Deadly consequences of doing things the 'Thai way'

Deadly consequences of doing things the 'Thai way'

By now, we have all learned about the toll that road accidents exacted on Thai motorists during the "seven dangerous days" of Songkran.

This year, 442 people were killed in 3,447 accidents. That's more than the 364 deaths last year.

The week after New Year is a similarly deadly period. In those seven dangerous days, 380 people lost their lives in 3,379 accidents, which also happened to be the highest toll in five years.

In the past several years, officials have launched campaigns against drink-driving, even imposing severe penalties under Section 44 of the interim charter this year, to no avail.

Wasant Techawongtham is former News Editor, Bangkok Post.

Every year the Thai people's attention is drawn to the "seven dangerous days" prior to the respective festival as if it's something special.

The unfortunate truth is that it's nothing special at all. Statistically, two or three people die in road accidents every hour. In aggregate numbers, the difference between the seven dangerous days and the rest of the year is not significant.

In its 2013 Global Status Report on Road Safety, the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked Thailand as the country with the third highest number of road deaths.

Two years later, the "Land of Smiles" slumped one spot to second place, only behind Libya, with 44 deaths per 100,000 people (5.1% of all deaths in Thailand). Unfortunately, that's the kind of reputation we don't need.

While official traffic death figures for the year 2012 stood at 13,650, the WHO estimates the figure was actually 24,237. The difference stems from the way the deaths are counted. While officials count the number of victims who died at the scene of the accident, the WHO includes those who died within 30 days of the accident.

Officially, drink-driving has been identified as the factor contributing to the highest number of accidents, followed by speeding and reckless driving. Motorcycles are the vehicles involved in most accidents.

All these facts have been constant throughout the years. But what baffles observers and experts alike is why Thailand is so dangerous to drive in.

As one observer notes, while the increased number of vehicles on the road could be a small factor related to the sudden increase in road accidents, it doesn't explain why, in spite of various police crackdowns and government road safety campaigns, the "lack of road safety in Thailand is so recalcitrant".

Experts point to the deficiencies in road infrastructure, Thais' driving habits and lax traffic law enforcement. These are all valid points, but it seems to me they just scratch the surface.

In a Bangkok Post report on Wednesday, Don't Drive Drunk Foundation secretary-general Tairjing Siriphanich said the real cause of the high number of road fatalities is Thais' poor attitude towards safety.

I think he may have put his finger closer to the truth. What he means is Thais pay little attention to safety issues.

This can easily be seen in the way motorcyclists resist wearing helmets and motorists don't use seat belts as well as the way people drive without regard to consequences, either to themselves or others.

Still, it does not dig deep enough to explain the phenomenon. In my opinion, this "attitude" is part of a larger and more troubling Thai character trait embedded in our cultural DNA.

The Thai word for this is mak ngai. It may be translated roughly to English as the predisposition to take an easy way out without regard to consequences or others (and often to oneself as well).

Simply put, it's a "me first and me only" attitude.

We can see this attitude expressed everywhere in everyday life.

People will throw garbage in the street even if a rubbish can is a few steps away. Why? Because it's easy.

People will drive on the shoulder of the road or break-down lanes to get ahead of other motorists stuck in traffic. Why? Because it's easy.

People won't wait at a red light if the road is free of traffic or will not stop at intersections to allow pedestrians to cross. Why? Because it's simply too much of a bother to wait.

Thais know this fact too well. There's a Thai saying, which in English goes like this: A true Thai is one who does things according to his whim. (Chorus: the Thai way.)

Of course, this character trait is not only confined to common folks. Everyone is infected -- from the illiterate to the intelligentsia, from the simple villagers to the highest officials.

So why do policemen stay in their traffic booths and allow motorbikes to go through red lights or cars taking up road shoulders right in front of their eyes? Because it's easy.

For that matter, why do police resort to setting up traffic road blocks instead of conducting daily patrols in their vehicles the way police in more advanced countries do? Because it's easy.

Why does the head of the National Council for Peace and Order keep issuing orders under the dictatorial Section 44 in attempts to fix all sorts of protracted problems or implement unpopular projects? Because it's easy.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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