On Thai New Year, a reflection on making roads safer for everyone


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Photo by echo0101 through a Creative Commons license

ยังมีอีกที่ ภาษาไทย

Most of the world celebrates New Year with fireworks. In Thailand we welcome the New Year, in April, with water. During “Songkran” (Thai New Year), we pour scented water on the hands of our elders as a show of respect and to receive their blessings.  It’s also a very festive celebration that’s marked by entertainment, water fights that spill into the streets, and a huge amount of people travelling by road to spend the holidays with their families and friends.

When things get out of hand, the situation becomes a recipe for disaster. During the Songkran week of 2012 alone, according to the government’s Road Safety Directing Center (pdf in Thai), there were 320 deaths and 3,320 people injured by road traffic crashes, mostly from drunk driving.  Every Songkran becomes a reminder that road traffic injuries and fatalities are still a major public health and development challenge in Thailand.

Let’s take a closer look at the figures. According to the Thailand Road Traffic Accident Situational Report 2010, over 12,000 persons are killed in road traffic crashes, with nearly 100,000 people injured, and thousands of people crippled for the rest of their lives.

In Thailand, road traffic deaths and injuries disproportionately affect the poor, who have limited means to cope with the losses brought about by accidents. Hospital records show that 75-80% of road traffic injuries and 70-90% of road traffic deaths in Thailand involve motorcyclists – most of whom are poor.

It is also important to note that young people in Thailand are particularly vulnerable to road traffic crashes. According to the International Health Policy Program’s Burden of Disease Working Group, road traffic injuries are the top cause of death among males aged 15-29 and the second top cause of death among females in the same age range.

As road accidents affect people of working age, it silently –though enormously- contributes to loss in productivity in Thailand. This is due to the number of years lost to disability and death.  The Ministry of Health also said that road accidents are a cause of high spending on health.

The Royal Thai Government is addressing road safety issues. It introduced the “Decade of Action” program which aims to reduce road accidents from the current rate of 20 per 100,000 persons to below 10 per 100,000 persons by the year 2020. However, this is no easy task and everyone will have to do their part in making roads safer. The root causes of road accidents also have to be tackled. It isn’t uncommon to see children riding on motorbikes or at the back of open air pick-up trucks. There are behavioral issues (e.g. driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, driving without a helmet, use of mobile phone while driving, driving without a safety belt) and also infrastructure and system challenges (e.g unsafe road conditions, unsafe vehicles, poor emergency medical service, and post-crash management systems).

What can be done? To start, people should wear helmets when they ride motorbikes. Children shouldn’t be riding motorbikes or the back of open air pick-up trucks either. We also have to think about improving public transport options for the poor. Thailand needs to improve governance and enforcement aspects, particularly on how to develop a proper road safety management system and how to effectively enforce road safety rules and regulations. To succeed, government agencies, civil society, development partners, the private sector, and individuals should do their bit to make roads a safer place for everyone. 

We should aspire for a Songkran that marks a new year with much fewer road accidents in Thailand.



Join the Conversation

Jamie Waddell
April 11, 2013

What should be done! Certainly not advising the to wear helmets etc. education, Engineering and Enfircement- the 3 Es, all if which are weak in not nonexistent in Thailand.
Do you rellt expect poor people to buy a helmet? Do you really expect peop,e not to ride in tnebavk trucks? Motor vehicle manufacturers
Reduce TV adverts that would b banned in UK/EU with speeding vehicle and unsafey practices. Just aboutallthe taxis have their rear seatbelts disconnect.i could go on but there isn't a culture if safety in Thailand so may as well talk not her language, they simply do not believe that what they are doing is unsafe. When we see the police driving badly then what hope is there?

Bruce Bickerstaff
April 11, 2013

I applaud you for writing this article and raising awareness of this important issue. At the same time I also largely agree with Jamie's comments above. There is a broader problem of a lack of safety awareness and risk minimisation that runs across every aspect of life in Thailand. In terms of reducing accident injuries at Songkran I think the single most effective (and realistically achievable) action that could be taken is random breath-testing and temporary confiscation of vehicles.

April 21, 2013

I would like to thank all who have contributed much useful and thought-provoking comments to this blog post, and I couldn't agree more with you. It is clear that governance, enforcement, and the change in people's mindsets on safety issues are key determinants for improving road safety in Thailand. But this is no easy task. We are aware of people in the provinces witnessing police riding motorcycles without wearing helmets, but the comment about not more than 50% of police not wearing helmets leaving or arriving on motorcycles at a police station in the center of Bangkok is appalling, and this is something that the authorities should take note of.

There have been efforts in Thailand to address the issue of access to helmets among the poor, and there are several community-based programs that sell helmets at subsidized prices. But I think the key issues are very much about improving governance, enforcement, and changing people's mindsets about safety. Thailand should learn how Vietnam has been successful in getting motorcycle riders to wear helmets, and how some of these practices could be applied to Thailand.

April 15, 2013

I think we should increasing education of safety riding to the people there., smart tv commercial will be the best way for make it happen., I don't wanna see young producutive people die for wasting.,

April 16, 2013

I live in the center of Bangkok. My kid's school is next to a police station. Sometimes while waiting to pick up my kids, I watch the policemen leave or arrive on their motorcycles. Never more than 50% wear a helmet. Those that do wear a helmet often don't wear the chin strap to secure the helmet.
I think it starts with changing the mentality of the Thai police.