Speed focus not making roads safer
During my recent trip back from Chiang Mai last week, I was suddenly stopped by police who issued me a speeding ticket.
I was told I was going at 133.3kph while the law allows only 90kph on highways.
"It's all right if you drive at 120kph. That is still acceptable but more than 130 is too much," a police officer was kind enough to tell me.
That confirms one thing to me. Thailand may be one of the few countries in the world where there can be a compromise about the law -- legally!
Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.
There were quite a few motorists who shared the same fate on that highway and they, like me, had no intention of hiding their agitation as we all had to pay a 400-baht on-the-spot fine.
One driver vowed to conduct a campaign to free motorists from speed limits when on highways.
I happen to agree with him.
Speeding is not necessarily reckless driving. (But reckless driving can include speeding).
Why are some countries less bothered about speeding? Germany is an example. If you are on highways that are called autobahns there is no speed limit on rural stretches. Are the roads in Germany unsafe? No. On the contrary, it's one of the safest countries for motorists given the discipline of the drivers.
Then why does a country with stringent enforcement of speed limits such as Thailand have the world's most dangerous roads. The efforts of the authorities to bring road deaths down are futile. Look at the Songkran and New Year death tolls.
To begin with, the state needs to differentiate between driving. Speeding is different from recklessness. You can drive fast, very fast, but if you remain disciplined, the chances are that you will be safe.
But then again some may argue that Germany's road engineering is supreme and its well-designed roads help ensure safety, while roads in Thailand are not that safe in terms of design. Traffic equipment and lighting are also a factor.
But I still believe that it's drivers' indiscipline that is the main problem.
Focusing only on speed limits simply does not make motorists more disciplined on the road.
I say this because along the 700km or so on the road to and from Chiang Mai, I encountered all kinds of bad, irresponsible drivers. Those who cut others off, or overtook when they shouldn't, tailgated, etc. All posed threats to safety.
Yet police did nothing to stop them. Law enforcement did not exist except for those who drove too fast. And we know police do that basically because fast drivers are convenient targets. Needless to say, it's a big source of income (from fines), if not under-the-table money.
Perhaps this is why it's almost impossible for us to make our roads safe.
Besides, the authorities may have little idea how they inadvertently make the roads unsafe by carelessly setting up checkpoints that give no time for drivers to slow down. No warning signs prior to the spot to alert drivers that they are about to reach a road block. It's the same for those involved in road repair jobs who just put their equipment on the road. Without any protection measures, it's unsafe for those who do the work.
It's a nightmare to drive at 100kph or so and suddenly find such a checkpoint, with zigzagging traffic cones as if to trap drivers. Such checkpoints, which pop up everywhere during festivals like Songkran and New Year, are useless and can be a disaster. A few years ago, a police officer who set up such a checkpoint was killed by a motorist as he was standing at the spot to examine his work. His death could have been avoided. But it seems no one learnt from this.
After drivers pass the checkpoints, they mostly just resume their reckless driving as they know no one will catch them along the rest of the road.
When in Chiang Mai, I came across a number of such checkpoints in almost all districts. There can be many in a district with narcotics problems. Such checkpoints may not be a problem for local people who are familiar with the route, but it's a different matter for a visitor like me. I counted on luck as I passed those checkpoints without crashing, even driving at 80kph, the legal speed limit.
But we should not have to depend on luck when on the roads.
Former editorial page Editor
Ploenpote Atthakor is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.