Stickman Readers' Submissions October 20th, 2010

Driving While Thai

Heading north on Petchaburi I make eye contact with a 50ish Thai man driving an old Nissan out from a side soi. At the moment of eye contact he stands on the gas shooting out directly in front of my much larger truck causing me to severely brake. As I brake I watch my review mirror hoping the 15 cars behind me are paying attention and don’t rear end me. To this Thai Nissan driver it didn’t matter that he made me suddenly brake, it didn’t care about the 15 cars behind me either. It didn’t occur to him to wait for the cars to go by and merge into traffic when there was an opening, in his mind me making eye contact with him WAS his opening. My mistake, and an example of the very essence of Driving While Thai.

A kilometer down the road a mother holding hands with 3-4 of her young kids, not one older than ten, darts out in front of 3 lanes of oncoming traffic causing myself and about 50 other cars to suddenly brake to avoid hitting her and the kids. She didn’t even look to see if she made it. She turned her back on the 50 vehicles she ran her kids out in front of, and never even looked back to see if she was close. Looking around me at my fellow motorists not a one seemed perturbed. Business as usual.

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I could go on with hundreds of examples that most readers around the world wouldn’t believe. They’d think I’m making them up, or embellishing for effect, or sensationalizing. These readers have never been to Bangkok. Those of you who have been to Thailand are nodding your heads knowingly. You know such an example often happens every kilometer or less. You know that almost any trip by car will reveal 10-20 of these examples. Driving While Thai.

I’m not going to attack the Thai driver, or give you safety hints, or warn you not to drive here. Whether or not you wish to encounter such risks is a personal decision based on your driving skills, how well you can control your mental faculties, and your risk acceptance threshold. Instead, I’m going to try explaining to you why this happens:

· First and foremost is that corruption thing again. From legislating the laws, to licensing the individual, to traffic enforcement, the entire system is corrupt. It’s only been recently the insurance industry and land transportation office has ‘attempted’ to keep track of offenders and they’re still in their infancy. They’ll probably stay in their infancy because of corruption.

· Next is the Thai mindset, or maybe that myth that the Thai people are gentle in spirit, not easily angered, and are very understanding. That is, until you insult their football team, find yourself outnumbered 100 : 1, they lose face, money is at issue, or of course if you put them behind the wheel of an automobile. Then all bets are off and you’re dealing with a deadly combination of an uneducated and irrational angry and very aggressive driver.

· Then you have the education factor. Put a relatively uneducated person behind the wheel of a two ton hunk of steel and you really can’t expect them to be fully aware of how long it takes to stop the vehicle, how rain causes hydroplaning, the importance of vehicle maintenance, or any of the subjects you’ll see broadcast as a public service announcement in your own country. Subjects like drinking while driving, wearing a seatbelt, child safety seats, or overloading are unknowns.

· How about the Thai national sport of getting drunk? Not only is drinking a family activity everyone engages in, but it’s such a popular pastime an actual and forgivable excuse in court is “he didn’t know what he was doing (when he pulled the trigger, drove the car, chopped up the wife, or stabbed someone to death) because he was drunk..” Seriously. Read the news and you’ll see this ‘defense’ being offered to the courts over and over again. And for good reason, it works. Being blind drunk on rotgut whiskey is a suitable excuse for any heinous crime you can imagine.

· Car maintenance and repairs cost money. As long as a Thai sees their car as ‘brand new’ or still an investment, they’ll take reasonable care of it. Beyond that they’ll put the cheapest tires, postpone brake jobs even when the screech of metal on metal is hurting their already deaf ears, forego adequate insurance, or anything that costs them a single baht no matter how unsafe the car might be. But how can you blame them, this is the way the government takes care of their streets, their sidewalks, their schools, their homes, and their workplace. Money before safety. It’s a national mindset.

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· A few years ago I did some research for an article I was writing and learned the average payout for a death in the workplace averaged baht 10,000. Yes, baht 10,000 is the average price paid out for the death of a construction worker or other blue collar worker in Thailand. The courts have set the value of life so cheaply, that it almost always pays to postpone that new set of tires for the big dump truck or passenger bus, to postpone the needed brake job for the big rig, or even the annual hydraulic inspection for the crane. It pays to gamble with human life and pay out the occasional baht 10,000 death gratuity, rather than do the recommended and required maintenance on a 30 ton truck.

· And let’s not forget we share the road with all sorts of unlicensed, uninsured, and unsafe vehicles such as whatever a child’s mind and a box of crayons can imagine hooked up to the side, in front of, or even behind a motorsai. Yep, attach 500 kilos of extra sidecar and load, and a thought is never given to the chassis, suspension, or braking capabilities originally designed to accommodate the 150 kilo motorsai and driver.

· We can’t discuss this subject without raising the issue of Thailand not having a single certified (or even a fake) trauma center, no Life Flights, or even an adequate public paramedic program. The best we have is the ‘hope’, one of the small privately owned and self-trained pickup trucks with emergency lights and a Watson first aid kit is in the area, and finds enough money or jewelry on your unconscious person so he finds it in his heart to throw you in the back of the pickup and take you to the closest poorly ran public hospital where any doctor with seniority or experience has surely taken the day to go golfing, went home early, and of course left instructions not to be bothered at home during the evenings/nights/weekends when most serious traffic accidents occur.

· While we’re on the subject we can’t get by without mentioning we must share the road with hundreds of thousands of motorsais cutting through traffic, pulling in front of you and then braking, knocking off your mirror, or slowing traffic to a crawl because they can’t match the acceleration of most cars. Or that many of them are driven by unlicensed and uninsured children. I wanted to use “teenagers” instead of “children”, but that wouldn’t be true. Actual children, kids under the age of 12, are routinely out there sharing the road with you. It’s hard to fathom their parents actually provide the children with these motorsais, but they do. After all, the laws aren’t enforced and if they are enforced for whatever reason, it won’t be a real ticket or fine. It will be 100 baht to the smiling man in brown. And hey, they might win the lottery if a rich Thai or better yet a farang hits their child and kills them. I kid you not.

· Okay, some of you are going to say “don’t forget about the elephants!” True. I’ll never forget the time my then UN employed Chinese/Malay girlfriend almost ran her Volvo right up the backside of an elephant in a dark soi and all she got for her great braking technique was a hood full of dung. With all the soi dogs, chickens, donkey’s, and other livestock on the road with us an elephant or two shouldn’t surprise you right?

· And of course the actual roads, stop lights, turnout lanes, flyovers, roundabouts, or a sort of standing joke among those from other countries who know better. To be fair the road surfaces are most often quite good. But traffic management of any type is almost always contributing to unsafe conditions. The “fast lane” on Thai highways are asinine. This is where all the slow big trucks, slow little trucks, motorsais with 4-5 passengers, and unlicensed vehicles of all types must pass through to turn right or make a U-turn. They’re also where I’ve seen (many times) construction crews park tractors, leave loads of streetlights or road construction materials, or even park a long row of trucks. And of course the cones (if any) won’t extend further than 20 meters from these hazards and there will be no warning lights after dark. For a car traveling the legal 120kmph 20 meters of warning is more of a death notice than a warning.

· And finally, let us not forget that most Thai drivers are that families first generation of driver. This means they didn’t ride in the car with their parents as a child, or a teen, so they have no idea how hard pedestrians are to see out there in the dark while it’s raining, especially if they’re wearing black. All they know is how easy it is to see a car with big bright lights as a pedestrian, and they never stop to think how hard it is for the car to see them. If they’d ridden in a family car as a child, as most of us in the west have, then they’d be much more aware of how well they can be seen when they’re running out in front of a car, in the dark, in the rain, while wearing black.

I really don’t think I’ve been unfair, not even a little. If anything I haven’t been descriptive or accurate enough or called out the dangers as well as I should have. Driving While Thai. With all the fatal accidents it’s a temporary condition I’m sure.

I’ve been driving now for 36 years. In America, Europe, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and many other countries. Believe me when I say that Thailand is just modern enough to ensure high rates of speed, and backwards enough to ensure the most dangerous driving conditions I’ve ever experienced. A perfect storm.

It’s not even a matter of deciding if you’ll use the public roads or not, you must to get anywhere or do anything. It becomes a matter of the decisions, if owning, maintaining, and driving your own car puts you in a better position than letting Somchai drive. Your mileage may vary. Driving While Thai..

Until next time…

Stickman's thoughts:

Everything you say here is pretty much spot on in my experience. I remember a friend who has been here a very long time saying "Thais are fine until you put them in a uniform or behind the wheel of a car."

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