Five weeks ago, 239 lives were lost when Malaysia Airlines flight 370 veered off course and crashed in the southern waters of the Indian Ocean. Since then, the world has watched, waited and interpreted every scant detail the massive international search team has provided.
This week, at least 300 people will die on Thailand’s roads — about one-and-a-half times the number of people killed when the Boeing 777 crashed into the sea — during the Songkran holiday. About 3,000 people will be injured seriously enough to warrant attention from authorities — many will have life-long disabilities, pain or scars.
What compounds the Songkran tragedy is that so few people seem to care. The dramatic spike in road deaths during Songkran has become not only expected but accepted: The official response from police and politicians shows only small improvements, while the behaviour of those in charge of vehicles gets no better despite the high death toll. It is almost treated as though the consequence of having so many drunk drivers and motorcyclists was a matter of fate rather than physics, as if taking to the roads on Songkran was a form of natural selection.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. While it’s true that more people will be in more vehicles on country roads this week, the vast majority of crashes are preventable.
The statistics tell only part of the truth, but they don’t lie. Figures from the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation in the past seven years reveal about 40% of the deaths and injuries were attributable to drink-driving. A further 20% were related to speeding and about 12.5% were put down to unsafe overtaking. That’s nearly three in every four deaths. So many lives could be saved from simply sobering up and slowing down.
Last year, 78.71% of the 2,828 recorded crashes involved motorcycles. For the six years before that, the figure stood about 80%. Road safety experts say helmets, safe-riding practices and ensuring young, unqualified riders stay off their motorbikes over Songkran could dramatically help cut the death toll. That toll is disappointingly stagnant. The department put the number of deaths last year at 323. In four of the past seven years there were more than 350 deaths, and only once was there fewer than 300.
There is no indication that this year will be any different. Politicians have been too focused on the ongoing crisis to offer anything more meaningful than changing the slogan from “seven days of danger” to “seven days of safety”. Police are promising to be more proactive and patrol rather than sit back and wait for accident reports to roll in.
This, hopefully, will have some positive effect, but it falls a long way short of the fundamental changes needed to bring the death toll down in any significant way. One recent study shows Thailand has the second-highest number of road deaths per capita in the world. The situation is worse at Songkran but still a disgrace during the rest of the year.
Thailand will not turn into Sweden, which last year recorded its lowest road toll since records began with 264 deaths from a population of 9.5 million. But it is possible to learn from others’ experience. In Australia, the state of Victoria pursued similar road safety policies as Sweden, with strict law enforcement for speeding and drink-driving and double penalties on dangerous holiday weekends. There, last year’s death toll was 242, the lowest since 1924. For each of the past five years it has been under 300, which would have seemed unthinkable in 1970 when the toll passed 1,000 deaths.
It has taken generations to change drivers’ behaviour, but thousands of lives have been saved.
The question is: What will Transport Minister Chatchart Sittipunt do in Thailand? While the government might be limited by its caretaker status he should do everything in his power to save lives. Mr Chatchart’s challenge is this: Get the Songkran death toll under 300. Then pledge to reduce it by 20 deaths a year. Make it clear that drink-driving is not acceptable, that no one should be on the back of a motorcycle without a helmet, that seatbelts save lives.
Mr Chatchart is widely liked even in these politically divided times. He is a smart, social-media savvy technocrat whose down-to-earth appeal is refreshing, and when he speaks he will be listened to.
It is time to use that power for good and save some lives.