All progress has a price. From the day we stepped down
from the trees and started on that long journey towards today, we have
measured progress with only one yardstick. Unfortunately, that yardstick is
human life itself.
the pace of progress has accelerated over the past century, that cost of
progress has also escalated. Whether it be electricity, dams, air travel or
motor cars, our embracing of these elements of progress has been at the cost
of countless human lives. It has become an accepted part of progress that
there is an acceptable cost.
There will be those who will argue that even one life
lost is too high a price. There will also be those who feel that in all
fields of human endeavour must be a certain risk. No risk, no reward.
Different societies also put different values on human life. An acceptable
level for one may be totally unacceptable for another.
Looking specifically at the road toll and attempting to
be a pragmatist has meant that I too have had to examine what level I find
acceptable. To quantify this in numbers defies my psychology. My medical
training tells me that all of life is sacred. One death is too much. My
scientific training tells me that any machine has the power to kill. My
engineering experience tells me that no matter how safe any machine can be
in its operation, human beings will operate it in an unsafe manner. Motor
vehicles are purely machines. On their own they kill no one. It is the way
we use them that kills.
To eliminate unsafe use of motor cars requires education
and legislation, and even then it will not stop the road toll completely.
There will always be errors, mistakes, mistiming and “bad luck”.
Those errors, mistakes and bad luck has resulted in 902
deaths over the New Year period as reported by the Public Health
Ministry’s Narainthorn Centre. This is appalling.
you also know that before the Xmas-New Year holidays last year there was a
concerted drive to ensure the safety of vehicles driven on our roads? Many
of the auto and motorcycle manufacturers got behind the government sponsored
project to give free safety checks and discounted parts to result in fewer
un-roadworthy vehicles on our roads. Service organizations were also behind
this, with free motorcycle safety checks. This was being touted as a great
way to lower the holiday road toll. Did it work? It most certainly did not
– the road toll has been steadily going up.
What was ignored were the statistics produced by the RSA
(Road Safety Audit) in Thailand. The auditing showed that when looking at
the cause of accidents, 83% were caused by reckless driving, 16% were
classified as “other” and 1% of the accidents were caused by vehicle
condition. In other words, all that huffing and puffing was looking at 1% of
the accidents and ignoring the other 99%. Scarcely logical. All those free
motorcycle checks might have a bearing on 1 percent of the road toll. 1
percent, ladies and gentlemen.
Getting back to this year’s 902 souls lining up at the
pearly gates, the compelling figures for me were not the gross number, but
actually who was being killed. Guess what? Most cases of death or injury
involved motorcycles, said the government report compiled from Dec 29 to Jan
4. Most accidents happened on highways and involved motorcyclists and
passengers not wearing crash helmets.
At last, are we at the stage where we can point the
finger in the correct direction? Of course we are, but what are we going to
do with the knowledge that 83% of accidents are caused by reckless driving
or riding, and of those who are killed (this year around 80 percent) are
motorcycle riders and passengers without helmets?
Here is the ‘official’ stance as put forward by the
government minister in charge. He said he would put a road accident proposal
to cabinet. Better road safety measures were needed, harsher punishment for
drunk drivers and more breathalysers for police. Highway and local police
would be asked to monitor road safety on highways and the traffic
fine-sharing and traffic engineering systems would be improved. Accident
insurance would be revamped by sharply increasing premiums for people
involved in multiple road accidents and reducing premiums for those with
clean accident records.
The PM got into the act too, being reported in a major
Bangkok daily as saying that measures to reduce accidents during the New
Year festival did not fail and he believed authorities had done their best.
Ungentlemanly conduct, disregard of traffic rules, disrespect shown to other
road users and recklessness were major causes of the holiday road death
toll, he said.
Can you see through the smokescreen? The government is
jumping on the western model bandwagon with threats of breathalyzers and
speed guns on motorways. Why not? After all, the slogan “Speed Kills”
has been waved as the call to the faithful for many years. It incidentally
has led to enormous revenues for the western police forces, with hidden
speed cameras being the method of choice.
I am not going to debate the case for and against
breathalyzers and speed cameras, being quite conversant with the problems
associated with the alcohol impaired driver, but I also know that the
concept “Speed Kills” is an oversimplification – speed by itself does
not kill, it is the sudden stop that does it.
Where I would take the slavish following of this western
model to task is in the appropriateness for the local situation in Thailand.
The traffic itself is quite distinctly different in Thailand vis-เ-vis
America, Europe, UK or Australia, all countries using the aforementioned
breathalyzer/speed camera approach to lower the road toll. Cause and effect
being touted as the reason behind it all. Back to Booze and Speed Kills.
The reason that following this line of approach does not
work in Thailand can be quickly seen by looking at the analysis of road
traffic and deaths. By far the majority of vehicles on the roads here are
motorcycles, not cars as in the west. Subsequently the majority of road
deaths comes from motorcycle accidents, not cars. One does not need rocket
science to work that one out. These motorcycle accidents were also not
caused by mechanical failure of the machine, brakes, tyres etc., so all the
good intentions of those running charity motorcycle clinics will obviously
come to naught. The vast majority of these fatal accidents are also not
caused by excessive speeding – inappropriate perhaps, but not excessive.
And of course alcohol plays a major part in the inappropriate road
behaviour, no-one would deny that.
What also comes out of the analysis is the fact that what
kills these motorcyclists and pillion passengers is the unprotected skull
bouncing down the bitumen. And speeds from around 12 kph is enough. Speed
Kills? No, as I said before, it is the sudden stop that does it. By the way,
for all those people who think that I am exaggerating, try jumping out of
your car at 12 kph on to your head. Get your relatives to tell me how right
So how do we stop this (probably alcohol induced)
carnage? Speed guns and breathalyzers on the motorways will obviously not
catch motorcycles, as motorcycles are banned from the motorways anyway. So
perhaps the answer is to ban motorcyclists drinking alcohol? Stop alcohol
sales at the pumps? For these to have even the slightest impact on drunken
riding is wishful thinking. The rider can buy his or her booze at the 7-11,
and to change the way society thinks takes at least three generations. We do
not have the luxury of all those generations.
Back to breathalyzers – this time in the cities? Now is
the time to be realistic. Can any police force check every motorcyclist in
town on any one night or day? Of course not. Certainly picking off one in
every ten motorcyclists might net a few and scare some others, but it will
hardly put a dent in the figures.
There is only one, very well documented way to stop
motorcycle fatalities. Compulsory wearing of crash helmets. It has overnight
lowered the road toll in countries that have adopted the helmet rule.
Neurological wards have shrunk in size after 90 percent of their patients
are no longer coming up from ER after falling off their motorcycles on to
Thailand does have statutes requiring motorcycle riders
to wear a helmet. Why has this not worked? The helmet rule has not produced
the lowering of the road toll, because quite simply the rule-makers are not
enforcing the rules. The riders are simply not wearing them.
Where the helmet rule also falls down is that there
appears to be no standards set down covering the capacity of the helmet to
do its job – protecting the skull from impact. Some of the thin plastic
‘helmets’ are not as sturdy as some ice cream containers for sale in the
same supermarkets where you can buy the 199 baht plastic scalp warmer (I
refuse to call it a helmet).
It was the Bell helmet people many years ago that ran the
brilliantly simple ad – “If you’ve got a $10 head, wear a $10
helmet.” How true! What is needed is for the authorities to insist that
retail outlets only sell helmets that meet a world recognized standard. Now
I also know full well that the “better” helmets are more expensive –
but please say aloud the Bell helmet advertising slogan! If you are riding a
40,000 baht new bike (or even a 20,000 baht second-hand motorcycle), then
you can afford 1,000 baht for a good helmet. You just budget for it.
So what should be done? Promulgation of a road rule that
designates the minimum standard needed for helmets is a start. Follow this
with the requirement that the helmet must be done up, and every person on
the motorcycle must wear one. It is a simple rule to police. Bare heads are
readily visible, as opposed to trying to pinpoint a rider with a belly full
The ability to lower the road toll in Thailand is in the
hands of the legislators and the law enforcement agency - the police. Will
we see progressive, preventive thinking and the laws enforced, or will we
see breathalyzers and speed guns? One course of action will work, but the
other gets more kudos for the legislators and doesn’t stir up the
compulsion and civil rights debate.
Songkran 2004 will soon show which way the coin has fallen. The prophet
of doom has spoken.