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Driven to Distraction

The concern of the Department of Land Transport for the safety of road users can be gauged by the ‘training’ component in the process of getting a driving licence.  60-70 applicants are seated wall-to-wall in a room to watch an hour-long video.  And to make sure no one skips the ‘training’, the official locks the door on the way out.

If ever there was a fire, it would be a death trap.

The video itself is very informative.  Not about how to drive safely on Thailand’s roads (that seems to have been abandoned as a lost cause) but about how Thai society works.

First is the assumption that ‘training’ is achieved simply by watching a video with no follow-up test of comprehension or even attention.  I am confident that some of my recent co-trainees understood nothing.  The video is in Thai, with (sort of) English subtitles and some in the same training session as me were Chinese speaking foreigners with no English.

In fact, it’s even worse than that.  The assumption is that simply showing a video constitutes effective training, regardless of whether the audience watches it.  There is no official in the room to monitor trainees’ attention, remember.

The video is split into 5-6 sections, each of which is immediately repeated with a shortened version of exactly the same shots.  At the first repetition, attention in the room understandably begins to flag.  By the time we are half way through, despite the sign on the wall warning against the use of mobile phones, the vast majority have their eyes on their own small screens, not the big one.  And of the rest, a good number are quietly dozing.

And there you have the Thai education system in a nutshell.  Learning is simply a matter of time – minutes spent not being trained in front of a video screen, or years spent in school not being taught in front of a teacher and blackboard.  Real intellectual activity, changes in knowledge, behaviour, skills or wisdom, are all irrelevant.  You don’t get through the Thai education system by learning; just by serving time.

Then there are Thai gender roles.  There are 3 main characters in the video.  The slapstick ham actor who will be the bad example and then someone called (using the English word) ‘Smart’ and another called ‘Sweet’.  Guess which is the male and which the female.

The video deals with a traffic rule that I have not been able to find in the Thai Highway Code.  It tells you exactly how high you should lift your hand before bobbing your head as an apology if you should make a mistake while driving that inconveniences other drivers.

Now go on.  Guess who gets to make the mistake and model the correct form of apology.  Smart or Sweet?

While the video is surprisingly skimpy on how you might drive on Thai roads and still live, there is a marked emphasis on driving etiquette.  We are shown, with overacted demonstrations and a slap on the head as reinforcement, not to spit or drop banana peel out of the window.  We are also instructed not to drive through standing water in such a way as to drench pedestrians (though none of the actors were required to demonstrate this; you are shown a roadside puddle and expected to work it out yourself).

But let us just remind ourselves.  The appalling toll in deaths and injuries from car accidents in Thailand has nothing to do with banana skins or water (from any source), but alcohol.  You wouldn’t know this from the video, which is completely silent on the issue of drinking and driving.

Why this preoccupation with driving comportment rather than driving competence?  It seems that the Department of Land Transport lives in fear of road rage – which the video charmingly translates as ‘vendetta’.  (The English translations are so wonky they constitute a distraction in themselves; it takes you a few minutes to realize that by ‘outpacing’, they really mean ‘overtaking’.)

This panic about politeness is related to the fact that Thais have only a limited ability to interact socially with strangers, and once the thin veneer of civility has been breached, it’s a rapid descent into violence as the only way to settle disagreements.  Total inebriation in charge of a moving vehicle, however, is blithely accepted as just one of those things that can happen to all of us, either as perpetrator or victim.

I was ‘trained’; I had my eyesight and my reaction times tested; and I learned to wait 187th in line to get my licence.  But I was never asked to get behind the wheel.

The essential Thai obsession with form over substance. 

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).


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