Thailand: Road safety will never happen by accident

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Photo credit: Dennis Thern
Photo © Dennis Thern

In Thailand, road accidents cause about one death every hour—but for a country of almost 70 million people, how does it fare compared to other countries?

Well, before we get to answering that; the good news for the country is that, according to Thailand Road Safety Observatory, overall road accidents, fatalities and injuries all fell roughly by a third over the past decade. But as for the bad news, the probability of crash victims becoming fatally wounded or permanently disabled is higher than ever.

However, the real bad news—despite the authorities’ efforts to prevent accidents—is that, according to the World Health Organization’s Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013, Thailand continues to have one of the highest rates in road fatalities. In fact, with 38 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year, it ranks third in the world, just behind the African countries of Eritrea and Libya, at 48.4 and 40.5 respectively.

Furthermore, not only have Thailand’s roads earned the unwanted title of Asia’s deadliest (Malaysia and Vietnam both have an average of 25 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, Lao has 20, Indonesia 18, Cambodia 17, Myanmar 15, Philippines 9, and Singapore 5), Thailand actually ranks worst in the world for two-wheeler casualties. Official statistics suggest that such incidents account for more than 70% of the country's road fatalities.

Putting Thailand’s road safety into perspective

With around 26,000 traffic deaths per year, and hundreds of thousands of injured victims, many of which are permanently crippled or disabled, the casualty numbers of the country are equivalent to those of a moderate-scale war. In particular, young males age 15-24, an economically active population group, are most susceptible to dying in such way (it is 4 times more likely for males to suffer a fatal accident than females).

In terms of damage (lost working days and productivity, medical care, property and vehicular damage, travel time delay and administrative costs), road accidents would bleed away approximately 3% of the country’s GDP; it has been estimated that the total cost is more than 200 billion Baht (or US$ 5 billion) per year—this is enough to build the Suvarnabhumi, the country’s main airport, every year!

As pointed out by my colleague Sutayut this time last year, the two most dangerous times of the year on the road are the Thai new year of Songkran (April) and the traditional Gregorian New Year (December/January). So notorious are these periods that they are termed “the seven deadliest days”. During those “prime times,” the rate of fatalities in Thailand doubles to 52 per day, or about two deaths every hour.

Given that everything else is relatively constant, i.e., conditions of the road network, number of motorists, etc., this jump in fatalities is known to be highly linked to driving behavior. In other words, behavior behind the wheel is what matters most. During festive seasons, such jump in accidents is the same all around the world; when festive passions run high, drivers’ assessment of possibilities and dangers becomes overly optimistic, especially when alcohol is consumed.

What else can be done to reduce accidents?

The Thai government had announced an ambitious “master plan on road safety” aimed at cutting the fatality rate to fewer than 10 people for every 100,000 inhabitants, a target set by the UN’s Decade of Action for Road Safety.

Improving infrastructural elements certainly helps. But they are never enough. More significantly, such improvements cannot substitute for the “soft measures” in transport. For example, putting up a warning sign on a “black spot” (jargon for a place where traffic accidents frequently occur) could help prevent, say, two accidents; but it will not help eight other drunk drivers from causing carnage.

And even if the accident rate went down to zero, soft measures (such as school programs, awareness campaigns, and integration of transport systems through land-use plans) must continue. New generations still need to be taught, and older generations reminded.

A change in habits

At the global level, “road traffic kills as many people as malaria,” writes Duncan Green from Oxfam. He goes on to suggest that persuading “bus drivers to slow down is much easier than tackling malaria,” perhaps implying that all it takes is a change of habit, which of course, is never as simple as it sounds.

Human are creatures of habit; and unfortunately, old habits die hard—especially the bad ones. So, let me pose you a question: how should we instill the fact that drunk driving is dangerous on to the ones we love, without sounding patronizing (especially if they are experienced drivers)? How do we communicate the fact that the seemingly distant danger of road accidents is actually a very close threat to all of us?

This post was edited on April 23 to correct a statistic.


Chanin Manopiniwes

Infrastructure Economist

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