusion over how to classify people who die not at the scene of an accident, but later in hospital. The agency compiling the reports would have us believe it leaves no stone unturned in tallying the accidents. In fact, it has even contended that in some provinces there are no accidents at all during the Songkran period.

It is clearly less of a hassle to generalise about accidents for the sake of speedy reporting of the daily tolls.

It has become almost a ritual these days for us to be bombarded with holiday death tolls thought to be serving a psychological, rather than a statistical or educational, purpose. My bet is that if anyone inside the ministry were to ask what merits splashing death tolls across the media every single, revel-filled day of Songkran, they would receive the prosaic response that this raises motorists' awareness about accidents so they will be more careful on the road.

But if numbers can scare us into action or inaction, are we being led to believe that the higher the death toll, the greater the chance we will listen? We civil souls surely don't have to be given an example by pointing to the blood and gore.

And the figures don't tell even half the story. While theories and realities draw the same conclusion that a lot of accidents during Songkran can be ultimately traced to alcohol, perhaps intoxicated drivers would not have killed so many had pickup trucks been barred from carrying unrestrained passengers in beds designed for cargo.

Last week, a bigwig in the Royal Thai Police Office admitted on state television that there is no law against pickup trucks being loaded with large water tubs filled to the brim. The tubs ensure people on the trucks have plenty of stock for sustained water fights with the revellers they pass on the streets or on motorcycles driving alongside them.

The revellers on the trucks are often too boisterous to notice they are not strapped in to the vehicles. But they are travelling as fast as the trucks they are in, and all it takes is for a driver to suddenly slam on the brakes for them to be hurled into the road.

And the police say they are powerless to stop this insanity. The best they can do is seek cooperation from revellers in keeping themselves out of harm's way.

The Songkran traffic problems are telling but have been ignored for too long. We must make the accident and casualty statistics reflect them, though we don't need daily reminders of the death tolls. A wrap-up of the figures at the end of holidays would suffice.

Enjoy the Songkran fun responsibly, and please stay safe.


Kamolwat Praprutitum is an Assistant News Editor, Bangkok Post.

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Writer: Kamolwat Praprutitum
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