The gruesome road tragedy in Nakhon Ratchasima on Sunday night should serve as wake-up call for Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob to rethink continuing to allow the use of converted vans for public transport.
The accident in which 11 passengers burnt to death after the LNG-powered van smashed into the median of Mittrapap highway and exploded has renewed public discussion over the safety and public vans' roadworthiness and whether policymakers are doing enough to protect public safety.
It must be remembered that road safety experts have already concluded that public passenger vans -- mostly converted from personal passenger or even delivery vans -- are unfit for service as public transport vehicles and should be replaced with larger mini-buses. The junta government several years ago made it a legal requirement that from August 2019 onward, operators of old public vans that had been in service for more than ten years must replace them with mini-buses.
However, the policy did not pan out because Transport Minister Saksayam in 2019 scrapped the mandatory aspect of the requirement and also extended the shelf-life of passenger vans from 10 to 12 years. To enhance safety, operators were told to improve various other aspects of their service, such as installing GPS and providing safety gear such as fire extinguishers and rubber hammers to smash windows when necessary. The policy U-turn was a response to lobbying by public van operators for leniency due to the economic repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Saksayam has been vocal in his opinion that accidents are drivers' fault, and not the result of having unsafe public vans on the road. For instance, after another gruesome accident in August 2019 when 12 Lao migrant workers and their Thai driver were killed in Sa Kaeo, Mr Saksayam was quoted warning the public that "passengers must not ride with drivers who look unfit behind the wheel".
As for the most recent accident, Mr Saksayam has yet to make a public statement. Apparently, the policy that he advocates has not been effective in saving lives.
It needs to be mentioned that most passenger vans in Thailand are powered by LPG. Therefore, the back of the vans is often installed with LPG gas tanks. That makes rescue operations harder when these vans are hit from the rear. One particularly awful example of this was the recent Jan 9 smash when a passenger van doubling up as a student bus was struck by another vehicle in exactly such a manner. To remove eight students trapped in the van, rescue workers reportedly needed to cut through metal to bring them out. As the volunteers used the equipment needed to prise open a way out of the van, the gas tank was damaged and caught fire.
Minister Saksayam needs to wake up to reality. His mindset on road safety is highly questionable. Of course, reckless drivers cause road accidents too, but suitable and sturdy public transport vehicles are an integral part of mitigating this danger.
With the economy rebounding, it is time for the transport ministry to return to ensuring van operators decommission old vans. And if Mr Saksayam is unwilling to do this, then other parties must include mini-bus safety proposals in their election manifestos.
These are changes that are entirely feasible to make, and the previous, albeit scrapped, policy incentivised operators with low-interest loans to make the transition smoother. Of course, this would come at a cost of several billion baht, but given the volume of road fatalities up and down the country, it would be money well spent.