Horror crash spurs safety drive

Horror crash spurs safety drive

New Year fatalities kick off race to head off Songkran road perils

Passengers wait to board vans at a Bangkok bus station. The race is on to reduce the highway slaughter for the Songkran holiday in April. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
Passengers wait to board vans at a Bangkok bus station. The race is on to reduce the highway slaughter for the Songkran holiday in April. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

The deadly passenger van crash on Jan 2 was a wake-up call for Government House. It has spurred Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to rethink up-until-now unsuccessful road safety measures in the lead-up to the Songkran festival in April, when road deaths traditionally take another jump.

The premier said last week that authorities "must come up with stricter measures within three months" to curb road accidents during the long holiday that marks the traditional Thai New Year.

Like the recent New Year festival, Songkran is a national celebration which often sees a large number of people flock from Bangkok to their home provinces and leads to busy roads and more car crashes.

But over this year's Songkran festival, Gen Prayut does not want a repeat of the many collisions that marred New Year and questioned the regime's seven-day road safety campaign.

The collision between a passenger van and truck which killed 25 people after the van exploded, on Road No 344 in Chon Buri's Ban Bung district on Jan 2, underscored the difficulty in making Thailand's notoriously dangerous roads safer.

The total number of deaths during this New Year period was 478, compared with 380 in the same period in 2016.

The Transport Ministry must lead efforts to stop this devastating trend and "we'll do everything" to take legal action against careless drivers and sub-standard services, Gen Prayut said.

Van drivers will be penalised if they are caught with too many passengers, he said.

Public vehicle drivers are also required to have "personal driving records" of their travel and driving times, which will be inspected by authorities at checkpoints.

By law, motorists cannot drive more than eight hours a day and must take a half hour rest every four hours. Drivers who break this regulation must be "immediately replaced by other drivers or will have their vehicles seized", Gen Prayut said.

If necessary, Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith said, the premier may need to exercise his power under Section 44 of the interim charter to fast-track certain measures.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) will also support the government's work, using its military personnel to help transport officials speed up safety measures in public transport.

"In three months from now, we'll make passenger vans safer," deputy NCPO spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong quoted deputy army chief Gen Phisit Sitthisan as saying.

Gen Phisit, also NCPO secretary-general, echoed Gen Prayut's concern and stressed the need to set up better road safety standards, at a meeting of the NCPO's office of the secretary-general Monday.

The NCPO's focus on solving problems associated with passenger vans not only stems from the Jan 2 accident, but from statistics that show vans are responsible for many road accidents. From January to November last year, passenger vans were involved in around 215 accidents, said Khongsak Chuenkrairat, coordinator of a road safety campaign, co-launched by Foundation for Consumers's accident watch and Road Safety Policy Foundation.

On average, vans caused 19.5 accidents a month, bringing about 103 deaths, or 9.4 people a month, he said. Key reasons behind these accidents include careless driving, a lack of proper checks on vehicles, and a lack of vehicle maintenance, Mr Khongsak said. Some passenger vans also have undergone modifications by operators to add more passenger seats, making them less safe.

Deputy Transport Minister Phichit Akkharathit earlier this week told inter-provincial passenger van operators to change their vehicles, which were not originally designed for running long distances, to safer mini-buses.

Operators of up to 6,431 vans running between Bangkok and upcountry provinces must begin the change from July 1 and all of them should be serving passengers with mini-buses within this year, according to Mr Phichit.

Another group of 2,771 vans running between the provinces are also subject to the new change, but they will be given more time to adjust, said the deputy minister.

Natcha O-charoen, a transportation and logistics policy expert of the Thailand Development Research Institute, said the government should encourage van operators to invest in safety.

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