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The art of driving in Thailand

A vast gymkhana.

I would like to start with a general remark, and give a positive tone to my observations of the traffic in Thailand: “Driving in this country is a permanent obstacle race, punctuated with thousands of dangers. However, I have no hesitation in preferring the local driving freedom to the coercive rules making the Western roads safer”. For the rest, riding a motor bike is as risky as life.

Even anecdotic, the description of traffic problems is not inconsequential. It is easy to digress into social criticism of different customs and behaviours, or to put a joke on the hecatomb of causalities.  To follow the middle path of realism and objectivity is a difficult approach and I do not claim  success with my narration, founded on personal observations, experiments and emotions.

Here is an unsorted account of “generalizations” collected during my twenty years of  survival on the roads of Siam. They are among the most dangerous in the world, but also offer, especially in North, the most extraordinary journeys on motor bikes.

For foreigners, the first difficulty is the direction of the circulation. It is mostly a left-hand traffic.  However, even citizens of the Anglo-Saxon countries, in which circulation is always on that side, are surprised by the number of exceptions.

This is not the only point of amazement for aliens. Any surface can be used to drive, on the side and following the mood and opportunity of the moment.  Foot-ways are used by vehicles and highway lanes serve as parking. The definition of  “road users” is also broad, it includes elephants, gigantic lorries, frail pedestrians and timid cyclists, as well as motorcyclist and cars testing the limits of their performances.

All intermingle or gently fight on the same tracks. In this apparent disorder, a good level of composure, affability or perhaps resignation prevails. There is little aggressiveness  and almost no noise of horns.

Behaviour wise, one needs to think out of the limited box of traffic laws. Anyway, if such a code really exists, nobody knows it and worries about it. Some “consensual rules” provide help to ensure a minimum of fluidity between the users. For instance, it is important to avoid collisions with vehicles driving in front and to give priority to the biggest, the most prestigious and the boldest.

Other “postulates” are based on observations of driving behaviors. Speed is not limited by a panel, but by the technical constraints of the vehicles and dexterity of the drivers. The “law of universal gravitation” and the “square root of reaction time” are little known, apart from victims of accidents. Unfortunately they passed away without sharing their experiences. At speeds over one hundred kilometers an hour, a vehicle lead distance as short as one meters is a “suspended death sentence”. The slightest incident will immediately  revoke it!

The chronicle of “indulgences” includes many other idiosyncrasies. Markings give an air of modernity to the roads, they have no further utility. To be attentive to others, to be seen and to react properly, is the usual way to avoid accidents. This works well in many cases, even if frequent exceptions feed the statistics of casualties. Exaggerated speed (vision too late to react), heedlessness (vision impaired by  alcohol or illegal substances) and missing lamps (headlights also help to be seen by others) are the main human obstacles to reduce the “body count” on the asphalt.

Other “driving aids”, like traffic lights, help to regulate the crossing of vehicles in a nearly effective way. It is enough not to be color blind, inattentive or “high” to consider a stop. The waiting cycles are generally long and foster a filling gymkhana, between cars, by the smallest users, particularly the two wheelers. Attracted by the vacuum, they zigzag and penetrate, like a fluid between interstices. The aim is not only to go to the front, but to reach pole position. Jostling, the boldest dominate the “battle ground”, sometimes till the middle of the intersecting lane. In the back, the tangle becomes more complicated seconds after seconds, till the “green light” liberation. Amazed observers will then contemplate the dissolution, usually with few causalities, of an apparently inextricable Gordian knot.   People not ready to join the “forward stream” have a high risk of suffocation. No engine is turned off and the heavy lorries, with badly regulated carburetors, reject their emanations at nostrils levels. If they were cigarette packs, they would bear the compulsory label: ” my smoke kills”.

“Jai yen yen” – In cold blood on the streets.

Through urban dwellings, the network of Thai roads is broad and comfortable. Four, six, eight lanes are  standard, generally with an insuperable central wall. These constraints of the fast traffic require escape possibilities, like the occasional regulated intersections and the omnipresent “U-turns”. During their manoeuver, large lorries block two or three tracks, whilst others are satisfied with slightly less, but all inconsiderately cut the road of speeding motorcycles. Two wheelers start fast and gallop ahead of the pack, becoming privileged targets of the “u-turner”, little impressed by light vehicles.

Excess speed on streets passing cities and villages are amazing realities. In Western countries the limits would be around fifty kilometers per hour. A lack of control equipment, like speed radars, leaves it to the unconsciousness or recklessness of the road hogs to fix the standards. In populated areas,  meters marking a hundred twenty kilometer per hour only wear out brakes and the nerves of the other drivers.

Among my preferred aberrations are the apertures authorizing perfidious “X-turns” toward the opposite lane (a “U-turn” in the wrong direction). This allows all sort of users to drive against the flow. Moving at the right place, you are supposed to see and approve the tactic of your opponents and avoid to collide with the culprits. Even vehicles heading in the same direction are a challenge to mindfulness. At any moment they might bent  right or left, without a former signal, even not realizing that they have a rear view mirror. It is important to be constantly aware of this “possibility”, but if a sign is given, by a flash indicator or a stretched arm , it becomes an immediate “certitude”. The driver will instantaneously cut the way, without concern about ongoing traffic operations. I had the opportunity to verify this assertion when a motorcycle cut my way, at right angle, letting me taste the tarmac. The hit-and-run driver quickly vanished, without worrying about how I would raise my chopper with a broken clavicle.

Another disconcerting operation is a right bent preceding a left curve into a side road. This unannounced  “zigzag” allows to enter, at relatively high-speed, into a narrow crossroad,  without risking to chip the car. If a driver, in a following vehicle, had intended to overtake on the left side (a frequent ploy) he will be lucky to avoid a smash and remain at least perplex.

In the chapter of forgotten street users, we can count the pedestrians. They are treated as pariah and I wonder that there are still some around. To cross the roads they run for their lives, facing the vehicles like bullfighter. It is vital to avoid protected zones (zebra stripes) providing a fallacious sense of safety, source of fatal issues. Traffic lights give a provisional harbor for them, but motorists quickly move off after a group has crossed the lane without awaiting the green light. Latecomer, trying to rush through the place, are considered suicidal.

Traffic lights, nevertheless, command a certain level of respect, but with a broad tolerance margin. A minimum of two or three vehicles will accelerate and pass the red light, before someone thinks about stopping. Depending on the speed and the size of the vehicles, this figure can increase considerably, until it event blocks the green wave of the opposite side. The lamps themselves are often in a pernicious or unexpected way, for instance very high, at cables crossing the horizon. The alternative between “starring at the sky” or concentrating on the preceding vehicles, is a risky choice. In addition, the lights regulating the straight lanes and the right or left one are frequently twinned on a panel. Thrusting the color, without focusing on the arrows, is a straight way to collisions.

Road users in Thailand (and I include foreigners ecstatic of their new freedom), remember the theorem defining a straight line as the shortest way linking two points. Opportunities to apply this are many. A “one way” street, for example, is hardly worth a trip around . Other widely accepted practices are the famous “X-turns” (driving against the flow), sharp cuts in the opposite lanes whilst “negotiating” curves, crossing at right angle through four tracks of a highway, and so on. We are in the country of tolerance and all surfaces, adequate for circulation, are open to everybody, as long as they are able to  fight for survival. The principle of natural selection leads to witness all kind of casualties, sometimes minor but far to often fatal. Columns reporting “death of dogs” in newspapers, would darken many pages. Nevertheless, dead animals are no real threat to motorists. The true plague, are beasts pushed by their karma to suddenly cross the road, particularly when a two-wheeler is approaching.

Creativity can be expected and feared when Sunday drivers are involved. On the other hand, one should be able to rely on the skills and behavior of professional drivers and public transportation. This is by far not the case and they are not more trustworthy. This group of people are prone to create accidents as they wear the burden of an explosive cocktail, combining nonchalance, pressure to carry out many trips, badly maintained vehicles, tiredness and stimulants. Countless journeys end up against obstacles, in collision with other users or in a ravine. I am also very cautious about the load of trucks. The stuff is often loosely  attached and prompt to release itself on the road. I once experienced a flight of a dozen of wooden palettes, jumping against me on a highway. My reaction time, to curb to the other lane, was close to the limit.

And yet they are moving!

All users and all roads are not equal as far as accidents are concerned. Whilst stuck in the legendary Bangkok traffic congestions, the main risks are suffocation and poisoning through carbon monoxide. In the countryside bewilderness prevails. At any moment a horde of animals might occupy the tracks of a road, also used to dry rice and vegetables or to trail home drunkards (on foot, motor bike or in a coffin). Another “lively” feature is the quality of the pavement, when potholes make place to “pig bathtubs”, with uncertain depth, filled with water from the last downpour. As most of the roads are in good conditions, degraded sectors come unexpected. “Work in progress”, on the bitumen, is generally marked by large tree branches, more perilous for motorcycles than the holes themselves. The same stalk is used to signal vehicle breakdowns. It is usually “forgotten” on the spot after the incident is cleared.

In the center of Bangkok, the traffic slowdown is an effective protection, not against accidents globally (as the capital is the largest contributor to them) but against their gravity. In addition, rescue services are efficient, with a dense network of ambulances competing for every corpse.  The nearly deserted back tracks of remote countryside are also quite safe. The heaviest tribute in human lives is paid by the capital’s suburbs and the other large cities. The flourishing  Chiangmai, with its teenage students population, the “Hi-So” of Bangkok in secondary residences, the emigrated workers from nearby Burma and an important quota of tourists, often makes it to the top of the obituary hit list.

Touring Isan (the  North-East) for more than 3000 kilometers on a motorcycle I have not seen a single accident and not crossed a single crushed dog (this is quite unusual). Just back to Chiangmai I  saw a car having struck a tree, in the perimeter of my residence. The driver was probably dormant, in the middle of the day. A taxi driver also told me that he made a trip to recover a motorcyclist in the mountains who felt asleep whilst biking.

My account of generalized anecdotes does not give an exact depiction of the reality. All Thais (or foreigners in Thailand) do not drive in an inappropriate way. It is worth to acknowledge their equanimity when they thwart the road impediments, keeping a regular course and their smile. However, some listed individual behavior or local practices are astonishing, sometimes amusing, but often dangerous (as demonstrated by the casualties statistics (1)).

“Make no mistake  – the Thais are not the only people in the world who have bad driving habits. However, they could drive in a far better way … the inhabitants of Thailand are very gifted in handling motor vehicles. In which other country can one see a drunken 14 years old girl “zigzagging” on a 50 cc motorcycle while speaking on the mobile phone with his friends sitting “Amazon” on the back seat with a terrified puppy in the arms? They should not be in the street, but in the circus.”
(3) Olivier Benjamin

I personally saw such a situation. I could not swear that the girl was drunk, but all other elements were in the picture.

Next post (second part): The roots of the disorder –  Means to cut the hecatombs – Personal conclusions and prevention measures.

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(1 )  Songkran’s (the Thai New Year) “seven dangerous days” ended with 373 deaths and 4,332 injuries in 3,977 road accidents nationwide.

Motorcycles were the vehicles most involved in road accidents, about 82 per cent of all vehicles. The biggest cause of accidents was drunken driving (40.66 per cent), followed by speeding (19.96 per cent).

A total of 5,271,977 drivers and motorcycle-riders were examined at checkpoints nationwide. Of those, 408,020 were cited for violating the law, including 137,806 for driving without a licence and 136,772 for not wearing a helmet.

The Nation  2009-04-18
http://www.thaivisa.com/forum/Songkran-Traffic-Deaths-Up-Injurie-t258549.html
accessed september 2009

(2) The Outsider’s guide to Thailand, Olivier Benjamin. Bangkok books, 2005

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