Thailand’s roads are the most dangerous in the world. It’s not just a statistic but a very real human tragedy.

For foreigners visiting Thailand and thinking of driving, it is worth taking a look at the risks involved – they are almost surreal.

Thailand's roads the most dangerous in the world
Thailand’s roads are now officially the most dangerous in the world. An active population tasting the joys of middle-class car ownership, a unique Thai culture of personal freedom and a large network of roads have created a continuous torrent of reported road traffic deaths. For foreigners considering driving on Thai roads, all legal requirements and insurance coverage must be in order.

The image of Thailand suffered from the 2015 Global Status Report on Road Safety by the World Health Organization (WHO) which stated that Thailand had 36.2 road fatalities per 100,000 people in 2012, the second-highest rate in the world at that time. The report came as a wake-up call, prompting Thai authorities to launch successive road safety campaigns.

Thai officials aim to reduce road deaths by 80%

The Thai government has been very active in taking measures to deal with the problem.  It designated the 2011-2020 period as Thailand’s Decade of Action on Road Safety and initiated a lot of awareness-raising activities. It also mandated the compulsory use of safety helmet on motorbikes in 2012. Remarkable progress has also been made in traffic infrastructure with new roads and multi-lane highways being constructed. In 2015, Thailand’s Department of Disaster Prevention even set an ambitious goal to reduce road deaths by 80%.

Thailand’s roads named officially the most dangerous in the world based on the latest 2016 data

The moment of truth came two years later in December 2017 as the World Atlas released a report called ‘Countries With The Highest Road Traffic Death Rate’ which was carried out in 30 countries based on the 2016 data. Eight out of the top ten were taken by African countries.

Iran, already notorious for atrocious road conditions and carnage, ranked fifth with 32.1 deaths per 100,000 people. Shockingly, Thailand was in the first place despite serious and concerted efforts made by Thailand’s transport authorities. What went wrong? The challenges Thailand faces come first from its own vast network of hundreds of thousands of roads, making oversight and maintenance difficult.

Thailand’s provincial roads are the most dangerous with a death rate of 72 deaths per thousand in Rayong province while Bangkok’s roads, at most times a traffic log jam, are the safest. It appears to many observers that the dangers faced on Thailand’s roads are very much a Thai cultural aberration.

Millions of drivers routinely violate traffic rules

The violation of traffic regulations by millions of vehicles owners as at the root of the chronic problem in Thailand. Speeding and drunk driving are very common offences. There are even reports in Thailand that some Thai police have redefined what the speed limit means by saying that it is not worth ticketing cars speeding over 50 mph limit as almost everyone does so.

This approach has changed in the last year with a new emphasis on zero tolerance and tough enforcement of the laws being pushed by the Thai government  During New Year and Songkran Festival, the two biggest holidays or peak times for road fatalities when as many as 70 people may be killed a day on Thailand’s roads. Thai authorities urge drivers to refrain from drinking before driving. But nothing yet appears to be working.

Thai culture and competitive instincts on the roads make them a daily death trap for everyone

Some commentators have suggested that there is a spirit of freedom in Thailand which values a light touch when it comes to laws concerning personal behaviour. ‘Thailand is a country where citizens enjoy a  lot of freedom and the government has always been sensitive to preserve these freedoms.

Thais generally have a good relationship between the general population and the police force. There was a similar reluctance about smoking bans. Although the law was enforced eventually, it was a smaller group. Many Thais see driving as a personal right.

Thailand is still very much a country enjoying the initial stages of economic development.

Cars and motorbikes are a prized possession,’ says James Morris, an international commentator in Bangkok. Morris who some time ago ceased driving even in Bangkok also indicates another issue.

‘Thai drivers are competitive and creative on the roads, it’s terrifying for anyone who has driven in the UK, Germany or Australia to experience the antics with drivers weaving from one lane to another, passing out on the inside track, it’s beyond comprehension,’ he says. He also points out that the pedestrian crossings in Thailand are potentially fatal for foreigners living in the country as the majority of Thai drivers simply do not stop. ‘Thai roads, they are death traps, the figures show it and I have enough personal anecdotal evidence to stay clear. That’s essentially the story.’

Thai people are sensitive to stringent laws and penalties on the roads and have resisted enforcement

Weak law enforcement has been blamed for many road accidents with drivers often feeling that breaches are simply a matter of paying a fine and getting on with it. Even for serious infringements drivers often receive only a suspended prison sentence.

Police and authorities have vowed to step up their detection activities. Already there are reports of more drivers being penalised with warnings from Thai authorities to drivers to obey the laws of the road.

However, there is a reluctance in Thailand to impose stiff sentences on citizens for traffic offences. The Thai public is sensitive to such a tough approach when it comes to traffic laws.

‘Thailand is at a stage of its development where everyone wants to drive and they want to do it cheaply, too many laws constrain the benefits of economic development to people on the margins and that includes many Thai people struggling to make end meet but also who aspire to a middle-class lifestyle.

Driving is all part of that,’ says Morris. ‘In Thailand, people are free, just really busy getting on with life, it’s a culture that you may have seen in western countries during the economic boom after the last war. It’s part of the positivity of Thailand, it’s a free for all approach, but of course, with freedom comes the danger. And of course some many tragic deaths on the roads, so it has to be tacked.’

Thai public don’t appreciate the danger until a loved one is involved or they are victims themselves

It is true that the desire for Thai people to be mobile and active in the economy blinds them to the dangers on the roads.  Road traffic activists in Thailand are quick to point out that families, friends and colleagues don’t take road safety so seriously until they themselves become victims.

This is despite the continuous stream of accidents reports and daily images of burned-out car wrecks with fatalities.

Thailand has only recently made it a legal requirement that passengers sitting in the rear of vehicles must wear seat belts.

Male Thai drivers are 3 times more likely to die in road accidents according to deadly statistics

According to most Thai government statistics, 22,356 people were killed in road accidents in 2016, out of a population of 60 million approximately.

Males were three times as likely to die from the accidents. Eastern Thailand is more dangerous for drivers with Rayong being a hotbed for road accidents.

In Rayong province, 72 people per 100,000 lost their lives in the most recent year. With 14.3 death per 100,000, Bangkok is the safest place for drivers in Thailand. This is an ironic comfort for car drivers in Thailand’s capital city which is home to some of the world’s worst traffic jams.

Road accidents are estimated to injure a massive 1 million people in Thailand each year and cost the developing Thai economy roughly 4% of its GDP.

One proposed solution is special motorbike lanes on Thai roads or restrictions on powerful bikes

Those grim numbers, however, haven’t discouraged Thai citizens and safer road activist from attempting to find solutions to the chronic problem. Some experts have called for separate motorbike lanes in Thailand it further restrictions in the use of high powered motorbikes.

This could have significant positive implications for Thai drivers.

54 % of the 30 million registered vehicles in Thailand are motorbikes. There are also reported to be millions of unregistered motorbikes on Thailand’s roads. The problem is the infrastructure costs and the extent of Thailand’s vast road network. Western countries have found a similar problem on the roads with the increased use of bicycles becoming an extremely difficult safety problem to solve.

In Thailand the motorbike is the primary mode of personal transport, the car and four-wheeled vehicles come second. Many large motorways already specifically ban motorbikes on the highways and this ban is successfully enforced.

Road safety programme targeting the schools

Transport officials also pledge to pay more attention to traffic education at school to mould Thai students into responsible drivers in the future. But it is also accepted that there needs to be more government-level coordination at Thailand’s Ministry of Transport, which is responsible for road construction and maintenance.

There are also calls for more cooperation between the department the Road Safety Direction Centre which is affiliated with the Ministry of Interior. One important safety initiative was the promise from the Thai government to put an end to the use of passenger vans after 25 people died in an appalling passenger van collision that saw the vehicle burst into flames.

The accident which occurred in Chonburi province appeared on video footage caused a lot of anguish in Thailand. It was followed by a series of other accidents and fires involving passenger vans with another explosion in Singburi province in November 2017 trapping and killing another 13 people by fire.

Passengers vans have been popular in Thailand offering cheap and flexible transport between urban centres for less well Thai people. It illustrates the difficult choice to be made between safety and convenience in a developing economy.

Time to bring about changes on Thailand’s roads

However, it will be some time before those proposals come into effect and, even longer, produce actual effects. In the meantime, it is wise for foreigners to take precautions and exercise extreme care and vigilance in Thailand when it comes to roads and transport. The message is clear, road accidents in Thailand are more likely to occur. Any foreigner driving a vehicle in Thailand should only do so once all requirements are in order. This includes having a valid driving permit for Thailand and appropriate insurance at all times.

Foreigners involved in traffic accidents in Thailand

In case of an accident in which both foreigners and Thais are involved, it has long been reported that the Thai police will often side with their countrymen regardless of who at fault. These reports are not entirely accurate. It is more appropriate to say that the Thai police would expect any foreigner on Thailand’s roads to be fully compliant with the law.

In most cases, the Thai police will act to ensure that matters between the parties are resolved amicably. Yes, there is a perception foreigners are more likely to have the financial resources to pay fines and penalties but this perception is also changing and is also not unreasonable.

For any foreigner expat, do not drive if there is any danger of a Thai law being broken in all situations

UK man jailed after motorbike accident cost the life of French woman in Thailand
UK man David Campbell was arrested by Thai police following a motorbike accident in Rayong Province in Thailand in March 2015. He was subsequently charged with manslaughter and spent 14 months in a Thai prison. A French woman was killed when his motorbike collided with another.

For foreigners, who are expats in Thailand, it is necessary to have a proper Thai driving license, have fully comprehensive car insurance and carry the appropriate documents when travelling. It is also de rigueur for any foreigner to resolve personally not to drive under the influence of alcohol in Thailand under any circumstances.

It is, in fact, questionable whether foreigners should drive in Thailand, many consciously do not.

For expats living in the country with the means to afford a car, it can be a difficult lifestyle choice to go without one. Thailand has many scenic spots and beautiful coastal locations that can be a joy to visit.

However, if a foreigner is driving a car or any motor vehicle in Thailand then more care and precautions must be taken than Thai citizens and certainly more care than driving at home in western countries.

The plight of the UK motorbike driver should be a warning to other foreigners about Thailand’s roads

The facts of the matter are that foreigners have ended up imprisoned in Thailand as a result of road traffic accidents under applicable Thai law for driving without insurance or for driving dangerously when injuries have occurred.

One such man was UK man David Campbell who was involved in a motorbike accident in Rayong province in Thailand in March 2015.

The UK man collided with another motorbike at night carrying three people. Although he himself initially reported the incident to Thai police and was told there was no record, he was later arrested for assault and charged with manslaughter.

The UK man spent 14 months in a Thai prison where he claims he was ‘humiliated’. Claiming to be deprived of information on his case, he told the UK’s Daily Mirror newspaper, after being released, that he had ‘no idea what’s been going on for 14 months.’

He said that his experience in Thai prison had damaged his health and left him deeply in debt. He was still unsure of the charges being brought against him. ‘All I know is that it was an accident.’ The consequences of such legal jeopardy in Thailand can be severe. It’s simply not worth the risk as the chances of danger are too high.

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Further reading:

Thailand issues innovative digital driving license but awaits key legal amendments for police use on roads

Drink driving in Thailand can have the severest of consequences