Surviving Thailand's roads
How to avoid becoming just another statistic
Over the last decade that I have spent residing in this tropical paradise, there is one thing that grates my nerves day in and day out. Very simply put, I have a passionate hate for Thai drivers and I would like to offer some advice to any newcomers to these distant shores. If you take heed of any of my observations, it could lead to your survival and lessen your chances of become flattened and mutilated on the tarmac like so many of those discarded rats that you see from time to time, And of course going home in a wooden overcoat.
A second chance?
You have to understand that most Thais do not have any coherence, understanding or desire to learn road safety. If you grew up in my generation you had Tufty and his gang drilling the green cross code into your brain, and those lessons never get deleted as the years pass by. But in this part of the world they do not have the idea that we only have one life - and life should be cherished just as Westerners think it should.
The Thai understanding is that there is a continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth, yet it seems very few spend their days trying to break from this cycle and are happy to return in some life form or another; be it a human or non-human.
The first lesson I'll give should be common sense to anyone. Do not drink and drive!!! You know you'd lose your license back home, but it doesn't matter over here because you're on holiday or you can pay the police to turn a blind eye. That doesn't work with me. A loaded gun on a table is not dangerous at all, it cannot shoot itself, so cannot harm anyone. The same goes for a parked car; it is not dangerous until an idiot gets behind the wheel. In my opinion; if you drink drive and kill someone it should be put down as class one murder. So if you plan to have a night drinking with your friends arrange for your transport home at the evening's end.
Keep a lid on it
The second lesson is also an obvious one, but if you don't pay attention to it in the tourist areas you will face a fine (a minimum of 300 baht, which could rise depending on the mood of the officer that stops you) Wear a helmet! Some of the helmets you can buy are very thin plastic and you'd be just as well protected wearing a banana skin, so fork out and pay for a decent lid.
If you do fall off and bang your head, you could be lucky and survive - or spend the rest of your life with severe brain damage. I had to attend a funeral of one of my students once that fell under a bus and had his head crushed as the bus pulled away and the driver hadn't noticed the accident behind him. I do believe he might have survived had he been wearing a decent helmet. The same goes for riding a bike around in your swimsuit. Are you crazy? Get your tan by the beach, but protect yourself on the roads. If you don't believe me just check the statistics of road accidents in this country.
Now I'll try to explain some of the ideas that Thai people have about the road. Not so long ago Thailand was a feudal state. The common people were slaves and had to make way for the village chief as he strolled along the streets. Some people still have this mentality and feel that as you are of a lower class you should get out of their way. So when someone pulls out onto a main road from a subsidiary road right in front of you while you're screeching on the brakes and pounding on the horn, you have to understand that he feels he has the right of way because he is a government official or comes from a wealthy family. A lot of Thai citizens are aware of this and that is one of the reasons that they drive on the outside lane, even if they are just cruising and not trying to overtake another driver.
Keep your distance
The next bunch of road-hogs to look out for are those that drive for a living: tuk-tuk drivers, songteaws, taxis, motorbike taxis and the numerous delivery boys. Because they drive all day long they feel that they are kings of the road and can do what they want. So my advice is to keep a safe distance and look out for someone standing by the side of the road calling for a tuk-tuk because the driver will swerve across the road to pull in before he looks in the mirror or bothers to signal. The same for the songteaw; look out for someone ringing the bell to stop the vehicle and this will give you enough time to slow down and avoid an accident. Anticipation is key.
The early morning traffic is another thing to watch out for. Many Thais who work for a company will be fined if they are late for work. This explains why the guy in his car is right up your backside and trying to pass you so that he can just sit behind the car in front of you and fill the gap that was your safe breaking distance. The simplest thing to do is just let him pass and create the space you had before. Don't flip the bird at him, as you have nothing to gain (I know it's tempting, but that can lead to some serious confrontations and a lot of drivers carry guns).
I'd only been here for a couple of months before noticing how awful life on the roads was. I made a very quick assumption that the Thai populace learns how to drive by watching the formula one Grand Prix. And that is the very reason why they like to overtake on the corners. A simple fact (I can verify this by the hours I've spent quizzing my students about road signs) is that 99% of Thais don't know the meanings of the road signs and street markings.
They don't know the meaning of a no-entry sign, one way street, give-way signs or the fact that a red light does actually mean stop and to wait for the green light. Most drivers seem amazed when you approach a roundabout and let them go rather than try to go for it and get in front of them; as in my understanding and education they do have the right of way, so I adhere to the rules I have learnt.
Learning from an early age
The main conclusion I have come to over the years is that the problem lies in the simple fact that in the villages, an eight year old boy is encouraged by his father to learn how to ride a motorbike so he can buy his dad's cigarettes or bottle of beer. They learn that the throttle makes them go and the break makes them stop, but they can't actually stop because their feet can't touch the ground.
Forget about looking in the mirrors because in Asian beliefs mirrors are used to catch ghosts and spirits (that's why they have mirrors on the fronts of their houses). So once they've learnt how to operate their mode of transport they don't pick up a book to learn any road signs and this will not change until the government takes responsibility and adopts Tufty's messages to educate the masses. Or the police start to stop underage motorists and impose strong fines to deter all of the country's citizens for not adhering to the rules of the road.
There are many other points that make driving a car or riding a bike in this part of the world dangerous. An entire family of three or four generations on the same two wheels, blabbering on the phone or sending text messages whilst speeding along at 100 kmph, a lack of a serious driving test or the unmotivated police to enforce the law, unless it's at the end of the month and they need a few extra baht. But I advise you to always stay calm and avoid conflicts, it's not worth risking your life for.
What you can do is either drive or ride as crazily as they do, which will give you a larger chance of never returning home in one piece or the better solution is to lead by example and show them that there is a better and safer way. If you do feel yourself getting vexed it is much better to pull over and let everyone else speed on to their destinations. Take five and just chill.
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Here is the step in the right direction:
Here are the road rules to be enforced for the South in detail (source: Hat Yai Traffic Police)
1. For safety reasons, not more than six cars may drive into an intersection and pass it, after the red traffic light has been switched on.
2. STOP-signs may only be neglected with the hazard lights on. This will warn other road users, and explain the urgency of the mission of the vehicle crossing.
3. Mobile phones may only be used while driving, if the car is equipped with tinted windscreens. This will save you from receiving a warning.
3. Turn signals should be switched on in either direction at all times. This is to make the following driver guess, if you will proceed straight, or if you may make a turn. This situation will hopefully strengthen the alertness of the driver behind.
4. The use of rear mirrors is only permitted, to check and redo your lipstick, or to squeeze out pimples. This measurement will force drivers to slow down, when detecting cars parked on the roadside, which might eventually enter the road. It also forces a driver during an overtaking manoeuvre, using the right or left lane, to check the functionality of the horn and brakes, if the car to be overtaken makes a move to the side, where you started your manoeuvre.
5. High beams and fog lights should be switched on at all times, as the driver approaching from the opposite direction will be blinded, and must slow down or even stop. This measurement will help drivers coming from opposite directions, to pass each other at slow speeds.
6. Remaining tire pressure gages at gas stations are to be removed. This will ensure, that the tires of vehicles will always be filled up to a the maximum pressure the air compressor can produce, which is about 80 psi. With those tires it is hardly impossible to exceed the legal speed limit of 90Km/h, as the tire(s) might blow up and can cause severe damage to vehicle and driver.
7. Minibuses are to be stripped of all safety belts or make them unusable. This eases the removal from corpses out of a wreck.
8. Imported cars, as Mercedes, Audi and such, have a "built in" right of way, because there is a great chance, that a member of the police is on his way, to enforce these important rules.
By Walter Breymann, Hat Yai, Songkhla (19th February 2014)
(Posted on behalf of Thomas)
Stephen I said everything I wanted to say concerning this so I have nothing
more to say except the following insight and suggestion. Yes it is very
obvious that Thais can be dangerous, crazy drivers but we really have no
control over that the only thing we have control over is how we drive and
how we react or respond to their crazy driving. When I first came to
Thailand their driving use to annoy me and at times I would get very angry
especially when they did something that was extremely dangerous. Now it no
longer bothers me and it certainly is not because their ways of driving has
changed but my way of responding to it has. For me driving in Thailand has
become like a moving meditation, of course with my eyes wide open, by using
concentration, mindfulness and insight which allows me to be very aware in
the present moment as to what is going on within and around me. So as long
as the Thais driving grates your nerves day in and day out and you continue
to have a passionate hate for Thai drivers nothing will change. Because
ultimately your reaction is really not about their driving but about you and
that is what would need to change otherwise 10 years from now their driving
will still be grating your nerves. So good luck with all this because for
things to change I am the one who has to change from the inside out.
By philip, (1st February 2014)
Dear Thomas. I also find it disturbing that you find my points of view disturbing. I would hardly say my comments were ignorant or arrogant. With reference to the Asian belief of not being so serious about life, this was pointed out to me by a group of trainee doctors during a class discussion about road safety. So it's not just my point of view. I do believe I'm quite well educated about the Buddhist ways concerning reincarnation having spent nearly two years practicing yoga and meditation in India.
I'm not sure which part of the world you come from, but generally we are educated with the Christian belief (but may I state I'm not a Christian) that we only have one life. Also may I point out that wars have been fought all over the world and have been doing so since we have been recording history.
I'd be interested to know what other statements you found disturbing as it seems that anyone who has a different point of view to your own is not entitled to an opinion.
With your reference to 'if I don't like it here' then please dig deeper into the written work on this website and enlighten yourself as to ten reasons why I love Thailand and my work here.
Peace be with you sir
By Stephan Cannon, hat yai (27th January 2014)
I found this article somewhat disturbing not because you say you have a
passionate hate for Thai drivers, which seems a pretty extreme thing to say,
as there is no denying that most Thais are crazy, unsafe drivers. But more
so due to the very arrogant and in some cases very ignorant statements you
make concerning Thais and Asian culture in general. A lot of your statements
sounded like a very colonial attitude that European nations had or still
have toward other less developed countries. I am not going to go into all of
those statement but one in particular was really off the wall in which you
state "life should be cherished just as Westerners think it should be." Oh
really what culture developed and has used weapons of mass destruction such
as nuclear, chemical and biological? What culture was the source of the two
most devastating wars, world war 1 and world war 2, in the history of
mankind? And then to say Eastern culture does not value life because of the
belief in reincarnation just shows your incredible ignorance of what
reincarnation is really about and what reincarnation really means to most
Thais. Also if the Thais driving really bothers you so much, even after
being here for over 10 years, why don't you just move back to the west where
they drive in a more sane way, besides the rode rage right, and where they
cherish life so much more.
(This comment was posted on behalf of Thomas)
By philip, (26th January 2014)
The important thing to understand is that we might be shocked by the lack of road safety in Thailand Thai people are not. A couple of years ago I asked all the Thai teachers in the staff room if they knew how many people died on Thai roads in a year, of course none of them did, and did not understand the relevance of the question. Between 20 and 26 thousand would have been correct,
I expect to see madness on the roads every time I get behind the wheel and always do, and often death also. Top of the crazy list for me is driving on the wrong side of the road. Driving in the dark without lights on. Taking babies and toddlers on motorbikes, when even a slow fall could prove fatal. Covering the dashboard of cars with cuddly toys leaving a small gap to see out of just above the steering wheel. Driving slowly in the fast lane. Pulling onto a road without checking to see if anything is coming.
Any possible combination of all of the above.
By Jeremy, Nongbualamphu (26th January 2014)
I agree, Will. There's a bit of "I couldn't care less" in their attitude too. "Mai Pen Rai" in Thai. It pervades through everything they do, not just driving. Why do bikers pull out of sois without looking? Your point on their assuming you'll get out of their way is spot on. Heavy lorries expect the same.
By Matt Owens Rees, Thailand (24th January 2014)
Many drivers probably need specs, however, these are not popular
By clive, SA (24th January 2014)
An extremely good and succinct article. Bringing out the cultural reasons for their driving behaviour is very accurate. They have a senses of freedom that is different from ours in the West. An anarchic sense of freedom to do what they like. You have no doubt seen a motorcyclist, having paid some tea money at a check-point for not wearing a helmet, then riding off round a bend, stopping, and removing the helmet out of sight of the police. Freedom.
By Matt Owens Rees, Thailand (22nd January 2014)
you're right. People from Asia seem to have no idea how to drive. Thailand's drivers are the worst. There are more road safety signs and better roads than in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, but people in Thailand seem less aware of what's going on around them. It's scary crossing the road in front of dozens of motorbikes in Vietnam, and no one ever stops for you, but they do swerve around you when you're in the middle of the road. In Thailand, they just honk their horn and assume you should get out of their way even if you're at a crosswalk and they're at a red light.
People in Asia also seem to not understand the concept of waiting in line, including in Singapore.
By Will, Trat (22nd January 2014)