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Thailand's road toll comes at too high a price

Three-quarters of road deaths are motorcycle or tricycle users, particularly young Thais in their teens and twenties

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Published: April 17, 2021 08:33 AM GMT

Updated: April 17, 2021 08:34 AM GMT

Thailand's road toll comes at too high a price

The appalling death toll on Thailand’s roads has caused some observers to call road accidents the country’s 'biggest health crisis.' (Photo: YouTube)

Even as Thailand gears up for another outbreak of the potentially deadly coronavirus, another endemic cause of death, road accidents, continues to take numerous lives around the country.

Within just five days during Songkran, the Thai New Year festival from April 10-15, nearly 200 people died on the country’s roads despite comparatively little traffic as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On April 14 alone, 330 road accidents were reported from around the country. They resulted in the deaths of 37 people while another 328 people were injured. During the first five days of the holiday, until April 14, there were 1,795 reported road accidents, which resulted in a death toll of 192, while 1,818 people were injured, many of them seriously.

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Now here is the real shocker: by Thai standards these are relatively low figures.

During the first five days of Songkran in 2019, the last year before the ongoing pandemic, 313 people died on the country’s roads, or nearly 40 percent more than this year. Meanwhile, during the same period, as many as 2,787 people were injured in 2,700 road accidents.

Yet even such grim statistics pale beside annual figures. All told, in a country of 70 million, some 22,000 Thai lose their lives in road accidents each year, or an average of 60 people every single day.

Within Southeast Asia, Thailand’s roads are by far the deadliest

By comparison, to date only 97 Thais have lost their lives to Covid-19 since January last year when the first cases of the novel coronavirus were reported locally, according to official statistics.

Nor does the carnage on roads affect all Thais equally. Three-quarters of locals who die in road accidents are motorcycle or tricycle users, particularly young Thais in their teens and twenties, according to the World Health Organization, which classifies Thailand as one of the world’s least safe countries when it comes to road safety.

In a recent report by the WHO, Thailand ranked ninth among 175 nations in terms of road deaths, with a road traffic fatality rate of 32.7 per 100,000 people. When only motorcycle-related deaths were counted, Thailand (where there are more than 20 million motorcycles) ranked third globally.

Within Southeast Asia, Thailand’s roads are by far the deadliest, which is saying something considering the general absence of proper road safety across much of the region.

The appalling death toll on Thailand’s roads, which especially affects young Thais from low-income backgrounds, has caused some observers to call road accidents the country’s “biggest health crisis.”

Yet the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has done little to improve road safety during the former army chief’s seven-year tenure after seizing power in a coup in May 2014.

Occasionally law enforcement authorities launch initiatives to improve road safety through such measures as stopping and fining motorcyclists who drive without helmets or use sidewalks to avoid getting stuck in heavy traffic in perennially congested cities like Bangkok.

Weak enforcement of traffic laws and regulations allows motorcyclists to be reckless

Most of these measures are half-hearted and come to nothing, with traffic police routinely turning a blind eye to infractions or being paid to turn a blind eye.

All you have to do to ascertain this for yourself is to stand on any street in Bangkok and take a look around. Likely as not, you will see motorcyclists or their passengers riding by without helmets, often speeding down sidewalks among pedestrians or pretty much anywhere else they please, often in full view of police officers. 

“Weak enforcement of traffic laws and regulations allows motorcyclists to be reckless,” the Bangkok Post newspaper noted in an editorial on April 14. You can say that again.

Drunk driving is another leading cause of death on Thai roads, yet culprits behind fatal car accidents are often let off scot-free if they hail from well-off and well-connected families despite public outrage.

“What is needed particularly is comprehensive policy and [an] action plan, and synergy among state agencies and civic groups, to curb road accidents in everyday life,” the Bangkok Post opined.

“The key is strenuous efforts with consistent measures and enforcement by the authorities,” the newspaper added. “Only then will cutting the road carnage be possible.”

The wanton disregard for human life on the country’s roads points to widespread social issues

There is no doubt about that. The signs aren’t encouraging, though, given that the daily carnage that passes for traffic in Thailand is hardly a new problem. It has been a fact of life in the country for decades.

In fact, the wanton disregard for human life on the country’s roads points to widespread social issues. Namely, those from the lower rungs of society are treated as second-class citizens whose lives are seen to be worth less in a highly stratified and class-based society.

To people in positions of power, the material needs and physical well-being of the underclass clearly matter a lot less than those of people higher up the hierarchy. As it is invariably members of Thailand’s vast underclass who continue dying en masse on roads, policymakers and law enforcement officials seem less inclined to tackle the problem.

Sadly, as a result, countless Thais will continue to be killed or badly injured in road accidents on a daily basis and nothing much will be done about it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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