By The Nation
A perennial certainty on newspaper front pages ahead of the New Year and Songkran festivities is appeals for improved traffic safety. The pleas are going out again this year amid government pledges that more money will be spent on measures to curb the holiday carnage – and perhaps even knock Thailand off its notorious perch atop the list of the world’s most dangerous countries for highway accidents.
It’s clear, though, that imposing traffic discipline on Thais is as difficult as getting them to meet in the middle ground of politics. Even on Bangkok streets, where traffic police are in abundance, motorcyclists and their passengers skim around without helmets. Even if they could be persuaded to don protective gear at this time of year, it wouldn’t be the sustained “discipline” needed to reduce casualties year round.
In Vietnam, people on motorbikes wear helmets even in remote rural areas, where there are no police to enforce the law. That is discipline – genuine awareness of the risk of going unprotected. Good practice has become habitual and is thus followed without a second thought.
If there is light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps it’s in a decline in the number of drunk drivers on the road. Thais increasingly avoid driving when they head to parties or pubs, but this is best seen as a product of fear of arrest rather than the discipline to guard against mishap. Drinkers know there are checkpoints on the streets at night and don’t want to pay a fine (or a bribe) if they’re caught driving while intoxicated.
With the New Year holiday season upon us, several new measures are being pondered, including tougher penalties for drunk driving and lower and better-enforced speed limits. Another idea is to make it mandatory for children to be taught about traffic discipline beginning at a young age.
This last approach seems particularly promising, since bad driving habits might be eased aside in a generational shift, just as cigarette smoking has become less popular among youth. Safety campaigns have always tended to focus on adults, the ones behind the wheel, and yet the fear of heavy fines and losing your driving licence has remained the persistent factor in getting adults to obey the law. The fear is an automatic response. Good habits take longer to foster. Once ingrained, though, good habits last forever. The fear and the discipline would make a solid combination in bringing down the casualty statistics.
What’s most important is that efforts not be merely seasonal. Safety measures are typically stepped up during holiday periods and in the aftermath of highway tragedies that draw a public outcry. Then they evaporate for the rest of the year.
The situation at present is not promising. Children learn bad traffic habits from the adults driving them around. Bangkok is filled with young motorcyclists too young to drive. The ones riding pillion are allowed to go without helmets. In the provinces you see youths on bikes running red lights and making U-turns in risky places. These are the dangerous habits of adults, the disdain for the law and personal safety, being passed on to the next generation.
What the authorities are instilling each holiday season, rather than true discipline, is a droning message: “Drive carefully”. Unfortunately, it’s rendered inaudible by constant repetition. This is an annual tactic that annually fails.