The last of the 18 victims of last week’s horrific bus crash in Nakhon Ratchasima was cremated a few days ago, but not only does profound grief still grip the families of those killed, there remains an important lesson for all of us to learn. The accident, which also left 30 other passengers injured, stands the risk of becoming just another statistic adding to Thailand’s reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous places to drive. At least – at the very least – the catastrophe underlined the fact that road accidents can happen any time. We also see how at risk we all are to the hazards of inter-provincial journeys.
Thailand has the second-highest traffic fatality rate in the world, at 36 deaths per 100,000 population. Annually on average, according to the World Health Organisation, there are more 24,000 deaths – that’s 66 people being killed every day. The blame is shared among poor road conditions, poor law enforcement, vehicle malfunctions and irresponsible drivers. Motorcyclists routinely shun helmets. Motorists in all kinds of vehicles speed, change lanes abruptly, and drive while drunk or under the influence of illicit drugs, particularly amphetamines.
Methamphetamine, known in Thai as ya ba (crazy medicine), was found in the bloodstream of the 44-year-old driver of the bus in last week’s accident after he was arrested, having fled the scene in fear, slightly injured. He was charged with reckless driving causing death and injury, failing to stop to provide aid to injured passengers, and driving under the influence of a narcotic. Survivors have said he leapt out of the vehicle as soon as he lost control. The chartered bus was carrying 50 vacationers, many of them from the same family, home to Kalasin from a seaside outing to Chanthaburi.
The driver claimed the brakes failed, but a Land Transport Department inspection found no leaks in the braking system. Instead, it was determined that the driver failed to engage low gear on a winding, downhill six-kilometre stretch of road. He repeatedly applied the brakes until the system lost air pressure, rendering the bus unable to stop.
The calamity seems to have prodded the relevant authorities into action. Ahead of the long Songkran holiday next month, police and Land Transport officials are conducting random drug and alcohol tests on drivers of public-transport and chartered buses before and during journeys. On Tuesday the driver of a chartered bus carrying 60 passengers from Khon Kaen was arrested midway to Nakhon Ratchasima after testing positive for amphetamine.
Stricter enforcement of the laws aimed at getting irresponsible drivers off the highways certainly can help save lives and prevent damage. Truck and bus drivers often rely on narcotics like ya ba in the belief that it helps them stay awake through long-distance hauls. They fail to recognise that drug-imposed wakefulness has counterproductive side effects. Overall concentration is reduced and judgement weakened in the moment of emergency.
In addition to cracking down on drivers of public transport, the authorities should be enforcing the law as it applies to their employers – the companies that run the public and chartered bus services. They must be compelled to take measures to ensure their drivers aren’t high or drunk on the road. If that means fewer trips, lower passenger tallies and reduced profits, then so be it. Lives are at stake.