by Ratanawadee H. Winther
Have you ever wondered why after years of efforts, Thailand has barely made a dent in reducing road traffic fatalities and injuries?
With 66 people killed every day on Thai roads, we are only second behind war-torn Libya in annual road traffic deaths. It is no accident either that we end up here and yet – why aren’t we more upset? The reason is simple. Most of us who are in charge of making our roads safer for all – do not know what it feels like to be a pedestrian or a rider or passenger of a motorcycle. We blame vulnerable road users for not wearing helmets, for not knowing road rules and for crossing our paths. But have we ever asked ourselves why this is happening.
Keeping people safe should be a priority and we need a system that recognises that road safety is a right that belongs to everyone. Rich or poor, we should be able to feel safe when we cross the street, take our kids to school or go out. While far from perfect, we have seen tremendous improvements that come with taking a right-based approach to education and healthcare. More children can go to school and when families get sick they can access the care they need and deserve.
When Sweden launched the Vision Zero project in 1997 its steering principle is that no loss of life is acceptable, while for Denmark, which has an estimated road deaths of 196 – less than 1% of Thailand’s – it is that every accident is one too many – a shared responsibility.
Before you say that Thais are different, I would like to counter that whether we are Thai, Swedish or Danish, we are very much the same. We all make mistakes and it is up to society to build a system that will protect and empower its people, whoever they are. So right now, the only difference I see is that in Thailand we accept road death as a “normal” part of life whereas they don’t.
So where do we go from here? How do we speed up the progress on road safety to meet the goal of the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety, which aims to reduce global traffic fatalities by half by 2020?
Based on lessons learned in countries successful in decreasing the death tolls on the roads, the first step to correct the course begins with a new attitude. We have to recognise that road safety is a basic right and any loss of life is inexcusable and unacceptable.
At the top, we are still to see accountability for the improvement of road safety. From estimated annual road deaths (24,237) to a slight drop in fatality rate per 100,000 population (from 38 to 36) to nationwide helmet-wearing rate (42%), these latest figures tell us the same story – that government-led and top-down initiatives leave much to be desired.
For this, I believe we need to reflect on our institutional and management structures for road safety. Under the current system, the national Road Safety Directing Centre (RSDC) is responsible for developing a strategy and action plan that is then carried out by the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM). The key problem with this arrangement is that road safety is just one of fourteen responsibilities of the DDPM. Perhaps, it is time we consider creating a dedicated road safety agency that not only has actual authority but also comprises every type of stakeholder from national to local levels. Most importantly, its performance must be evaluated every year and when targets are not met the agency must be held accountable. This is the only way we can learn and continue to make improvements.
It should be observed, too, that good public transport correlates directly with low number of road deaths and injuries. Like in most countries, the improvement of public transport in Thailand is within the realm of a ‘top-down’ responsibility. While continued expansion of the BTS skytrain and MRT underground train in Bangkok is welcome, many would argue that we can achieve more by upgrading the antiquated Bangkok’s bus network that serve over 3 million commuters daily. Likewise, more efforts should be directed towards improving rural communities’ access to public transport to reduce reliance on motorcycles.
Long attributed to our country’s failure to prevent road crashes is weak enforcement. Although the situation is far from straightforward I would say that most of the fault lies with the overall police management. When reducing traffic congestion remains the top priority for Thai traffic police it means that on average they only spend 30% of their time enforcing traffic laws. This is the opposite of the common practice around the world. Compounding the problem are limited resources, inadequate equipment and lack of professional recognition. Traffic policing is a very difficult and stressful job and for the officers on the ground to effectively enforce the laws, they need to be appropriately trained and equipped.
Finally, it is clear that we have to develop stronger civil society. This is one common denominator among countries that have successfully tackled road death. Still in its infancy here, it is important that we continue to nurture the development of Thai civil society who can, in turn, help to empower local communities, especially vulnerable road users, to participate in the national efforts in a meaningful way.
Through combining top-down and bottom-up approaches, stakeholders at every level can contribute from beginning to end whether it is about developing a road safety education program or a new law. Community development is key to lasting impact and this will ensure the delivery of a right-based policy and practice.
To give you an example, one of the proposed amendments recently submitted for the cabinet’s consideration by the Working Group to Review Road Safety Legislation under the Road Safety Directing Center (RSDC) is to enable local administration to set their own speed limits to align with local road conditions and populations. Frankly, this is long overdue but nonetheless encouraging. With more steps in this direction in the next four years, there may be hope yet for our treacherous roads.
Ratanawadee is a member of Legal Develoment Program (LDP) and the chairperson of AIP Foundation Thailand. Get in touch with her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.