Thailand's roads are death traps -- indeed the deadliest in this region and among the 10 most dangerous in the world. Despite a raft of measures to make these roads safe, nothing will change if nothing is done to save motorcycle riders.
Why? Because motorcyclists account for 74% of all road deaths, according to the Department of Disease Control. Of the 20,000 people killed on roads each year, 15,000 of them are motorcyclists. That is three out of four fatalities.
Despite ongoing efforts to improve road safety, the number of road deaths shows no sign of abating. Motorcyclists continue to face much higher risks from road accidents.
The problems are manifold. Due to Thailand's gross disparity, most people cannot access public transportation and cannot afford to own personal cars, so they must rely on motorcycles to commute. At present, there are more than 22 million registered motorcycles in Thailand.
Weak legal enforcement is also to blame. Of the 17.9 million traffic tickets issued in 2022, 14.3 million, or 80%, were unpaid.
Numerous other factors also contribute to motorcycle accidents. To correctly identify the causes, the body of knowledge and evidence is necessary.
But do we have the knowledge base necessary to address motorcycle accidents? If so, does the problem result from it being disregarded and not enforced?
In other countries, research has played a key role in creating a knowledge base and measures to reduce the frequency and severity of road accidents. From 2001–2010, the research focused on the behaviour of road users, particularly on the attitudes that cause accidents.
However, from 2011 to 2020, studies have started to pay more attention to the effectiveness of policies and measures, focusing on the effects on vulnerable groups like the elderly and pedestrians.
The focus of future road safety research will be on resource management, more effective measures, and safety technology.
Their research can effectively inform policy because there is a formal structure to manage traffic safety initiatives based on research findings.
In the European Union, this structure is where the public and private sectors, academia, and civil society work together to plan necessary research and oversee their implementation.
What about Thailand? Do we have enough knowledge base for effective road safety policy?
We reviewed over 2,000 road safety studies conducted in Thailand over the past 20 years and found that 37% of them focused on road users' risky behaviour. Few studies examine policy monitoring and evaluation.
In addition to human error, 23% of the research done during this period examined unsafe road conditions, and 15% on road safety management. Although motorcycles are the primary cause of traffic accidents and fatalities, only 10% of research focused on motorcyclists and the use of safety equipment like helmets.
These studies on motorcyclists still emphasised the factors that lead to collisions, blaming the riders for their mistakes, not looking for potential solutions. The recommendations to address unsafe roads and promote road safety habits were also based on case studies in certain locales only.
Only a small number of these studies looked at ways to reduce motorcycle accidents and fatalities such as making safety helmets mandatory and using CCTV to enforce speed limits. Sadly, these measures have not been effectively enforced. As a result, the decline in traffic fatalities has been difficult to maintain. These measures require special mechanisms to handle obstacles in order to be enforced effectively.
Additionally, these studies do not include the infrastructure design that focuses on ramping up safety among motorcycle riders. Instances of what needs to be done are: promoting safe riding among young people and new riders, supporting alternate public transportation, switching from motorcycles to safer modes of transportation, and developing technology to reduce road casualties and developing a motorcycle accident report system.
On top of that, there are still very few studies that analyse and appraise whether policies designed to reduce motorcycle fatalities functional and workable. These studies are necessary to correct the problems and increase the effectiveness of the current measures.
How to bridge this research gap and guarantee that the studies lead to concrete actions to cut down on motorcycle accidents and casualties?
To prevent tax money from being wasted on pointless projects, the government and funding organisations should take the following actions.
Government needs to fund research to focus on monitoring and evaluating road safety measures for motorcycles, particularly in legal enforcement, as it is essential for developing better management and strategies for efficient and long-lasting legal enforcement.
It is necessary to encourage system design research to advance motorcycle riders' safety on the ground. This can be achieved by supporting a network of researchers to collaborate between the centre and the regions.
Government must make sure that responsible agencies make use of the research as a benchmark in management mechanisms and action plans on road safety.
These mechanisms must foster the continuous exchange of knowledge and information among state agencies, funding organisations, academic institutions, the private sector, and civil society. Their interactions will result in a knowledge base that responds to practical needs and policy objectives to reduce motorcycle casualties. The Road Safety Thailand Center should oversee these mechanisms.
In addition, the centre should work with the funding organisations to develop channels for distributing information and knowledge on road safety to the general public and government agencies.
Every day, over 40 motorcycle riders lose their lives in traffic accidents, or about two every hour. Unless road safety measures pay attention to ordinary people who cannot afford cars, this tragedy will continue.
Nichamon Thongphat, Jitlaykha Sukruay, Nichcha Angsuphanich, and Pawika Klaharn are researchers at Transportation and Logistics Policy, Thailand Development Research Institute. Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.