On the road to nowhere

Drink-drivers caught over the festive season lost their motorcycles and cars for a few days, but learned very little.

It was like a celebration of sorts; the kind befitting New Year. Did you see the faces of the young men who went to retrieve their motorbikes? They were all over the Thai media last Tuesday, the first day they could get their vehicles after being nabbed for drink driving over the holiday break.

Some arrived on the backs of motorcycles driven by friends, laughing and jostling each other. They grinned and mugged for the cameras. Some gave high-fives, others gave the thumbs-up.

One arrived in the back of a pickup truck along with another six friends. While there were no liquor bottles in sight, it was clear the guys had been up to something for a couple of hours that morning that made them red-faced, invigorated and loud.

One young man sauntered into the station then sauntered out a few minutes later only to have a brief conversation with his friends. They all chipped in some money, and the man sauntered back inside with his wad of cash. A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Afterwards, once the bikes were retrieved, a couple of victory signs were flashed at the media, though victory for what remains an important question. One man kissed the petrol tank of his motorbike. That evoked a lot of laughter. Another posed for the cameras flashing a peace sign and a grin, while his mother and father stood not far away, smiling too as their offspring became the centre of media attention, albeit briefly and probably for the first time in his life. He’d be the toast of his village, for sure, for making it onto TV.

It is a little difficult to fathom the logical progression of an arrest for driving under the influence, then the carnival-like ensuing scene outside police stations across the country where formerly drunken motorcyclists were reunited with their weapons of choice.

Speaking of logical progressions, what is going on with the Thailand road toll? Figures are flying in the face of logic, for reasons way beyond my mental capacities. That leaves me feeling a little on edge and twitchy, not a good look in these early days of 2016.

Thailand’s escalating death toll has been a regular topic in this column. Perhaps it is because I’ve worked closely with one prominent Thai journalist, Krissana Lalai, who is a tireless champion of drink-driving laws. He is Thailand’s watchdog for accessibility, or “universal design” as he calls it, meaning the ability for a wheelchair and the disabled to go everywhere people on two fully functioning legs can go.

His other case is drink-driving. Krissana sits in a wheelchair, the result of a freak road accident 15 years ago at the height of his journalistic fame, which resulted in an agonising six-month stay in hospital as he came to terms with his new life as a paraplegic.

Road toll statistics are as high as they are sketchy in this country, but as recently as October last year the World Health Organisation was claiming Thailand had the second-deadliest roads in the world, with a little under 40 people on average dying on Thai roads per day. The 2015 Global Status Report Of Road Safety placed Thailand just under Libya. Another world survey put us at No 2, just under Namibia. Either country doesn’t make us look good.

Krissana and I have discussed this before, but we both pinpoint a general shift in perception towards the road toll some five to seven years ago. It was then Thai authorities started to make inroads towards curbing it.

One can be cynical and say the shift was a result of the realisation that more revenue could be obtained from tighter road rule enforcement. Even if this is true, you will get no protest from me. If the police can fill their coffers from fines resulting from speeding tickets and roadside breath tests, then good for them. May they get rich on it — anything to stop 40 people dying per day and an army of severely maimed.

New measures to curb the road toll over the past five years have been impressive or, at worst, a good start. There were restrictions on alcohol sales. Roadside breathalysers were enforced.

There were stepped-up media campaigns to educate drivers that drinking and driving did not mix. Billboards went up featuring pictures of forlorn children asking where their daddy was (dead, thanks to an accident) and the most common of all, a picture of a gift of a liquor bottle with the now-popular saying: “Giving alcohol is akin to cursing somebody.”

The biggest change came before this New Year period, dubbed “The Seven Days of Death” by the government, since it publicly tracks on a daily basis how many people die and get maimed in how many accidents. For the first time, the prime minister used his sinister Section 44 rule (which gives him the power to do absolutely anything short of turning you into a frog) to allow any drunk driver to have his vehicle confiscated by the police on the spot.

This led to a total of 4,672 seizures, the majority being motorcycles belonging to men under the age of 20. (There were a couple of notable exceptions; in Udon Thani a drunken ice-cream vendor had his ice-cream truck seized. One wonders if he had any rum and raisin in his stash?)

In total, more than 28,000 motorcyclists and 10,000 car drivers were arrested for drink driving over the 11 days from Christmas Day until Jan 4. That’s a lot, right?

Awareness campaigns … alcohol sale restrictions … roadside breathalysers … seizing vehicles … mass arrests … what effect has it all had on the Thai road toll?

With the exception of one freak year, the death toll has steadily increased over the past five years. This year alone, the road toll rose 11% when compared with last year with 380 dead and 3,505 injured.

Where is the logical progression in that?

There was absolutely no good news when the figures were released last Tuesday, other than a mildly congratulatory paragraph for the four provinces (Trang, Phrae, Ranong and Sukhothai) where nobody died on the roads. Congratulatory? Look at it the other way around — 73 out of 77 provinces suffered road fatalities.

Despite how I may sound in this column from time to time, I am a man who takes great comfort in logical progressions. Clampdowns on alcohol sales, random breathalysers and strict measures such as seizing vehicles must mean the road toll should go down. But it didn’t. It went up. Dramatically.

So the more we crack down, the worse the road toll gets?

Perhaps the answer could be found last Tuesday in the media footage of the young men who fronted up to police stations around the country, 3,000 baht in hand, to collect their vehicles.

I don’t know about you, but if I had to go collect my car after being nabbed for drink-driving, I’d do it wearing a heavy jacket, dark glasses and a wig. There would be no victory walk for me. And yet that’s what all those men were doing, flashing peace signs and victory signs as they did the alleged walk of shame. It was sanook.

Nobody was hurting, and indeed we are in a bizarre situation where the people who need to hurt the most have lost nothing — other than 3,000 baht. If anything, they have gained valuable information, such as which roads not to traverse the next time they get off their faces. And why shouldn’t there be a next time?

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