Following last week's spate of horrible road accidents that resulted in a total of four cyclists being killed and several more injured by law-breaking drivers (drunk driving confirmed in one case), the authorities have come up with a genius plan. Top officials at the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the Department of Land Transport have reportedly agreed on one thing they think will make the city's streets safer for bikers and everybody else: a cycling licence.
Excited, I even told my 10-year-old niece, who has recently learned how to cycle, about it. Somehow, she wasn't impressed. She even gave me a weird look and uttered a word so faintly I couldn't quite catch it. From the lips, it seemed something like "moron(s)".
Anyway, the fact is even my niece knows that having any kind of licence in one's wallet has nothing to do whatsoever with one's road behaviour or the prevention of accidents. Every motorist is supposed to own a driver's licence, and look how many people get killed and crippled on the road each year. In the recent Songkran holidays, for example, 426 men and women did not make it back to their families alive.
Just for the record, Thailand used to have a law that required cyclists to get a cycling licence. It was introduced 80 years ago when bicycles and other non-motorised vehicles were still a major mode of travel and automobiles were not as popular. The law was revoked in 2003, basically because it no longer made sense.
Now this is important: Thailand is not the only country in the world where government officials think forcing bikers to get a cycling licence will keep them out of harm's way. In Australia, just over a year ago, New South Wales Roads Minister Duncan Gay said, "The thing I really need to look at is, if we're going to put rules in place, and I need to be tougher on car drivers, but I am increasingly persuaded that we need to look at a licence for cyclists."
And this is even more important: This January, nine months later, a citizen's jury appointed by NSW Government, in which Gay is still the Roads Minister, recommended that the state followed its northern neighbour Queensland in introducing a law that indicates a minimal distance an automobile must keep between it and the bicycle(s) it is passing.
Since April 7 last year, drivers in Queensland going 60km per hour or slower are obliged to stay at least 1m away from cyclists when passing, and 1.5m minimum if their speed is above that. Violators are subjected to three demerit points, plus a fine of AUD$341 (9,200 baht) or higher if the matter goes to court.
The new law, which will be re-evaluated on April 7 next year, does not apply vice-versa, but it should be noted that in the meantime, bicycle riders there, no matter how old or young they are, are forced to pay equal fines as automobile drivers if they break other road rules. (For further details of Queensland's 1m passing law, a PDF file can be downloaded from the internet).
Yes, while the Thai authorities are considering a move to go backward, those down under are working on a solution that looks more promising. Next time I meet my niece I'll tell her about this new law in Australia. Also, I'll ask her who she was referring to when she said "morons".
Pongpet Mekloy is the Bangkok Post's travel editor.