Dreaming of the police making our roads safe for cyclists
I was already in my early teens when I got my first bicycle. At the time, Bangkok was just starting to be modernised. New roads were paved and traffic was light. There were electric trams running. Tuk-tuks had just replaced trishaws which were delegated to outer, less-developed parts of the city and beyond.
Bicycles were used in large numbers both for personal and commercial purposes. Its terrain being flat, Bangkok has always been friendly ground for cyclists, except when confronted with bridges crossing the multitudinous canals, many of which were built high to allow boats to pass.
One day I was riding on a main road on my way home. As I was approaching the home soi, I was hit from behind by a tuk-tuk, sending me sprawling. Fortunately, both my bike and I escaped serious damage, and so I survived to tell the tale.
I was reminded of this episode in my life by news about accidents involving bicycles, which have been happening disturbingly frequently, as more and more people take up bicycling as a recreational sport and, for some, personal transport.
In the big scheme of things, these accidents are minor, something to be expected. It's no big deal. However, minor things such as this often reveal disturbing aspects of Thai society and its people.
Concerns for health and environmental consciousness have combined to revive the popularity of cycling, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, the modernisation of Thailand from the beginning has made motorised vehicles the king of the road to the exclusion of all else.
We all know what happened to the once-famous Bangkok khlongs and the boats that plied them. Bicycles, too, were quickly shunned. Soon pedestrians found crossing a road became almost like an adventure, if not a game of life and death.
It's not just the heavy presence of cars, trucks, vans, buses and rowdy motorcycles that has turned roads and highways deadly. Nor is it the poorly designed roadways. But some of the less virtuous aspects of the Thai character play a crucial role to add to their deadliness.
It would be charitable to say Thais are a pragmatic people. But it's also a fact that many do not possess the virtue of discipline. So they drive whichever way that they think takes them to their destination the fastest. Driving laws or courtesy be damned.
However, they don't know or don't care that by doing so they have caused the traffic to get even more congested and thus they reach their destination that much later.
It's not entirely their fault for lacking respect for the law because law enforcement and the administration of justice don't seem to command much respect in this country.
We see traffic police only when they man road blocks to make the lives of lowly motorists and motorcyclists miserable and cause long backups as a result. Or they stay in their air-conditioned traffic booths at intersections flicking traffic lights instead of going out on the road to ensure snarl-ups don't tangle up traffic.
Instances of traffic law infractions can be witnessed everywhere. So it's reasonable to think that one can get away with committing a violation with impunity, and one often does get away with it, sometimes right before the eyes of a traffic cop.
But if one gets stopped - no problem. A few bank notes change hands and you can be on your way again.
Even in serious cases, like drink or reckless driving causing death, one can almost be certain to walk free with a slap on the wrist. Witness the judgement on the notorious case of a 16-year-old girl who caused an accident on an expressway a few years ago that killed nine people. She was eventually sentenced to a two-year jail term, suspended for four years.
The deadliness of Thai roads, especially for cyclists, and what is perceived as inefficient administration of justice, have made global headlines a number of times in recent years.
In February 2013, a British couple on a round-the-world cycling trip had reached Thailand when their trip was cut short as a pickup truck crashed into them in Chachoengsao province. Both were killed.
A year later, the truck driver was found guilty and given a suspended two-year sentence and a fine of 1,000 baht for reckless driving.
In February this year, a Chilean cyclist attempted to cycle around the world with his family in tow. Again his trip was ended prematurely in Nakhon Ratchasima when a pickup truck ploughed into them, killing him and injuring his wife and son in a tricycle that followed behind.
In March the case reached the court without much fanfare, and the driver was sentenced to a suspended two-year jail term.
The seemingly speedy course of justice has caused much distress to the Chilean cyclist's wife, who posted on her Facebook page complaining, in essence, that she was tricked into signing a document acknowledging the payment of 100,000 baht for compensation and agreeing not to take further legal action.
She said she was not informed of the court proceedings when they were taking place.
People are now expecting the drivers who killed three cyclists in Chiang Mai and one in Bangkok to be set free in a similar fashion. In all past cases, they have speculated that something went on behind the scenes that resulted in leniency for the infractors. A question often arises in such cases whether jails are only for those with no means to pay their way out.
For some, nothing short of overhauling the traffic police department, perhaps by replacing lackadaisical personnel with better-paid, professional ones, would do the trick. Then, let them loose to patrol the roads day and night as is done in more developed countries and show their presence in a serious way.
Of course, nothing is as simple as that though it seems to be a first good step to take.
Wasant Techawongtham is former News Editor, Bangkok Post.
Wasant Techawongtham is former News Editor, Bangkok Post.
Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.