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Blood on the Tarmac

She is a paragon of a Thai citizen.  She fasts after noon every wan phra and she knows the Pali responses in Buddhist ceremonies (but not always what they mean).  Even more religiously than her religious observances, she wears yellow and purple on the appropriate occasions. 

She leaves the TV on as day-long moving wallpaper, knows from watching Thai soaps that rape is often but one step in the courtship process and laughs uproariously and quite sincerely at the same slapstick jokes, repeated with minor variations. Especially if they involve the discomfiture of others.

She fondly believes there was a time when Bangkok traffic circulated freely, when Songkran was just a sedate ceremony of respecting elders, and when prices never rose. 

And she tut-tuts at the Songkran accident figures intoned by grim-faced police officers, especially at a report that at one point Surin had seen the highest number of fatalities. (She’s from the northeast; not Surin, but she can still be regionally offended.)

But, to insert reality into the equation for a moment, if you ask her how many people die on the roads of Thailand each day that is not Songkran, she hasn’t a clue.  Ask her how Thailand’s road traffic accident statistics stack up against other countries and she can only express patriotic hopes that the numbers shouldn’t be too bad.

She has been led to believe, by the authorities and the media that unquestioningly repeat what the authorities tell them, that the slaughter on the Songkran roads is an aberration, a yearly disgrace where we Must Do Better next time, but which, until that next time, we can quietly forget about.

The latest bulletins as I write catalogue 306 deaths in 6 days, an average of 51 per day.  This figure is unlikely to be accurate. 

Not every death, sadly, will occur at the scene.  Some victims linger before dying, so that international statistics typically record any death in a 30-day post-accident period. 

And then there is the general accounting dodginess that plagues statistics like these, such that the WHO’s global reports factor in under-reporting for each country’s raw numbers.  Their 2013 report thus adjusts the total annual deaths for Thailand in 2010 to an estimated 26,312, based on raw data of 13,365.  These are equivalent to 72 and 37 deaths per day respectively.

(Both figures, incidentally, easily exceed the total of politically-related deaths over a 7-month period from November 2013 to May 2014 which was thought quite sufficient mayhem to warrant a coup.)

The daily Songkran bulletins will be unadjusted figures.  Otherwise, we would have to come to the unlikely conclusion that the incidence of fatalities falls during Songkran.

So do holiday road deaths deserve the tut-tutting of respectable citizens?  Yes, certainly.  Are they out of line with the regular day-to-day carnage on Thai roads?  Not really once you factor in the huge increases in road use around Songkran. 

And how do the general statistics for Thailand compare to other countries?  Ah, now that’s a tricky question.  There are a number of factors at play here.  An obvious one is the size of population and Thailand’s WHO figure of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants (38.1) is nothing short of appalling.  This is the fourth worst in the world. 

But the incidence of traffic deaths will also be a function of the number of vehicles on the road (where Thailand’s numbers are mercifully mediocre) and the amount these vehicles are used, normally calculated in terms of vehicle-kilometres (something Thailand doesn’t count).

And the figures do show that the breakdown of Thailand’s vehicles doesn’t advance the cause of road safety.  Thailand has a disproportionate number of motorcycles on its roads and motorcycle riders and their passengers are everywhere more vulnerable to death and injury, all else being equal.

But a glance at Thai motorcyclists’ behaviour makes you suspect that all else is far from equal and their ingrained insouciance about the rules of the road is not helping their life expectancy.

So weary have I become of nearly being run down by motorcycles using the cycle lane on the Sukhumvit footpath that when the big posters appeared warning of fines for riding or parking m/cs on the sidewalk (one provides welcome shade for the pizza delivery lads’ bikes), I developed my personal public safety campaign. 

I warned the law-breaking motorcyclists that there were police waiting in ambush at the next soi.  The answers have been ingenious.  ‘No, there isn’t.’  ‘I can’t understand, I’m from Burma’ (in a northeastern accent).  And ‘So?  What do you think this orange vest is for?’

But the clinching argument was the guy who just pointed to the next motorcycle slaloming the way through the pedestrians.  A policeman, going the wrong way, no helmet.


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).