This is one of my longer posts, but I know there are some who enjoy a longer read. It might be a bit controversial, but I have confidence that readers will respond sensibly. There are forums out there I would never publish something based around this topic. Please do not comment in generalities if you want to dispute what I have written without properly arguing your point. If you have a totally fixed view on the subject and don’t have the ability to disprove my logic, please don’t waste the group’s time with one line biases. I am one of the most relaxed guys you’ll ever meet, but I have my limits 555.
What prompted me to get this story written, having had it on my mind for a while, was that Yuan, my sister-in-law’s son Game, was involved in an accident in Bangkok, where he works. A truck collided with his motorbike sending Game sliding across the road. Game had a helmet on and thankfully was unharmed, although his bike needs extensive repairs. The passenger on the back of Game’s bike, who wasn’t wearing a helmet died. Game will get 30,000 baht for the bike, while the family of the dead kid will get 1 million. What a Thai life is worth! Just as an aside, Game wasn’t going to tell his mum about this because he was worried it would upset her, but the insurance money is being paid into her bank account, so he had to. Kids are the same the world over, protecting their mum.
Now, this is obviously a message about the pluses of wearing a helmet, and why it is law that the rider has to wear one but the three passengers don’t is a mystery. Please don’t get stuck on this aspect of what I am writing about, because it is only part of the bigger picture, and not the topic in itself.
Surprisingly, I am going to head off on a different path than the one you may think based on this introduction, so hang in there to read the full post.
I avoid most social media, because I don’t have the time, a lot of it is reposted topics that don’t interest me, and I can’t be bothered wading through the advertisements. However, I do dip in occasionally, and one of the repetitive topics to pop up is the subject of Thai driving. On Facebook you can even join a group that has nothing but posts about bad Thai road events, which I haven’t because why would I want to introduce negativity into my life? The headline you will read is most often ‘Thailand is the Third Most Dangerous Country to Drive in the World’. I am sure you will have seen this at some stage in your reading on Thai life, and maybe that worried you.
In reading the posts on this subject I have classified the authors into three categories:
1. The genuine caring people that are horrified at this statistic reflecting high and the often needless deaths on Thai roads.
2. The ones that post this as yet another example of how poorly Thai performs along with just about everything else. Published from some bar with like-minded frustrated expats onto their sixth beer of the morning. Oh Tony, you are showing terrible bias here….I will have to admin myself, but you get the idea 555
3. The third group is an interesting one. It’s the people who almost relish the statistic, as a statement to friends back ‘home’ of how on the edge their life has become after relocating to Thailand probably from a boring suburban existence in some country in Europe, Australia or the America etc. Mine was a boring suburban life in Australia 555. It is almost a ‘look at me’ to the folks back home. The response comments often reflect this saying things like “Wow, Peter, you take care out there. I wouldn’t be driving those roads”. It reminds me of a robust discussion I had with a reader of another group who described the major highway from my provincial capital of Nong Bua Lamphu to the city of Udon Thani as ‘the road of death’ in a post. Now, I have driven that road regularly the last eight years, and have seen two accidents and no body bags so far. It is a typical two and sometimes three lane highway, with a concrete separation in the middle and although one drives defensively like always, it is a set and forget drive. “Road of death’, really! One to impress the gullible.
My aim in this post is to inform all three groups, that the headline statistics are true (I presume), but using it as a statement to support the appalling standard of Thai driving and promote the idea that you are taking an highly risky decision every time you hit the roads, is not actually backed up by the statistics and by tasking a common sense approach. It is this latter aspect, your personal risk, that I really want you to take away from my efforts in this post.
Firstly, let’s get started by clarifying one statistic. You see the risk is very much dependent on the type of transport you mainly use. As reported in The Nation Thailand here: https://www.nationthailand.com/in-focus/30373606
Motorcycles accounted for up to 70 per cent of the fatal crashes, followed by 14 per cent involving personal cars or pickups and 10 per cent pedestrians. These numbers were released as part of the 2018 Thailand road safety situation survey conducted by the Thailand Health Promotion Foundation and road-safety watch teams.
If you are in a motor vehicle, you are immediately in a different statical category. Like many developing countries with a high level of motorbike usage, you have to allow for that in the statistics when comparing road deaths with countries where hardly anyone uses motorbikes for everyday travel, like Australia. It’s apple and pears.
Some of my own statistics to prove why you can't make a direct comparison between countries.
So, lets stick with the high death rate for motorbikes, because riding a bike here as a farang doesn’t in itself mean you are automatically into the terribly high statistical risk area either. Why are the numbers so high? Take into consideration all the aspects of riding that may not apply to you:
1. The average number of people on a bike is likely to be far higher than western countries. An accident here will affect more people, than say one major accident in Australia that might kill one person. Here it could be many. In our village during 2022 Songkran, a motorbike failed to take a corner and crashed. There were three people on that bike and all died. You’d probably need two or three such accidents to happen in Australia to reach the same statistic.
2. Although the wearing of helmets is improving, I still see many situations where they aren’t used, and even if they are the rule that only the rider need one and his passengers don’t is weird. This will affect the statistics when compared to helmet wearing countries. If you personally wear one when riding you automatically reduce the possibility of yourself being added to that particular statistic - death as a result of head injuries.
3. Helmet quality. I am sure that the cheap ones are what the majority of people wear and may not help a lot in a serious accident. As a farang you are more likely to be wearing a better quality one, reducing the death risk.
4. Clothes. Certainly the serious biker groups tend to have guys and ladies who are properly kitted out. Shorts and a T short just doesn’t do it as you skid across the road. Dress appropriately and reduce the risk.
5. Thai ride and drive to a 180 degree rule, very different from our 360 degree attitude to what’s happening around us. Thais are mostly only visually engaged with the 180 degree view in front of them. The unseen 180 degrees behind them is the responsibility of the cars, bikes etc behind them, who in theory are driving to their 180 degree rule, and therefore take account of what’s in front of them. It is why you see bikes pull straight out into the road without looking to their right. The bad logic (in my opinion) being applied is that whatever is approaching from the right is applying its 180 degree rule and picks up on the unexpected entry of a vehicle to the left. You may have thought that Thais were basically stupid for acting as they do when merging. I think it is a silly rule that increases risk and the possibility of death, but at least there is some logic being applied and not just a death wish in action. As a farang you obvious ride/drive to how we are taught with a 360 degree observation, which will reduce you being included in the Thai statistics.
6. Lights. In rural areas many bikes have had their rear tail-lights removed, making them less visible at night. Once again there is a ‘logic’ to this, not just some random behaviour like saving energy 555. The lights are taken out so that wandering spirits at night find it more difficult to follow the rider. You may be shaking your head, but that’s why it is. I presume that as an expat you don’t have the same beliefs and retain your rear light, thereby reducing the risk of being cleaned up by a vehicle at night.
7. Alcohol. Like the accident in our village the casual combining of riding with large amounts of alcohol leads to a high death rate. You might have a more sensible attitude to the mix, and so you will, once again, reduce the likelihood of being included in those high death statistics.
Are you getting the idea? The high Thai motorbike statistics are largely due to personal decisions made and if you are a rider yourself, then you can greatly reduce the possibility of death by being sensible and thereby excluding yourself from the circumstances leading to being in a serious accident or dying as a result of that accident.
The same sort of logic can also be applied to reduce the likelihood you becoming a statistic when driving a motor vehicle. Let’s work through them:
1. Again, although the statistics may be high when compared with other countries, I believe logically that the death rate per accident will be higher. A car driven in Australia probably only has one or two people in it. In Thailand as you know you can have a dozen, with people stacked in the tray of a pick-up. One major accident here could involve many deaths, while the same siltation elsewhere maybe one or two. That fact will skew the statistics. The actual accident rate may not be a lot higher but the number of deaths could be. What I am saying is that although driving is probably more risky here than some other places, it won’t be at the same level as if you mindlessly believe the raw statistics.
2. Driving training and tests. Yes, they are hopeless. Training people to drive by confining them to a large carpark is not going to be too useful. I know the partner of a expat who came out of training with her licence, but had no idea how to change into second gear, because she never had to do it on the limited driving course she was trained on 555. You can buy a licence of course if you are hopeless. My personal experience is that to automatically classify the whole Thai driving population as deadly and useless is an overreaction. I have driven here extensively for nine years, and although I have seen bad driving, I mostly see perfectly normal behaviour. Now, I have friends who seem to feel that their life is at risk every time they get behind a wheel, so my assessment of what is ‘normal’ must be different from them or they exist in some sort of parallel universe. Of course there is terrible driving here, but if you watch YouTube, you can find those webcam videos applying to any country you’d like to select. I very rarely see that sort of behaviour here. Now you, have presumably been properly trained in driving, and have experience being older, so as long as you are more flexible than when back ‘home’ and drive defensively, you probably have a better chance of survival than a badly trained young Thai struggling to find second gear.
3. Vehicle quality. I bought a higher spec Nissan pickup in 2017 (a Sportech) that has two air bags. The same spec in Australia has seven. Things may have changed since I bought, but a poorer base safety provided by the manufacturers, will have an effect on the death statistics. I would also take an educated guess that the average age of vehicles here is a lot older than some of the countries we come from. You are more likely to die in an ancient car than in a modern vehicle and that will affect comparable statistics.
4. The casual approach to alcohol applies in this category as well of course.
I have probably missed observations in both categories above, so chip in if you can contribute something insightful.
In reading back through this motor vehicle list I noticed there were more items that were outside the control of Thai people themselves, which reduces the ‘world’s worst driver’ category some expats would like to apply. Driving training, vehicle safety and limited incomes reducing the ability to upgrade are not personal choices.
If you have logically followed what I have written, without letting strongly preconceived biases intrude, I believe I have made an argument that the easy shock and awe road death statistical headlines, need to be filtered by your own actions and attitudes. Drive a car, then you are immediately safer statistically. Ride a motorbike on the open roads, then don’t do as the locals often do, and again, you are statistically in a better place.
I am a realist and totally acknowledge that driving or riding is one of the riskiest things you’ll do, but that applies in most countries I would have thought. I am not downplaying the hazards of being on the roads in Thailand. Are you risking death - absolutely, as you are in many things you do. However, don’t let the numbers frighten you into a false attitude that this death is about to happen to you at any moment. It might, but if you understand what I have explained, it is probably less likely than you might think.
In conclusion, in no way am I trying to hide or minimise the appalling carnage of lives wasted on Thai roads. There are signs that Thais are finally getting a little more involved in introducing measures to combat the death rate, but a very long way to go.
If you have made it this far, thanks for hanging in.