Thailand’s Terrifying Highways

Anyone who has ever driven on a Thai highway wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the roads in the Land of Smiles are among the deadliest in the world, with an average of 36.2 deaths per 100,000 population, compared with just 2.8 deaths in Sweden, the safest major country. It is an unenviable record – or near-record – that the country has held for decades.

The world average, according to the World Health Organization, is 17. 4 deaths per 100,000 of population – less than half Thailand’s average.

It isn’t uncommon to be rolling down a dual carriageway and suddenly discover a Thai driver who apparently thinks a dual carriageway is two separate highways, side-by-side, and is coming at you. At stop lights in Bangkok, where traffic jams stretch for uncommon distances, when the light changes the cars in front put on a drag race to get to the next light a couple of hundred meters down the street. Mountain roads are littered with cars that seek to pass on blind corners. The odd tycoon’s son or daughter regularly crashe s a supercar – Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche – into unsuspecting pedestrians, motorcyclists or motorists and walks away unpunished.

Machismo appears to often play a role, with male drivers simply unable to bear the thought that they can be overtaken. But alcohol is believed to play a role in 26 percent of road deaths, according to WHO statistics. Long-distance truck drivers often prop their eyes open with ya ba, or methamphetamines. Bus crashes take an alarming toll.

Although there appears to be a correlation between low-income countries and road deaths, with pedestrians and motorcyclists taking the brunt, Thailand is far above the poorest countries, with a global ranking by the International Monetary Fund of 91 of 187 countries.

At that, according to the WHO, only 28 countries representing just 7 percent of the population – primarily the OECD – have adequate laws that address all five risk factors (speed, drunk driving, helmets, seat-belts and child restraints). More than a third of road traffic deaths in low- and middle-income countries are among pedestrians and cyclists. In low-income countries it is even worse, according to the WHO, which reports that just 1 percent of the world's registered cars produce 16 percent of world's road traffic deaths, an indication that “these countries bear a disproportionately high burden of road traffic deaths relative to their level of motorization.”

Libya, with its chaotic political situation still far out of control, is an outlier that ranks so far ahead of every other country that it is frightening. Some 73.4 people out of 100,000 die on Libyan roads every year according to the WHO. But Thailand ranks second, followed by a long list of African nation including Malawi (35.0), Liberia (33.9), Congo (33.2), Tanzania (32.9) and the Central African Republic (32.4).

When the latest statistics were published by the World Atlas in early December, an embarrassed government said it would act. Deputy Interior Minister Sutee Makboon told local media on Dec. 7 that the administration would revise budget laws “to ensure that local administrative bodies can make the utmost use of their financial resources in accident prevention.”

The Road Safety Policy Foundation and the Road Safety Thailand Centre organized a two-day seminar in collaboration with other agencies with an “Invest for Sustainable Road Safety” seminar that drew more than 1,500 participants.

It also drew a flock of cynics who took to social media to point out that the government has organized countless previous road safety campaigns which have if anything been correlated with continually rising road deaths. Nonetheless, the latest “777” campaign refers to a major push in the seven days each between Dec. 21 and Dec. 27, Dec. 28 and Jan. 3, and Jan. 4 and 10.

All provincial land transport offices are ordered to put enough buses on the road to meet the needs of passengers and to beef up law enforcement.

“We will also improve law enforcement,” Sutee said. The penalty for drunk driving might be increased, he added, saying the speed limit in urban areas could be set at 50 km. per hour.

“Improved law enforcement” in Thailand has too often meant roadblocks where police shake down luckless motorists and motorcyclists for vehicular defects, no matter how trifling.

“OOOOOH!!!! Another crackdown!’ One critic tweeted. “How original.”