PRIVATE schools may become responsible for the training and testing of people who apply for driver’s licences over the next two years under a proposal being considered by the Department of Land Transport (DLT).
However, academics and traffic experts have raised questions of quality control and safety if the plan is enforced and instead urged strict law enforcement and a linked database to promote safer roads.
The national road safety committee chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan on Wednesday resolved to amend related laws to promote safer roads under a “Difficult to Get, Easy to Lose” programme.
Thailand has joined the United Nation’s Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020, which aims to cut road accidents and fatality rates by half. However, Thailand currently has the second worst death toll on the roads with more than 20,000 people killed each year, according to the World Health Organisation.
DLT deputy director-general Nantapong Churdchoo said there was a plan to make it compulsory for people applying for a driver’s licence to take driving lessons at private schools starting from 2018. Then the department would step back to take only a regulatory role.
Applicants would be required to attend lectures and practice driving at the schools, he said.
At present, besides a physical check-up, eligible applicants are required to attend a four-hour lecture and take an exam at the DLT offices. Once they pass the theory and driving test, they qualify.
There are currently 81 private driving schools nationwide authorised to train applicants. Some 33 of them are permitted to test students before they can present a certificate from such a school and request a driving licence at DLT offices, without having to take the test again.
During the proposed transition next year, the compulsory lecture that applicants need to attend will be extended from four to five hours. As well, the number of the questions for the written examination will be increased from 50 to 60, Nantapong said.
Applicants would still be required to correctly answer at least 90 per cent to pass the test.
Today, 30 million people hold a Thai driving licence and 4,000 people apply for a new licence every day. The changes would make the system more efficient, he said. The DLT will also push for a legal change that authorises it to revoke the licence of people who drive private or public vehicles, Nantapong said.
It is also improving the database that records the history of violators so it can impose progressive penalties for repeat offenders. The system currently is not linked to other agencies including the police, he said.
Expressing doubts over the proposed changes, Thailand Accident Research Centre Director Assoc Prof Dr Kunnawee Kanitpong said he was concerned about standards and accountability of driving schools that will be authorised to qualify drivers.
“How can you be sure that they [the driving schools] will only approve qualified drivers, not only a ‘pay-and-go’ system?” she said.
While E-Driving is currently available at major DLT offices and testing centres, she said drivers should be tested in real traffic situations.
Kunnawee said strict law enforcement was the key to improved road safety but implementation was impossible without a linked information system, otherwise people shrugged off the fine when they received a ticket from police.
Thai Traffic Police say 1.4 million tickets were issued last year but only 400,000 tickets were paid.
“It needs as powerful authority as a prime minister to order this,” she said. “If the prime minister orders relevant agencies, including the Transport Ministry and the Royal Thai Police, to find a way to link the system, the implementation can really happen.”
Naresuan University road safety expert Thaweesak Taekratok said that without a linked information system, drivers could claim they forgot their licence, as the penalty for not carrying one was much lower than driving without a licence or driving while their licence is suspended.
The penalty for not carrying a licence is a fine of up to Bt1,000, while the penalty for driving while a licence is suspended is a fine of up to Bt2,000. Violators could face jail for driving without a licence. So, the national road safety committee agreed last week to increase the penalty for driving without a licence up to a Bt50,000 fine.
Thaweesak also noted that the lack of certified and well-equipped driving schools in many provinces, as well as the higher cost might prompt some drivers to drive without a licence.
Thanapong Jinvong, programme manager of the Road Safety Group Thailand (RSG) of the National Health Foundation, said holders of driving licences should be classified and their eligibility and penalties should be different. Statistics showed new licence holders had more accidents than other groups.
“Beginner drivers might have to be restricted in some conditions. For example, the blood alcohol level of new drivers should be limited to 20 mg/dL or none, compared to 50 mg/dL allowed for experienced drivers,” he said.
Chartchai Chotima, president of the Private Driving Schools Association, said the plan would be difficult to implement as there was a shortage of certified driving instructors nationwide and the DLT could not provide enough training courses to meet the demand.