It's the vans, stupid

It's the vans, stupid

Vans out, microbuses in: Monday's horrendous crash prompted a quick response from the government. Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
Vans out, microbuses in: Monday's horrendous crash prompted a quick response from the government. Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

New Year was another highway slaughter, the bloodiest long weekend ever recorded, which is saying a lot when you're already starting with the world's second most sanguinary roadways, and then get worse than that for a week.

To outdo the most murderous "seven dangerous days" in Thai history required the deaths of 478 people, or one every 21 minutes of every hour of every day.

Unable to come up with a highway safety battle plan, the military leaders by chance found a scapegoat. Never mind that 3,206 of the 3,919 accidents involved motorcycles. Ignore the glaring statistic that 2,661 were the result of excessive drink or speed.

The real villain is the van.

In Chon Buri on Monday, a 64-year-old commercial van driver who had clocked 1,200 kilometres on four hours of sleep, jumped the highway median and smashed head on into a pickup with a dozen people in the truck bed. Horrendous crash, explosion, fire, 25 dead. The remains of the driver tested negative for drugs and drink, so probably he fell asleep.

Obviously, vans are the problem.

The military regime now proposes Section 44 and replacing illegal vans -- reminder: "illegal vans" is the polite phrase for "all vans" -- with microbuses, carrying on to a safer, saner Songkran holiday.

If only. Reality check: The Land Transport Department ordered that and it failed "because most commuters on short routes preferred to drive or use the illegal van service" (our emphasis).

In 1997.

Gen Prayut is going to slash and burn the van industry with the one authority he can wield like former dictators. "Don't mess with this Section 44 of mine."

As he often does, the PM overreacted and went after the illegal vans. The strange thing, however, is that just four months ago, Gen Prayut was extolling and essentially marketing vans. In his Friday night TV talk to "dear Thai citizens" last Sept 2, he waxed enthusiastically how his men had tamed the vans, taken them off the streets and parked them in Bangkok bus stations.

Now that one van has caused a horrific accident, bring out the guns. There will be bans and licence suspensions and tens of millions of baht of GPS equipment. In truth, one of two new smartphone apps from Australia and America would be better. They monitor drivers and send loud alarms when they begin to doze off, so passengers would be involved. No room for kickbacks, of course, so GPS it is.

In his tirade to the media, Gen Prayut demanded to know, "Why have past governments allowed illegal vans to operate?" If he wants to know, he can pick up one of his mobiles and get fellow retired Gen Surayud Chulanont on the horn. While the vans have been serving commuters for 20 years, they were regularised by a very special past government, the military government under ex-prime minister Surayud. It was a political bargain in 2007-8 with big-wheel "van mafia" spokesman Newin Chidchob, in exchange for not carrying red shirts to Bangkok to protest, and then, a year later, defecting from the Voldemort party to the Democrats at the army's behest. No one has tried to eliminate the vans since then.

Now every van is the villain causing highway carnage. A crackdown on vans is rubbing the genie's magic lamp and wishing for an end to the daily slaughter on the highways.

Except it won't. Turning Thai highways and streets into the world's second worst per-capita killers in the world was the easy part. Reversing it will take decades of daily, nightly work.

In the United States, a two-generation, pitiless campaign of massive penalties and enforcement worthy of a police state has lowered the drink-driving murders by 50% in 35 years. Still, every 55 minutes another American dies by the actions of a drink-driver.

Fact, not prediction: The coming Songkran safety campaign and van crackdown will be as useless as the New Year's campaign. Years of enforcement, delegitimising drunkenness and a national attitude change can start to begin to make a dent in the Thainess of highway bloodletting. Repeat. Start.

Here's how it actually works, as opposed to how officials and "experts" and writers of letters to the editor wish it worked.

If Gen Prayut has the steel to actually begin and maintain a proper, holistic programme against bad and drunken and careless and unlawful driving, he will begin to see results in a few years. That's if the campaign never relents, gets soft or lets off some billionaire's son.

The alternative to slowing the butchery is the one-holiday, one-campaign that makes every New Year and Thai New Year slaughter worse than the last.

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