Low Standards & Cultural Influence Result in Dangerous Driving in Thailand

Bikers in Thailand dangerously converging into traffic
Thai bikers converging dangerously into traffic (source Bangkok Post)

I just don’t get it. Why do motor cyclists pull out from sois onto a main road without looking? This is one of the two things I still don’t understand about Thailand.

Yes, some roads have cycle lanes into which they can filter reasonably safely, but most roads do not have these. As a motorist, if a car is coming towards you, you can’t even swerve to avoid the rider. Is it fatalism? The Buddhist view is that life is full of suffering and is impermanent. That your life is predetermined so that you have no control over events anyway. I’m not convinced that is the reason.

The police will rarely prosecute a motor cyclist for any dangerous riding offence. Perhaps motor cyclists realise that. The motorist will usually pick up both the blame and the tab for any expenses. Particularly up-country, many riders are uninsured and may have no licence in any case.

It is common for riders to approach on the wrong side of the road. In most cases, you can clearly see them and adjust your driving accordingly. Weaving in and out of lanes is expected so there are no surprises there. Moving directly from the inside cycle track to the offside lane in order to complete a U-turn happens regularly. You’ll get used to it. I have. But I still don’t understand the casual and blasé way they pull out of the sois and the way they overtake you on the nearside when you are already signaling.

I have a theory on why they do this. More on that later.

Go with the flow and drive defensively

I’ve got used to it. Thai driving used to scare me but I now “go with the flow”. Drive defensively, assume others will make mistakes. Whichever country you drive in you will soon get accustomed to their particular way of driving.

Large trucks will always assume precedence, as if they have right of way even when they do not. Drivers of expensive looking cars will often push their way through. That’s the power of hierarchy for you. All Thais know their station in life and some take full advantage of that.

In the West, one car may turn at a junction in the face of oncoming traffic if it is safe to do so. Following cars usually stop. In Thailand, when one car goes all the rest will follow. I now do the same. It is understood that the cars will wait for all the vehicles to turn.

When someone flashes their headlights at you in western countries, it can mean either they are coming through or that they are giving way. In Thailand, flashing one’s lights has only one meaning: you are coming through. 99.9% of the time. I’ve only once seen a driver flash to let me through and his intention was clear as his vehicle was stationary. He was a tourist.

At a four-way junction some Thais will put on their hazard lights to show they are going straight on. Quite a good idea.

Look carefully, there are 5 (not 4) on this bike
credit. Bangkok Post

Look carefully, there are 5 people on this bike. Can you see the young child being held by his mother? You see some unbelievable things on Thai roads, as the next photo shows.

Driving too close to the vehicle in front is a major cause of accidents in many countries. It takes away your margin of safety if the vehicle in front of you makes a mistake and you are unable to stop within the distance you can see to be clear and avoid a rear-ender.

Today, two motor-cyclists collided and one is seriously injured. It is not clear whether they were riding in parallel or one was overtaking the other. Perhaps they were racing. The situation worsened when, rounding a bend, a following car crashed into one of the bikes and somehow made it somersault into the air. It then landed on the other rider.

The driver of the car drove off. It is reported on a Thai radio channel that the police checked ownership of the vehicle to a senior government official but he claimed his son was driving at the time. The son denies that he was responsible.

What the hell. The traffic light has turned to red but the police officer is calling me forward. Cars from the left and the right are obviously obeying the green light that they have now been given.

This is becoming a free for all. Just drive on slowly, I suppose. That’s what everyone else seems to be doing. We are only complying with a signal given to us by the strong arm of the law.

Apart from when they are on crash helmet or seat belt purges, the country’s finest don’t routinely go after motorists or riders driving carelessly or dangerously. Three or more people on a bike, driving without lights, parking on a blind corner. Mai mee panha. No problem. Freedom of the individual to defy the occasional contravention of regulations. No need to make a fuss.

Goong told me this evening that she was in a hurry to get to work this morning and didn’t stop for a police helmet check. She just smiled and said she was late for work. He beckoned for her to go on her way. Personally, I think he should have at least made her put her helmet on.

Road accidents in Thailand are the second highest in the world per capita. As we have seen, the police often turn blind eyes on regulation infringements. There is no “on the road” driving test. Formal training and instruction is rare.

You will see small kids sitting in front of mum or dad holding the motor-cycle handlebars. That is a Thai child’s first experience of motoring. They learn how to ride and drive on Thai roads from that first experience. They copy how their parents ride. They see how the rules of the road are ignored and they keep that knowledge with them for the rest of their lives behind the handlebars of a bike or the steering wheel of a car. No wonder then that, combined with no real training and lax enforcement, they have the reputation of being among the world’s worst drivers.

Not all Thai drivers are dangerous when on the road.

However, there are some very skilled drivers. Watch some articulated-lorry drivers maneuvering and reversing on small sois. Those working on VIP protection duties are trained to high standards to be able to cope with driving their passengers away from any emergency which occurs. And they do that fast and safely.

I knew a lady, keen to improve Thai driving, who spends some time every year advising groups of police officers on western techniques of safer driving. Unfortunately, she does so using a lot of technical language and buzzwords. That is a dated way of training in any modern country but is worse than useless in Thailand. Thais learn by observing and copying and not from books and formal lectures. She once told me that good driving methods were universal and there were no differences in driving methods in individual countries.

My own view is that you adapt your driving, but still keeping safe, to the style of motoring in your host country. Anyone who has driven in say, France, Greece, India etc. will appreciate that.

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