For safe roads, get tough on errant drivers
The tragic death of a Chilean cyclist while he was travelling on the Friendship Highway on Saturday stunned the whole country.
Juan Francisco Guillermo, 47, was killed instantly when his bike was hit by a pickup truck. His wife and son survived, with injuries.
Guillermo isn’t the first foreign cyclist to be killed in a road accident in Thailand while trying to complete a round-the-world cycling trip.
Two years ago, a British couple faced a similar fate when a reckless driver lost control of his vehicle and ploughed them down.
The two high-profile accidents have led cyclists to ask a question: Is Thailand a jinx for round-the-world cycle trips? It seems cyclists manage to survive their round-the-world ambitions in places far less bike-friendly than Thailand.
We should not forget the countless numbers of local cyclists who fall victim to road accidents — many fatal — each year.
The latest tragedy has led some cyclists to consider campaigning for road safety, while others float ideas about upgrading road infrastructure to better accommodate cyclists. Road shoulder extensions for inter-provincial routes or designated bike lanes in the city are two suggestions.
Their demand is understandable. Most, if not all, cyclists have experienced tough times on the roads, often being intimidated by cars and buses, especially at big junctions.
They know all too well that risky moment when a reckless driver gets too close to comfort while they are pedalling on the far-left lane (most drivers think it’s “their” lane). And they can never understand why a taxi driver has to cut in the front of them, only to pull over and pick up passengers, instead of slowing down the vehicle and waiting for them to pass.
As a cyclist, I believe the improvement of road infrastructure, while essential, is not a cure-all remedy. It will not solve anything if recklessness is still the norm on the road.
I’m sure drivers will continue to invade the extended shoulders — which, by the way, is against the law — exactly the same way tuk-tuks take over city bike lanes because the road perfectly fits the vehicle's compact size. Without poles, the designated lane tends to become a parking strip for all kinds of vehicles.
In short, better infrastructure won’t help if those on the road refuse to recognise and respect other road-users, especially pedestrians and cyclists.
Despite the fortune we spend each year on road safety campaigns, the accident rate is still too high and there are too many fatalities. The numbers do not lie. And there are no signs of them falling anytime soon.
As policy makers scratch their heads, trying to make our roads safe, but are unable to translate policies into practice, I think it’s time we start with small things — the driving test.
Under the current system, the sole point of the driving test is to put people on the road, instead of encouraging driving with discipline or responsibility.
It would be unfair to accuse the Land Transport Department of doing nothing about this. The department has made the test tougher. It also provides hours of lecture for applicants who are made to answer exam questions to prove they know the traffic rules by heart.
But when it comes to the driving test, applicants are expected to show they can control the vehicle. There’s no zebra crossing test that requires applicants to stop (as stipulated by the traffic law).
Applicants have no chance to prove they can translate the paper tests into practice and, perhaps this may be the reason they have never learned to recognise pedestrian crossings.
Perhaps we'd have more responsible drivers if applicants were made to fail the test for not stopping at the crossings.
Now that there are more cyclists on the roads, driving tests must be modified to address their safety too. At the very least, learner drivers should be taught to respect bike lanes.
After all, we cannot just keep begging for compassion from drivers to make our roads safe. Drivers need to be disciplined from the moment they pass their test.
Some may argue that by focusing on driving test rules, we will just target new drivers. What about the older ones, those who make our roads a daily hazard?
My answer is simple: Enforce the law and punish them.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is an Assistant News Editor, Bangkok Post.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.