Following the fatal accident in Chiang Mai that killed three cyclists and injured two others, demands for stiffer punishments have escalated, especially given the likely influence of alcohol.
One idea is bicycle licenses, a proposal which led to a group of bicyclists meeting Assistant Police Chief Prawut Thawornsiri on May 15 to submit objections.
Licensing bicycle riders is only an opportunity for additional paperwork and graft. Pedestrians and cyclists should have first priority on roads. Licensing borders on the preposterous, as research worldwide has shown it is a barrier to more cycling, which the government in theory supports.
The real problem is Thai roads are very nearly the most dangerous in the world. This year’s first-quarter data for traffic accidents notes the deaths of 3,834 Thais, while more than 316,000 have sustained some form of injury, at great cost to the healthcare system and economy.
Globally, Thailand’s rate of road deaths is second only to Namibia – one of the least densely populated countries - in a study of 193 countries by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. This study revealed a disturbing 44 deaths per 100,000 of population in Thailand, with 45 in Namibia.
It is no surprise that pedestrians, cyclists and motorcycle riders are the most vulnerable to road accidents. For instance, the Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013 by the World Health Organization (WHO) found 74% of total deaths were users of motorized 2- or 3-wheelers, 13% were drivers of 4-wheeled vehicles, then 8% were pedestrians, while cyclists accounted for 3%.
The maximum speed limits on urban roads are 60 or 80km/h. However, Thailand achieved a mere 30% for effective implementation of national speed limits in the WHO study.
Thailand also has a national motorcycle helmet law. Studies have shown a good-quality helmet can reduce the risk of death on the road by 40%. However, most Thai motorcyclists only wear helmets to avoid traffic police fines. The WHO study suggests only 53% of riders and 19% of motorcycle passengers actually obey this law in Thailand.
Moreover, drink-driving was the main reason for the 3,373 accidents during this year’s Songkran week. Enforcement of drink-driving laws reduces the road accident rate dramatically. Thai law sets a 0.05 g/dl blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for drivers. However, the WHO study rates the Thai enforcement level of this limit at 50%, signifying much more is required on both the part of the police and of drivers.
Thailand can learn from Nepal – a country technically behind Thailand in terms of development. Similar to Thailand, the Himalayan kingdom had rules on drink driving which were rarely enforced until December 2011. Then, the country adopted one of the strictest drink driving rules in the world - a zero tolerance policy, setting the BAC to zero.
As soon as night falls, the night shift of Nepalese traffic police is deployed to enforce the law, armed with breathalyzers. Unlike in Thailand, where “crackdowns” may be over in one night, in Kathmandu it is almost impossible to escape the net of breath checks, including on weekends, holidays, and even during the day.
If any driver is caught consuming even a mouthful of alcohol, that person is fined the equivalent of 335 baht. In addition, what deters re-offending the most is a one-hour-long mandatory lecture on the dangers of drink driving and the long queues to pay the fine before receiving the seized license the next day.
It took weeks for Nepalese party-goers to adjust to this new rule. In addition, the enforcement seriously hampered the business of restaurants and bars. There were organized protests, including the temporary closure of businesses, but in the face of a determined stand by the Nepalese government and police force, these petered out. Crucially, the authorities were aware that an increased likelihood of punishment would, in time, deter criminal activity, as predicted by rational action theory, which states that human beings are more likely to obey the law if the chance of punishment is higher.
Furthermore, the positive benefits of the campaign clearly outweigh the negative. The number of accidents caused by drink driving declined sharply by more than 71% from 2012 to 2013. In addition, in this country of 27 million, by the end of February 2015, the traffic police had penalized 172,557 offenders and amassed over 50 million baht – all mainly from one city, Kathmandu - since the inception of the campaign.
The campaign also had greater social benefits. Housewives and parents were happy because their loved ones went home sober. Furthermore, the rates of other crimes like gang fights, theft, extortion and rape significantly declined. In addition, the policy gave birth to new business opportunities, mainly for taxi drivers.
What is seemingly lacking among Thai traffic police is not an awareness of these issues but strong commitment and motivation to implement a sustained policy. The country needs leadership that is willing and able to cope with the significant resistance which will arise from restaurant owners and habitual drinkers. Courage and motivation are necessary within the police system in order to go beyond punishing the poorer motorcyclists and to begin curbing the reckless drinking of those higher in the social ladder who drive cars, including luxury vehicles.
Nepal took into account the police and public mentality before starting the campaign. The government backed the police and created an “encouragement allowance” where they are entitled to keep one-sixth of the revenue. The allowance resulted in a decline in bribery as the traffic police could easily earn extra legal money by punishing more drivers. This was key to the campaign’s success, which also included celebrity endorsements, television programmes, and social media.
To conclude, instead of licensing cyclists, the government should be making the roads safe for them. Introducing cycling routes in touristic destinations, making parking spaces for bicycles, clearing the footpaths and constructing new cycle lanes should be priorities. But, the Royal Thai Police needs to also do its job and reduce the number of killers on the roads.
John Draper is project officer for the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme at Khon Kaen University. Dipendra KC is co-founder of a youth-led NGO in Nepal and a rural development management MA student at Khon Kaen University. Twitter: @kcdipendra.