Traffic police are the missing link for Thai road safety

Following the fatal accident in Chiang Mai that killed three cyclists and injured two others, demands for stiffer punishments have escalated, especially given the likely influence of alcohol.

One idea is bicycle licenses, a proposal which led to a group of bicyclists meeting Assistant Police Chief Prawut Thawornsiri on May 15 to submit objections.

Article - The NationLicensing bicycle riders is only an opportunity for additional paperwork and graft. Pedestrians and cyclists should have first priority on roads. Licensing borders on the preposterous, as research worldwide has shown it is a barrier to more cycling, which the government in theory supports.

The real problem is Thai roads are very nearly the most dangerous in the world. This year’s first-quarter data for traffic accidents notes the deaths of 3,834 Thais, while more than 316,000 have sustained some form of injury, at great cost to the healthcare system and economy.

Globally, Thailand’s rate of road deaths is second only to Namibia – one of the least densely populated countries – in a study of 193 countries by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. This study revealed a disturbing 44 deaths per 100,000 of population in Thailand, with 45 in Namibia.

It is no surprise that pedestrians, cyclists and motorcycle riders are the most vulnerable to road accidents. For instance, the Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013 by the World Health Organization (WHO) found 74% of total deaths were users of motorized 2- or 3-wheelers, 13% were drivers of 4-wheeled vehicles, then 8% were pedestrians, while cyclists accounted for 3%.

The maximum speed limits on urban roads are 60 or 80km/h. However, Thailand achieved a mere 30percent for effective implementation of national speed limits in the WHO study.

Thailand also has a national motorcycle helmet law. Studies have shown a good-quality helmet can reduce the risk of death on the road by 40%. However, most Thai motorcyclists only wear helmets to avoid traffic police fines. The WHO study suggests only 53% of riders and 19% of motorcycle passengers actually obey this law in Thailand.

Moreover, drink-driving was the main reason for the 3,373 accidents during this year’s Songkran week. Enforcement of drink-driving laws reduces the road accident rate dramatically. Thai law sets a 0.05 g/dl blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for drivers. However, the WHO study rates the Thai enforcement level of this limit at 50%, signifying much more is required on both the part of the police and of drivers.Bangkok Traffic

Thailand can learn from Nepal – a country technically behind Thailand in terms of development. Similar to Thailand, the Himalayan kingdom had rules on drink driving which were rarely enforced until December 2011. Then, the country adopted one of the strictest drink driving rules in the world – a zero tolerance policy, setting the BAC to zero.

As soon as night falls, the night shift of Nepalese traffic police is deployed to enforce the law, armed with breathalyzers. Unlike in Thailand, where “crackdowns” may be over in one night, in Kathmandu it is almost impossible to escape the net of breath checks, including on weekends, holidays, and even during the day.

If any driver is caught consuming even a mouthful of alcohol, that person is fined the equivalent of 335 baht. In addition, what deters re-offending the most is a one-hour-long mandatory lecture on the dangers of drink driving and the long queues to pay the fine before receiving the seized license the next day.

It took weeks for Nepalese party-goers to adjust to this new rule. In addition, the enforcement seriously hampered the business of restaurants and bars. There were organized protests, including the temporary closure of businesses, but in the face of a determined stand by the Nepalese government and police force, these petered out. Crucially, the authorities were aware that an increased likelihood of punishment would, in time, deter criminal activity, as predicted by rational action theory, which states that human beings are more likely to obey the law if the chance of punishment is higher.

Furthermore, the positive benefits of the campaign clearly outweigh the negative. The number of accidents caused by drink driving declined sharply by more than 71percent from 2012 to 2013. In addition, in this country of 27 million, by the end of February 2015, the traffic police had penalized 172,557 offenders and amassed over 50 million baht – all mainly from one city, Kathmandu – since the inception of the campaign.

The campaign also had greater social benefits. Housewives and parents were happy because their loved ones went home sober. Furthermore, the rates of other crimes like gang fights, theft, extortion and rape significantly declined. In addition, the policy gave birth to new business opportunities, mainly for taxi drivers.

What is seemingly lacking among Thai traffic police is not an awareness of these issues but strong commitment and motivation to implement a sustained policy. The country needs leadership that is willing and able to cope with the significant resistance which will arise from restaurant owners and habitual drinkers. Courage and motivation are necessary within the police system in order to go beyond punishing the poorer motorcyclists and to begin curbing the reckless drinking of those higher in the social ladder who drive cars, including luxury vehicles.

Nepal took into account the police and public mentality before starting the campaign. The government backed the police and created an “encouragement allowance” where they are entitled to keep one-sixth of the revenue. The allowance resulted in a decline in bribery as the traffic police could easily earn extra legal money by punishing more drivers. This was key to the campaign’s success, which also included celebrity endorsements, television programmes, and social media.

To conclude, instead of licensing cyclists, the government should be making the roads safe for them. Introducing cycling routes in touristic destinations, making parking spaces for bicycles, clearing the footpaths and constructing new cycle lanes should be priorities. But, the Royal Thai Police needs to also do its job and reduce the number of killers on the roads.

This special article to THE NATION was written by JOHN DRAPERĀ andĀ DIPENDRA KC. It appeared in the print edition of the newspaper on May 28, 2015.

John Draper is project officer for the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme at Khon Kaen University. Dipendra KC is co-founder of a youth-led NGO in Nepal and a rural development management MA student at Khon Kaen University. Twitter: @kcdipendra.

Quake spurs youth cyber relief work

The Bangkok Post

The recent 7.3-magnitude aftershock which followed the earlier 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated Nepal has again drawn global attention. The death toll has already surpassed 8,100. Still, it is hard to imagine the scale of devastation had the earthquakes occurred 15 years ago. Several thousand more people would have died, and much of the world would still be unaware of the catastrophe.

But, cellular technology towers withstood the quake while the buildings around them crumbled. Before the mainstream media reports came out, news from individual sources had quickly penetrated social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Despite limited technological capacity, what is outstanding is how constructively it has been used during the present disaster, despite only a quarter of the population having access to the internet and 90% of them using only a 2G connection.

The media organisations which rushed to Kathmandu and its vicinity in the aftermath of the disaster are sharing the stories that they should be covering — the grim reality on the ground. However, the international media is also portraying Nepal as if everything has ended. This is doom mongering, as the quake has in fact triggered many positive instances of social behaviour.

Social media has been greatly instrumental in the relief operations taking place in the country. In particular, Nepalese youth are showing an unprecedented level of commitment. The international media to some extent has failed to share these stories of initiatives led by the younger generation.

In fact, this strata of the population was one of the first to take part in rescue efforts. Nepalese youth are making optimum use of internet technology to aid the relief work. Their Facebook walls demonstrate the amazing work that they are doing despite limited resources and skills.

In the aftermath of the disaster, technology giants such as Skype facilitated youth endeavours by announcing free calls to and from Nepal. Fortunately, those young people with a smartphone or laptop connected to the internet, reached out to temporary refugee camps, and began to help families to connect to their relatives.

In the face of calamity, people have teamed up and initiated online help desks to connect those who are far away with their family members at home. It is usually arduous to negotiate congested international communications networks in such a distressing situation. However, all you now need to do to reach your friends is to send these teams a message on Facebook or via Twitter. They then often find your family within a few minutes.

Furthermore, within hours of each of the two big tremors, Facebook introduced the safety check feature, where people could mark friends on as “Safe”. People hurried to mark their friends safe in order to reassure acquaintances at home and abroad.

In another instance, young people teamed up to use Google’s Person Finder tool to fill in the information of missing people, and those with information about someone started feeding their information into the system.

Hundreds of young people have gathered and are using their social media skills to discover where the relief is needed most, and then they pledge donations like tarpaulins, rice, or medicine. The relief material is then transported to the most hard-hit areas by volunteers, who also establish local communications and identify local youths who can serve as channels for the relief work.

The creative uses of social media have also led young people to report data regarding physical and human losses as well as to assess the availability of temporary camps and relief supplies. Youth-driven teams are crowdsourcing the information. Now, anyone with a basic cell phone can report physical damage or loss of life as well as seek help.

As the nation receives more aid from abroad, both in terms of resources and personnel, there are admittedly increased chances of financial misconduct, and the effectiveness of some of the aid work may be questioned. To address these concerns and facilitate effective aid delivery, youth groups and relief organisations are implementing a social audit of the rescue, relief and reconstruction efforts in order to make the post-disaster efforts more reliable, accountable and effective.

There is much to be learned from these independent voluntary initiatives in terms of disaster preparedness. There is a need for social immunisation by introducing strict guidelines for construction companies, as well as earthquake-preparedness classes, based on the experience of nations like Thailand.

Governments in areas of the globe vulnerable to earthquakes should have strong post-disaster relief mechanisms ready, and the youth should be equipped with basic first-aid training. Furthermore, the technology to act transparently, and democratically should be embedded in each and every step that we as societies decide to take. This use of technology and the mobilisation of youth have the potential to create resilience and keep hope alive even in adverse circumstances.

The article originally appeared in the Opinion section of The Bangkok Post on May 19, 2015.