Carnage: An analysis of Thailand's road safety

Carnage: An analysis of Thailand's road safety

Lack of political will stands at heart of a problem which exacts a huge toll every year

Bumps in the road: Women cross Ratchadamri Road in Bangkok. Every 22 minutes, a human being dies on Thailand's roads. Every 20th overall death in the country is a consequence of a road accident. photo: 123RF
Bumps in the road: Women cross Ratchadamri Road in Bangkok. Every 22 minutes, a human being dies on Thailand's roads. Every 20th overall death in the country is a consequence of a road accident. photo: 123RF

Every 22 minutes, a human being dies on Thailand's roads. At 24,000 deaths a year -- the equivalent of a small city -- traffic ends more lives prematurely in this country than strokes, Aids, any single kind of cancer, pneumonia, or diabetes.

Every twentieth overall death in Thailand is a consequence of a traffic accident.

Depending on the survey, Thailand usually ranks either first or second in the list of countries with the highest rate of annual traffic deaths. To put things in perspective, a single year on Thailand's roads kills four times more people than the entire southern insurgency and counter-insurgency since 2004, or 40 times as many people as Islamic terrorism in Europe since 1980.

And this does not even account for the more than 100,000 significant but non-fatal injuries incurred on a yearly basis. And yet, there are really only two weeks a year when road safety is given the spotlight in public debate that it deserves.

Ironically, thanks to strong police presence, the festival periods (with 60 deaths per day during the recent Songkran and New Year's celebrations) feature lower death tolls than the regular daily average of around 65. In Thailand, carnage is a constant year-round companion of mobility. But why are Thailand's roads so deadly? And what can be done to change that?

In the scientific literature, traffic safety is often portrayed as a function of economic development. The math is easy: as developing countries undergo rapid population growth and see a simultaneous rise in per capita income, the amount of vehicle ownership increases rapidly, leading to a higher absolute number as well as a higher relative rate of traffic accidents.

While vehicles get safer and safer with every generation, that technological progress cannot keep up with the steep growth of vehicle ownership in developing countries. The opposite is the case in industrialised countries with stagnant (if not decreasing) populations and slow economic growth, where, in consequence, the traffic fatality rate has consistently fallen in past decades.

In an influential 2005 paper, US researchers Elizabeth Kopits and Maureen Cropper argued that the per capita income threshold at which those two factors generally invert and fatality rates decrease was somewhere between US$ 13,200 and US$ 18,600 (adjusted for purchasing power parity).

Thailand's per capita income was around US$ 16,000 (PPP) in 2016. While recent fluctuations make it difficult to assess in which direction the traffic fatality rate is developing in Thailand, it continues to be extraordinarily high. And vehicle registrations, which have nearly quadrupled over the past 30 years, continue to rise (although at slightly lower rates than in the 90s and 2000s).

Thailand's status as an emerging middle-income economy means that the average person's preferred mode of transportation is a motorbike (20 million registrations) and not a car or a pickup truck (14 million registrations). And motorbikes are naturally more vulnerable, accounting for nearly 80% of traffic fatalities in Thailand.

Ditched efforts: Children sit in front of the site of a car accident. PHOTOS: 123RF

While the economic approach might be able to shed some light on how and why traffic fatality rates rise and fall the way they do, it cannot account for why Thailand's is just so much higher than those of other countries. China, Indonesia, and Brazil have a similar per capita income (PPP), and especially the former two feature similar rates of motorbike ownership, yet Thailand's traffic fatality rate is about twice as high as in any of these countries.

If Kopits and Cropper's model is correct, we might currently be seeing the peak of traffic fatality as a function of economic development in Thailand. But the reasons for why that peak dwarves the peak of traffic fatality development in other countries are to be found elsewhere. And to simply rely on a decrease in population and income growth to take care of the situation would be a fool's errand.

For the Thai government, the main problem lies primarily with the road behaviour of Thai people, Kunnawee Kanitpong, manager of the Thailand Accident Research Centre (TARC) and committee member of the ThaiRoads Foundation says. Most of the people in charge, she says, think that the "main contributing factor of road accidents is the human driver", which is as superficially correct as it is short-sighted. Of course, every traffic accident is eventually human-caused and cultural norms play an important role that should not be dismissed. Speeding, for instance, which is the main factor in most accidents, is a deeply ingrained habit with as many as 70% of traffic participants regularly doing so according to TARC research. But to attribute the pandemic of road carnage on human behaviour and culture alone without recognising the underlying systemic factors and understanding the processes which produce that culture is ill-advised.

After all, it is the responsibility of the state to form and regulate cultural norms that pertain to social co-existence, in this case by setting up traffic laws, communicating them to the public, and enforcing them. And especially with regards to the latter, the authorities have failed in their responsibility. Ms Kunnawee and Ratana Winther, Thailand chair at the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF) agree. "Road safety is a complex issue, because it has a lot of things that intertwine. The most important issue is enforcement though. Enforcement is the key," Ms Ratana says.

Apart from Songkran and New Year's, the two experts say, police presence on the streets is just not what it should be. What is more, managing traffic to avoid congestion remains the ultimate priority of traffic police while only about 30% of the time is spent enforcing traffic laws.

In consequence, speeding comes with little consequences and is pervasive as are other violations of traffic law. At 44%, Thailand's helmet rate, for instance, is severely lagging behind other countries in the region with a similar concentration of motorbikes, such as Vietnam where more than 90% of motorcyclists wear a helmet. And not only is the presence of traffic police for the purpose of cracking down on traffic violations limited -- officers also issue far fewer speeding tickets than the law warrants.

Driven to despair: A crash caused when the brake of a 10-wheel truck broke, making the vehicle go off the curve of a major road in Nakhon Ratchasima, killing the driver and his wife on May 7. PHOTO: ARCHIVE

As Pol Sgt Maj Kanthachat Nua-on told the BBC last year: "If we strictly follow what the law says, and issue a ticket for people driving over the speed limit, then we will end up booking everyone". Completing the "supply chain" of ineffective traffic law enforcement is the low rate of fine compliance. According to Ms Kunnawee and her colleagues' research, only about 20% of speeding tickets are actually paid. "Because everybody knows now that if they don't pay, nothing happens," she explains.

This poor level of enforcement is not only the traffic police's fault though. "A lot of police officers on the ground, they work very hard. Of course, there's petty corruption here and there, but in general they work very hard, they stand out there in the sun," Ms Ratana says.

Rather, the main culprits are a complicated bureaucracy and a lack of political will at the upper nodes of decision-making. As traffic safety is such a complex and far-reaching issue, it naturally touches many different agencies and authorities. However, the government has so far missed the opportunity to streamline processes relating to the issue. Currently, the Road Safety Directing Centre (RSDC) is in charge of strategy and the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM) is supposed to act on it.

The DDPM is again part of the Ministry of Interior while the Department of Land Transport (DLT), as part of the Ministry of Transport, is responsible for roads, the Ministry of Public Health funds road safety research, and the Ministry of Finance decides on the budget for the traffic police. Coordination between these parallel and equal pillars remains a challenge, especially since one cannot be ordered by another, which creates a vacuum of accountability, Ms Ratana says.

In an opinion piece entitled "Road safety is our right, not a privilege" published by the Bangkok Post in January 2017, she therefore demanded establishing a "dedicated road safety agency that not only has actual authority but also comprises every type of stakeholder from national to local levels" and whose "performance must be evaluated every year and when targets are not met […] must be held accountable." Her suggestion is naturally shared by civil society but also by the Ministry of Health and the affiliated Thai Health Promotion Foundation. Yet, it has so far not been converted into tangible policy proposals.

That is, in part, due to the way political decision-makers fundamentally conceive of the issue of road safety. If the main contributing factor to dangerous roads is the collective misconduct of road users, then all the government needs to do is educate them and build their "road literacy".

And further, if road users are to blame, then there is no inherent responsibility upon the state to ensure safe land travel. In the absence of a system that recognises traffic safety as a basic right for everyone and which sees traffic participants as rights holders and not as culprits (or at least both), the state consequently also does not see the provision of road safety as its duty. This is why the bulk of state intervention focuses on public awareness and safety campaigns, especially around the festival periods, which make for good PR but have little impact. As Marko Cunningham from the Bangkok Free Ambulance Service (Ruamkatanyu) told The Straits Times in April, "these campaigns are quite isolated and mostly for show only. Thai people know the laws and yet continue to break them". Ms Kunnawee says: "In other countries there is evidence that shows that if you only do education, results will take a long time, if anything. To change behaviour and awareness is not that easy." An effective solution to road safety must therefore involve "the 3 Es" of road safety management, an approach widely adopted by mass transit and transportation authorities around the world: education, enforcement, engineering. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Thailand.

In consequence, the lack of enforcement is also a political decision. Traffic police do not have the technology for essential enforcement, Ms Kunnawee explains, such as speed cameras which are necessary to reliably determine speed, licence plate, and driver. With the speed guns currently in use, not only are two checkpoints required to measure the speed of vehicles but many violators deny that it was their vehicle and that it was them behind the wheel. "It's not that we don't have the money. It's a lack of political will. We develop other things in Thailand. We are trying to have a high speed train, we have the money. But we don't see the importance of it [traffic enforcement]," she admonishes.

Traffic police also have to put themselves in danger when attempting to stop speeding vehicles, because, and that is the most vulnerable point in enforcement, a centralised database which records traffic violators, links those entries to personal and vehicle registration information, and would therefore allow for fine dodgers to be penalised by the bureaucratic apparatus rather than by on-site police does not exist as of now. At least, however, in the course of the introduction of an e-traffic ticket programme in December of last year, promising plans were announced to link the police's database on traffic violators with the DLT in order to possibly reject annual re-registration applications from individuals with outstanding fines; a much needed step of connecting the various involved authorities and improve enforcement.

The government's over-emphasis on marketable education campaigns also comes at the expense of engineering efforts to ensure safe travel on Thailand's roads. "We have many things we can do in this regard. Like separate motorbike lanes. That would be engineering. But in Thailand we don't see the importance of it, either," Ms Kunnawee says.

Protecting motorcyclists, the by far most vulnerable traffic demographic (reminder: motorcyclists account for almost 80% of traffic deaths), would indeed make a lot of sense when trying to reduce the number and severity of accidents. While separate motorbike lanes have been successfully implemented on a relatively large scale in Malaysia, and on a smaller scale in Indonesia and the Philippines, they have not progressed past the testing stage in Thailand.

In a 2015 pilot study, researchers at the Prince of Songkla University in Hat Yai found that exclusive motorcycle lanes were able to reduce speed by 17% and accidents by up to 25%. When, or if at all, the DLT will follow the research, however, and build separate motorcycle lanes on a serious scale remains to be seen.

Burned out: An accident in which a passenger car hit the rail of a bridge on Puttha Sakhon Road in Samut Sakhon province before a fire broke out and killed the two passengers inside on March 1. PHOTO: ARCHIVE

Another, perhaps obvious but often overlooked way of addressing traffic safety from an engineering perspective is public transportation. The better and more widely available over- and underground trains and buses are, the less people depend on using significantly more dangerous personal vehicles. Just like the issue of road safety in general, for reasons including but not limited to this one, access to public transportation maps onto the two fundamental socio-economic divisions in Thailand which are: "urban vs rural" and "rich vs poor".

While these divisions are present in just about any country, they are rather strong in Thailand and, at the very least, add to the "perfect storm" that is traffic safety in Thailand. With an estimated Gini coefficient of 44.5 (according to the CIA World Factbook), Thailand ranks as the 38th most unequal country in the world and is one of the most unequal countries in the region.

And while Bangkok City only makes up about 13% of the country's population, it accounts for over 30% of its GDP with Bangkok's economic output per capita being nearly 10 times that of the country's poorest province Nong Bua Lamphu.

For the country's upper and upper-middle class, a great deal of which is based in Bangkok, public transportation might then seem convenient and modern. But that level of quality transport is really only available for segments of the population who can afford an apartment in relative proximity to BTS or MRT as well as the fares, which on a monthly basis are not significantly cheaper than in many European cities. The rest of the country does not have that access to quality public transportation. Bangkok's lower and lower middle class have to rely on an "antiquated bus network", which would be very much due to for an upgrade, Ms Ratana wrote in her 2017 opinion piece.

"And outside of Bangkok, in the provinces, public transportation is virtually non-existent," she adds. "Even in bigger cities like Udon Thani, most big cities in the North, there is really nothing at all. I mean they have started now, bits and pieces, some model projects, but it is really non-existent. That is the main factor why so many people use motorbikes."

And police officers are often aware of that. As members of tightly knit communities, it can be difficult for them to crack down on traffic violations which they know to be a necessity, such as children younger than 15 driving motorbikes to school. Once again, responsibility trickles upwards: "If we want to save kids dying from motorbike accidents, we have to provide them with good public transport to go to school. That is the responsibility of the government, of the Minister of Education, of the Local Government, and also the DLT, to provide good quality public transport," Ms Ratana states.

The reality of road safety is terribly complex and intertwined. An array of economic, cultural, and political factors intersect and multiply to make Thailand's roads the death traps that they are. Many countries have some of these factors present but hardly do they coincide as in Thailand, where they create a "perfect storm of unsafe roads".

At the same time, however, there is no denying that at the core of this storm stands a lack of political will on behalf of the authorities to sustainably tackle the problem of road safety in a holistic and evidence-based manner. Doing so would be to prioritise the people's right to safe travel and to recognise that (at least a good part of) the duty to provide that safety is upon the state. It would further entail the purposeful streamlining of bureaucratic processes and a resourceful and determined pursuit of education, enforcement, and engineering. More specifically, a centralised interconnected database for traffic violations, more funding for traffic police as well as a reprioritisation of its duties are needed, to just name the most prevalent items regarding enforcement.

The same is true for separate motorbike lanes which have shown promising results in other countries and in pilots as well as for significantly improved, more pervasive and equitable public transportation. With 24,000 dead men, women, and children and more than 100,000 injuries every year, Thailand's roads constitute one of the gravest threats to national security and well-being. It is about time the authorities start addressing the problem with the determination and conscientiousness it demands.

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