Law enforcement gets off lightly again
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Law enforcement gets off lightly again

An old 2014 photo of a 'Ja Choey' (literally an 'indifferent Pol Sergeant' in local language), mock-up officer used to deter lawbreakers just metres from the scene of a fatal crash at an intersection in Bangkok which claimed one life and injuried three others. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)
An old 2014 photo of a 'Ja Choey' (literally an 'indifferent Pol Sergeant' in local language), mock-up officer used to deter lawbreakers just metres from the scene of a fatal crash at an intersection in Bangkok which claimed one life and injuried three others. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)

If the victim were not a young woman with a bright future as an ophthalmologist and the culprit were not a policeman, the accident on Phaya Thai Road on Jan 21 would have been worth at most of a few inches of coverage, and certainly not its current position as the nation's most talked-about story.

Each year, thousands of Thais die in road accidents. Official statistics show that around 10,200 people were killed between 2014 and 2017. Significantly, about one-third were pedestrians.

Unless a fatal accident involves a celebrity, we are barely kept abreast of this staggering number.

But even when more newsworthy personalities are involved, the media brouhaha and social uproar still barely amount to more than a flicker of concern.

I'm willing to bet that this intense interest in the accident that killed ophthalmologist Waraluck "Doctor Kratai" Supawatjariyakul will blow over in no more than a month.

There are so many things going on in Thailand every day that compete for our attention, and soon a tragic incident or a political drama is bound to recapture the nation's attention and so too weaken official resolve to find a more lasting solution.

But while the flames of interest continue to be fanned by coverage conversation, everyone has an opinion about what should be done to make our roads safer.

Many commentators believe tougher penalties would deter traffic violations. Others choose to focus on the physical and engineering defects in public roads and pedestrian crossings.

Of course, many also heap blame on Thai motorists' general lack of concern for road safety.

In its response, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration said it would install traffic lights at 100 crossings including at the scene of the fatal accident. The crossing would be widened and given a new paint job with more prominent zig-zag lines and horizontal strips added to warn motorists of the forthcoming crossing.

Surveillance cameras will also be installed at a number of crossings to encourage drivers to treat them with more care.

The metropolitan police say the maximum penalty for running a red light will likely be increased from 1,000 to 4,000 baht.

On the other end of the scale, road safety campaigners say that sustained campaigns will be launched to improve the overall standard of driving.

I say good luck to them all, but I'm not optimistic. I mean, there have been countless campaigns and projects to improve road safety in the past, and where have they led us? Back to square one, basically.

Potential Bangkok governor candidates have also not missed a chance to give their two cents about how they, as new governor, could solve the seemingly unsolvable.

Suchatvee Suwansawat, a trained engineer, says studies should be done following serious accidents to determine the cause or causes. He wants public participation in regular road safety audits to ensure roads and footpaths are always well-maintained and safe to use.

He would also mandate that school children receive road safety classes from as an early an age as possible in order to instill an awareness of how just dangerous roads can be and hopefully encourage safer behaviour as they graduate from pedestrians to drivers themselves one day.

Chadchart Sittipunt, also an engineer as well as former transport minister, points to the need to improve the physical condition and general fit-for-purposeness of roads and crossings.

He too is demanding strict traffic law enforcement.

The most poignant remark, however, came from the victim's mother as she petitioned the House Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice and Human Rights to demand that her daughter's death must not be in vain.

Ratchanee Supawatjariyakul says that despite showing due care and attention while crossing the road, her daughter still had no chance to prevent herself from being fatally struck by the speeding motorbike.

And it was this fact -- that her daughter had been following the rules, using an official pedestrian crossing outside a hospital -- which had only served to amplify the lack of adequate law enforcement, that should not reconcile.

How many times have we all seen motorists run a red light right, or fail to let pedestrians cross, right in front of one of the many police control booths at junctions around the capital, only for the officers inside to do nothing to apprehend the culprit?

How many times have we seen those traffic policemen rush from their booths to take action when road rules are broken so brazenly on their beat?

Another point Ms Ratchanee made -- and this gets to the root of the problem -- is that the policeman who killed her daughter cannot be solely held to blame.

Traffic violations have become so commonplace that everyone, including the police, take them for granted.

It is remarkable that Thais, who routinely break traffic laws, suddenly become law-abiding when they travel to or reside in another country where law enforcement is taken seriously.

It's not just passive legal devices, such as road signs and surveillance cameras, that deter violations. It's the seemingly ubiquitous presence of active law enforcement that does the job.

All these help citizens learn to respect the law. Do violations occur in those countries? Of course, but chances that violators will be caught are much higher.

What are the chances of Thailand ever achieving a similarly effective -- and fair, I should add -- standard of law enforcement? Offhand, I'd say not in any of our lifetimes.

However, we cannot lose hope even though the road towards police reform is strewn with such a high number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

That's because the Thai police force is not a professional police force. It has been exploited as a political tool for so long that it lost its professional integrity many moons ago in favour of becoming another symbol of the patronage system.

Reforming the police will be, as a Thai saying goes, "harder than pushing a stone mortar up a mountain".

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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