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Self Driving in Thailand - Perception and reality

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Is it a good idea to drive in Thailand? Well it’s probably not for the fainted-hearted or indecisive; nobody is suggesting that the roads of Thailand are as “safe” as those of say UK, which are among the safest in the world - All the same; I’d still recommend driving oneself if the opportunity arises, whether you are living here or just visiting. You certainly don’t need to be adrenalin junky or tired of living to get a kick out of driving in Thailand and the rewards are well worth it.

The driving environment in Thailand is different from most people’s home countries; but despite what seems to be the opinion of many foreigners, the situation in Thailand cannot simply be put down to a superabundance of “stupid” drivers, nor is any racially based tendency to drive worse or less skilfully than any other people or nationalities - including Westerners.

The largest part of safety, not all of it, in any country comes from YOU the driver - can you adapt your driving to ensure a reasonable level of safety for you and your passengers? Don’t blame others - ask yourself if you can handle it.

Most of the advice you see on driving in Thailand seems to be based purely on the presumptions and prejudices, and the comments are mostly just derogatory. Rather than any critical thinking or research, they simply use either anecdotal or personal observation - neither of which on their own make for a well thought out, sound argument. Most of this advice I’d suggest is ill thought out and at times downright wrong. Add to this a lack of driving experience by those handing out advice or any real knowledge of the factors contributing to road safety in Thailand (or anywhere else in the world for that matter) and the result is not so much opinions as assumptions and wildly inaccurate assertions.

What I’m attempting to do here is look at the perceptions and the realities of driving in general, and driving in Thailand in particular, and how it relates to driving yourself in the Kingdom, especially in a 4-wheel vehicle, although much of this would to motorcyclists too.

The suggestion by many posters on this and other forums that driving oneself is a prohibitively perilous thing to do or simply too dangerous even to contemplate is, in my opinion, totally unwarranted. Self-drive is, in my opinion probably one of the safest forms of travelling by road in the kingdom.

What riled me about all this was that most of the threads started by people looking for advice on buying or renting a car in Thailand are turned into a series of tirades against Thai drivers. Virtually every post is thoroughly negative. Posters also suggested that driving wasn’t worth it because the roads are too dangerous to consider driving oneself, and that a driver or public transport was preferable.
I disagree - Whether buying or renting a vehicle; I would submit this sort of view is grossly inaccurate and ill informed, especially in relation to a genuinely competent driver.

So what is driving in Thailand like? What is a competent driver? And are you up to it? This is where a bit of self-analysis and honesty comes in handy.


Firstly there is perception - “Thai roads are dangerous and all Thai drivers are reckless morons”.

Just take a moment to consider how people who say things like this see themselves and other road users. Indeed can they be aware of, or appreciate the existence of, even half of the other road users they are co-existing with?

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

How people form their opinions on driving can often be quite tenuous. Yet they then talk as if they are authorities on the subject - Why? - If they go to a hospital or clinic and a man in a white coat tells them to do something, they will do it unquestioningly - even if it’s quite personal...but when it comes to driving (like teaching) everyone’s an expert...and better than all other road users to boot.

Foreigners who drive in Thailand frequently turn on the vitriol when it comes to talking about their fellow roads users...automatically excluding themselves from the equation and concomitantly implying that their driving skills are far superior to those of any Thai people.

In Thailand, foreigners who DON’T drive seem to be even more vociferous.
If we are to believe the non- Thais posting on forums like this then we have to conclude that everyone is better than the average driver! Which obviously cannot be the case...

“The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.”

For example these were some observations resulting from research done by the Centre for Transport and Society - UK....

The public know that driver behaviour is a major contributory factor in the vast majority of road accidents...
(Cauzard, 2003)

But there is a consistent view that OTHERS drive in a more risky manner than individuals themselves do
(King and Parker, 2008)

Not just driving – older children and adolescents think they have good attitude and skills towards road safety but believe that others especially those in their peer group do not
(Tolmie. 2006).

Individuals do not believe they are dangerous on the roads but at the same time fervently believe others are.
• I am not likely to be responsible for an accident; others are likely to be responsible. Therefore little I can do.
• Hence, less likely to need to “plan to avoid them”
• Campaigns aimed at dangerous driving are for “other” drivers not themselves.
• Such campaigns re-emphasise this difference (2CV, 2008 and Flaming Research, 2008)
• The third-person effect (Davison, 1983).
• High support for enforcement, engineering solutions and education
• But not for themselves - for other people.



The Reality may be a long way from these seemingly benighted perspectives.

Thailand is in love with the car - it has a transitional society; rapidly changing from agricultural to industrial. Thais are driving in the region of 6 million cars and 22 million motorcycles on roads that have been rapidly built with scant regard to safety.
Unlike other countries who are trying to establish a solid infrastructure for public transport, Thailand has gone down the road of the individual motorist, at least in part because it has developed a large motor industry of its own. The public transport system is poor in both quality and performance and lacks infrastructure and finance. In public transport the “professional driver” is a chimera. The reality is more likely to be a hangover burn out by amphetamines waiting for the next hangover to start.

Apart from referring to what we see on the roads (seeing is believing?? - I think not!) - many people like to cite statistics when talking about driving and there is of course a tendency to cherry-pick stats that seem to back your own point of view.... and there’s a wide range to choose from! Pretty much a stat for every point of view.

As Mark Twain famously said, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics”

How they are gathered and applied in relation to motoring in particular can be very fluid.

The stats for Thailand are frightening and there is without doubt a serious road safety problem in the country.

Take a look at these recent abstracts below -

In July this year (2013) Asian Correspondent.com stated - “In 2011 almost 10,000 people died on Thailand’s roads. In Britain, which has a comparable population, that figure came in below 2,000. “

In March this year (2013) the Nation wrote - “Up to 26,000 people are killed in road accidents every year in Thailand, which puts the country in the 6th spot in terms of road casualties. Of those killed, up to 70 or 80 per cent are motorcyclists or their passengers.”

The UK foreign Office - March 2013 - puts the number at around 9000 p.a. - “68,582 incidents resulting in 9,205 deaths involving both Thai residents and tourists in 2011.”

The quotes above are quite recent from sources that shy away from sensationalism and try to get their facts right - ... there’s a lot of variation (50 to 100%) but a lot depends on how they are compiled - for example if you drive you car into a field and hit a tree, the Stats aren’t actually applicable to the Dept. of Highways...if you drive into a house and kill the family watching TV, they aren’t actually road users...so they don’t qualify...if you don’t go to hospital or die in hospital too long after the event.....and so on...

Stats can be misleading to say the least, and it is tempting to deduce from this that the roads of Thailand are nothing but a lethal unavoidable bloodbath. I feel that this is a simplistic interpretation that panders to a sensationalist view of the matter. One also needs to consider WHO are becoming statistics. There is, one aspect that keeps coming up and is relatively constant, and that is the suggestion that a very large proportion fatalities consists of motorcyclists; up to 70%.

I can see how in Thailand this massive percentage could occur. The country still has a huge population of motorcyclists, 22 million plus passengers, and on top of that unlike some of their neighbours they also have a huge 4 wheel ownership too - couple that to the national refusal to wear crash helmets and you have a set of statistics just waiting to happen.

“Last year's survey showed that only about 28 per cent of teenage motorcyclists and about 49 per cent of adults wore helmets. Bangkok had the highest number or 80 per cent of helmet wearers, while only 20 per cent of motorcyclists in Beung Kan, Lamphun, Chaiyaphum, Narathiwat and Nakhon Phanom were found wearing helmets.”

Most foreigners who self drive in Thailand do so on a “small” motorcycle. ...For the most part, they are on holiday and the temptation not to wear a helmet or protective clothing is obvious.

The UK foreign Office released this warning to citizens who are either expats or visitors to Thailand...

“After deaths from natural causes, road collisions are the most common cause of death for British nationals in Thailand and cause a high number of hospitalisations. According to FCO staff in Thailand, the majority of them involve motorcycles and scooters.”

Another aspect of the most of the stats quoted here is that they deal only in total road deaths, which are not seen in context of population, mileage travelled, proportional car ownership, type of vehicles, population size to roads available road and weather conditions etc. etc. etc. .... Collisions and incidents with serious or light injuries are not included either. Stats are nowadays usually presented as deaths per 100,000.

As this topic is driving a 4-wheel vehicle, and it seems that the vast majority of deaths are on motorcycles, it seems reasonable that this should be taken into consideration when assessing the risks of driving a car yourself.

Foreigners involved in road accidents are usually either self-drive motorcyclists or passengers in some form of public transport - bus, van or taxi. When it comes to driving oneself it is pretty indisputable that the vast majority of foreigners do so on a locally hired motorcycle.

There is also a fundamental misconception that long journeys are more dangerous than short ones - e.g. these famous last words - “Don’t need a helmet, just going down to the shop” - Statistics indicate that well over half of accidents happen within 5 km from origin...80% within 30 km.

As a driver of a car, compared to motorcycles you are surely in a much safer position from the word go. If you want to play with the figures, you could take 70% of 10,000 fatalities and the remaining death-total of 3000 would be comparable to US and other countries - not that I’m suggesting this has any great practical value, but there does seem to be significant evidence to show that motorcycles are by far the riskier mode of transport compared to self-drive 4 wheeled vehicles...and a without doubt they are used by foreigners far more than cars are.

Furthermore, I think it would be very difficult to produce statistics or any argument that could convincingly show that self-driving in Thailand is more dangerous than being driven. I personally have looked for evidence on the net and can find none to suggest this - in fact common sense would suggest that if you are a reasonably competent driver, you are less at risk driving yourself.... just consider who is driving you!

The next thing to think about is WE - not “THEY” - drive...
Another form of perception is how people transfer what they witness or simply hear about other drivers into “facts” to back up their own position... and in the process exclude themselves from the picture.

¬¬¬¬I think detailed descriptions of other motorists and how “bad” driving is carried out in Thailand are seldom helpful as without analysis all they do is reinforce those peoples prejudices about driving in Thailand - i.e. blaming people or even the entire nation, rather than the underlying causes or themselves. There is also the temptation to attempt simplify matters by looking for one single main cause for the whole thing.

When it comes to actually driving, examples have been given of all sorts of strange behaviour - this is not news and you should be able to adjust quickly to it. Things like flashing lights, horn and hazard lights; they are indeed often used in circumstances that differ from “the West” - however bear in mind that universally they all have a well defined function... these are just additional variations.

Internationally - Horn and flashing lights are to indicate your presence and the hazards are to indicate that your vehicle is stationary in a “hazardous” position.
All other uses, West or East are in fact just implied or inferences that we draw from the particular situation we are in at the time. This isn’t that hard - it is not a particularly strong example of dangerous driving.

Then there are the tales of U-turns, traffic going the wrong way on dual carriageways and all those other “crazy” things that are accepted as everyday driving over here - no lights, no bodywork, no wheels, no looking, whatever... it really doesn’t take that long to work out and adjust to what’s happening or going to happen - if you fail to adjust, “som nam naa” - your journey may well come to an abrupt end, if it were not for the majority of Thai drivers who in turn are able to adjust to your regimented and unimaginative home-country driving habits. Yes - the reality is that many Thai drivers are quite skilled at driving in their own country.... better at it than a lot of those self-deluded foreign critics who think their own driving is so superior.

There is also a tendency for foreign drivers to assume that the roads were built for them and other like-minded drivers; everyone else - pedestrians, motorcycles, side cars, rot ken, 6 wheelers etc. - are just inconveniences that should be taken off the road. I feel this is a rather limited perspective; roads are currently the main arteries of communication in Thailand, the country’s economy depends on them; all and sundry have to use them.

Here, I’d like to look at what we refer to when we say “road user”. It appears that many people do not really consider what a “road-user” actually is...

If you are going to look at driving in Thailand you really have to include EVERYONE and everything that uses the roads or the sides of the roads; not just other car drivers but pedestrians, animals, and those wishing to advertise - billboards, snack bars elephants, buffaloes, and of course the range of vehicles involved, from bicycles, hand-pushed carts “rot khen” to slow moving sidecars, “skylabs” and tuk-tuks, buses, trucks and heavy plant.

Roads develop their own environment, economy and populations and in Thailand this is particularly unregulated.... all this has to mingle with you as a driver. They are there they may look shabby or un-roadworthy but they have entitlement - as much as yourself.

So what about actually getting into difficulties? Here’s a checklist of factors to consider that may contribute to a road traffic incident

• Drivers - you ARE a major contributing factor - if though you may consider yourself blameless.
• Environment - Weather etc., the gradient, town or country?
• Vehicle - did the vehicle work or contribute to the seriousness of the incident?
• Road - Construction, surface engineering etc.
• Other - pedestrians, animals, landslips, floods.
It’s easy to see that most of these factors are going to be more extreme in Thailand, but it does not mean they are insurmountable or inevitable.


What does road safety really entail?
The factors affecting road safety are usually divided into the 3 “E”s
Once you appreciate the state of the 3 “E”s in Thailand then everything else begins to follow on.

In fact Thailand offers a bonus! - I’ll outline not 3 “E”s but 5 “E”s.............
For over a decade Thailand with its “Road Safety Action Plan” has espoused the virtues of the 5 “E”s (it has to be said with little effect) ...............

1. Education
2. Enforcement
3. Engineering
4. Emergency
5. Evaluation

1. Education
This is fairly self-explanatory - people need to be told/shown how to drive and given the “tools” to share the road with other users - UK had several government TV campaigns in the 60s and 70s. Clever well thought out ads with a bit of humour that weren’t condescending and helped to establish the country as a safe place to drive. (Do you remember the elephant in the fog?).
The first people to educate in Thailand would be the police.

2. Enforcement
Again self-explanatory - but Thailand has the added problem of ingrained corruption, graft and briber which impedes this no matter how many laws are passed. The laws need to be reasonable applicable and equitably enforced too.

3. Engineering: - most critics of (Thai) road safety usually ignore this aspect of road safety.

Vehicle engineering - Safer car design and engineering: - car safety is both “passive” (seat belts, airbags and construction etc.) and “Active” (braking steering, handling, traction control etc.) these two are really interdependent now with so much computerised and hi-tech features on modern vehicles.
• Anti-locking brakes
• Traction control
• Air-bags
• Side impact bars
• AVCSS
• More reliable engine, tyres and components
• Vehicle dynamics in general (vary from UK and Thailand)
Of course roadworthiness checks are vital - but totally unenforced in Thailand.

Road Engineering -
The design and construction on the roads, bridges, junction, road surface, camber, drainage etc.
• The use of barriers (e.g. Armco), the removal of roadside hazards - e.g. trees or boulders on the side and centre of roads. The clearing of billboards and vegetation that obscure drivers’ vision
• Traffic - the use of lines, signs, bollards etc. etc. to dictate how and where the traffic flows and at what speed - virtually non-excitant in Thailand and seldom noticed by drivers in countries that make good use of it.
• The use of barriers (e.g. Armco), the removal of trees from the side and centre of roads. The clearing of billboards and vegetation that obscure drivers’ vision.
• Better infrastructure and engineering
• Better road surfaces
• Better signage
• More forgiving
• Traffic calming
• Shared space - keeping various road users apart is key to safety in some situations - if they are separated they can’t collide.

Like so many things on the roads in Thailand, the only reason that U-Turns happen is because the roads ALLOW it.... this is an engineering problem (and cost), not so much a driver problem.


4. Emergency

- What happens in the event of injury... this is a major factor in who lives or dies.
It has been well documented that the time between accident and getting treatment is crucial in the survival of RTI victims.
Treatment on the scene and reducing the time it takes to get the patient to hospital is vital. Thailand still has NO EFECTIVE UNIVERSAL EMERGENCY SERVICE!!

5. Evaluation

- How do we ascertain if measures are effective and what new ideas can be implemented.
Most governments have agencies of some sort that after engaging any road scheme, whether it is construction or a safety campaign, review in detail every aspect of that project; effects on local population, environment, accident statistics etc. etc. Statistics are gathered and monitored and appropriate action taken. - Whereas Thailand may nominally have such bodies their effectiveness is just about zero. Road safety in Thailand is left largely to ill-thought out, baseless pronouncements made by members of the government with little better to do.



On the road...how to drive.

What SKILLS do you need?

Once you have decided on how you really view the roads in Thailand then perhaps you should decide if you have the skills to deal with it. Take a look at the skills required to drive safely - and actually delineate them.... many people will blithely state they are a “skilled” driver - but if you ask them what skills they have the answer is usually pretty vague. It’s not something we tend to think about in detail.

Driving skills are actually universal; not pertaining to any particular country.
In order to drive safely, you need 2 sets of driving skills - physical and mental.
I’ve précised a checklist from the UK police of the kinds of driving skills - If you can’t readily tick ALL of the physical skills then perhaps you shouldn’t bother driving... I have avoided using the expression “defensive driving” as I think it is unhelpful.... it gets confused with “slow”, “indecisive”, “timid” and “hesitant”, all of which are to be avoided

Physical skills
In terms of the basic physical tasks required, a driver must be able to control direction, acceleration, and deceleration. For motor vehicles, the detailed tasks include:
• Starting the vehicle (how about hill starts?)
• Choosing the correct gear
• Operating the pedals with one's feet to accelerate, slow, and stop the vehicle,
• On a manual operating gears and clutch
• Steering the vehicle
• Generally operating other important ancillary devices on the car such as indicators lights wipers etc. etc.
• Observation skills - looking for hazards and changes in the driving environment.

Mental skills.
Avoiding or successfully handling an emergency driving situation - this is particularly important when driving in Thailand.... and where most foreign drivers fall flat on their face.
The following basic skills are required:
• Making good decisions based on factors such as road and traffic conditions
• Evasive manoeuvring
• Proper hand placement and seating position
• Skid control (usually an acquired skill)
• Steering and braking techniques
• Understanding vehicle dynamics
The key to driving anywhere in the world is observation and anticipation.

I find I can travel as little as a few hundred metres with another driver and get a pretty good idea of what my driver is like. It takes no accident, no swerving, swearing etc. and jamming on of brakes. If I sense they are positioning the vehicle incorrectly or not anticipating possible hazards I’ll soon get to the point where I don’t feel comfortable travelling in their car.

“Expert advice” - The UK police first produced “Roadcraft” in the 1950s in order to train their officers, and in the last two decades have radically reappraised the approach to driving. Many other organisations and individuals use this book too - civilian organisations (e.g. RoSPA), Advanced drivers and private road users as well.

The book has a useful acronym: -

“IPSGA ...

• Information received from the outside world by observation, and given by use of signals such as direction indicators, headlamp flashes, and horn; is a general theme running continuously throughout the application of the system by taking, using and giving information;
• Position on the road optimised for safety, visibility and correct routing, followed by best progress;
• Speed appropriate to the hazard being approached, attained via explicit braking or throttle control (engine braking), always being able to stop in the distance you can see to be clear on your side of the road;
• Gear appropriate for maximum vehicle control through the hazard, selected in one shift; and
• Acceleration for clearing the hazard safely.

The taking, using and giving of Information is, arguably, most important and surrounds (and drives) the five phases IPSGA. It may, and often should, be re-applied at any phase in the System.”

**********

In a nutshell, one has to READ and react to the traffic - A lot of this is gained through experience, but it also comes from common sense, knowing your vehicle and gauging how others are driving, and getting ready for it.
A lot of this is subliminal - e.g. my vehicle has a “manual” gear change - but in reality it is automatic - I seldom actually think about or consciously plan changing gear - it is done without thinking.
These are skills that many don’t use or even have at home because the advanced road engineering makes it less necessary. The roads are designed to be more controlling of we drive.


Applying this to Driving in Thailand
The other day a passenger noticed I had slowed down and asked why. My answer was that the car a few vehicles in front - who was making no signal - looked like he was about to turn right, even though he was in the left hand lane.... I had also positioned my self the driver could most probably see me and flashed my lights. Sure enough that’s what happened. It was fairly obvious by his sudden reduction in speed and his positioning to a gap in the off side traffic that he was preparing to make a potentially dangerous yet predictable manoeuvre.
This is a manoeuvre that would be not just unlikely but probably impossible in Europe as there would have been no junction designed that could allow this sort of access.


If you expect to drive around Thailand and show others just what a good driver you are and give a lesson on how to drive properly - forget it!

What you do in Thailand is observe and adjust - draw conclusions, don’t make generalisations - see how others drive and be prepared - this is really no different to how you should drive anywhere in the world, it’s just that many Western motorists don’t realise how cossetted they’ve been at home ...and being thrown into the “real world” can be a bit of a shock.

Here are some observations on the realities of driving in Thailand that may surprise an unwary driver...

Mirrors -
One of the most common statements after a collision is “I just didn’t see him” - WHY??

I notice that many unskilled foreign drivers tend to ignore some or all of their mirrors. Most vehicles these days have good mirrors - in the vehicle and on BOTH sides. They are there so you can get a constant image of what is approaching or around your car. I fear that some drivers only use mirror’s when they EXPECT to see something...in Thailand it is highly likely that on any road there will be vehicles both the right and left of you, all the time this is quite legal - use your mirrors properly and this is not a problem. Just because it doesn’t happen at home doesn’t mean it won’t happen here...this is your responsibility - You should be checking your rear view every 5 to 10 seconds - regardless of the traffic. Like so many actions you do when driving this should be subliminal ... If you are not up to it don’t complain just don’t drive.


A note on tinted windows -
Thai people in general like to avoid eye contact and confrontation whenever possible - and avoid loss of face - if a Thai driver makes a mistake it is very unlikely that they will look at you after even to apologise - they will most likely turn and look the other way and drive off.

One factor that seems to escape a lot of visiting drivers here is the Thai love of tinted windows. In bright sunny, hot climates they have a cooling effect (somewhat over estimated by the tint companies) - but I think the main purpose on Thai roads is to avoid eye contact with other road users. A lot of decisions we make whilst driving in traffic at home are made after looking at other drivers - there face or hands can often communicate a lot - in Thailand however, many cars have excessively tinted windows, so at a junction the chances of communicating visually with another driver are virtually nil - all you will see is a black window - inside someone is looking back but is receiving less than 50% of the light available. This means that many courtesy signals that we are used to giving other drivers are rendered impossible. .... All the more reason to be aware and make your intensions on the road clear to other road users through your vehicle’s positioning.


I cannot accept a concept that suggests that the proportion of stupid drivers in any one country can be vastly different from another. Other countries are simply better at stopping their stupid ones from being stupid. There may be more untrained drivers, lack of enforcement and there are different driving conditions and customs, but to dismiss all Thai drivers as innately or racially stupid is really showing a profound lack of understanding of both Thailand AND driving. Once you come to terms with this I think you’ll find driving in Thailand a lot easier.


Driving and the LAW -
Many foreigners grossly underestimate the extent of corruption in Thailand. From the highest in the land to the lowest, it is not only endemic but also epidemic. Recent surveys suggest that 60% of Thai people believe that corruption is acceptable so long as it oils the wheels of bureaucracy in their favour. Most Thais accept that they must pay police cash on the spot with no receipt.
When driving you will almost certainly have an encounter with the police or sometimes the army. They will either set up roadblocks or just random checks.
The purpose of these “checks” is seldom anything more than a cash raising exercise. For a start most police checks take place in walking distance of a police station.

They DO have speed cameras, but they are not always used when stopping traffic.... how well or regularly they are calibrated is unclear. Police have also started to send out speeding tickets to registered owners of vehicles they have caught on speed cameras. There is no doubt that this practice is getting more commonplace nationwide. It is difficult to see how fines paid this way could end up in the pockets of corrupt officers as the payments are receipted, so perhaps this is a good thing. Renters - Be prepared to get a letter from your car hire company when you get home!

Most Thai motoring “offences” are the “detected” at these police checkpoints. The most common police action is to stop motorcycles. As these vehicles are notoriously outside the law they are the easiest things to stop.
Helmet laws can be unenforced for weeks and then a plethora of “checks” will be set up, usually round the corner from some lights.... hordes of motorcyclists can be seen standing on the curb phoning a friend for the 100 or 200 baht “fine” they have to pay in cash usually without a receipt. (If too much cash is accepted you often see a booth set up so that tickets can be written out presumably to offset the imbalance.)
Most bikes are untaxed, uninsured etc. so they are fruitful pickings for the local police...they also are largely driven by people with low income who are unlikely to have friends in high places.

I think it is safe to assume that top-end (imported) cars are the least likely to be stopped, as they are most likely to have influential friends. Some car-drivers with “connections” will carry the name card of some high-ranking police officer for use in such circumstances. Couple of phone calls and an uppity officer is put in his place and the problem goes away.

On 4 wheels the prime targets are pickups (usually old) and trucks - these are often un-roadworthy or overloaded etc. etc. ... you have probably noticed the “lai Thai” artwork that proliferates on both Trucks and buses in Thailand...these are largely to give protection, good luck and speed...check out the mud-flaps.... you’ll often see Al Pacino who fought against corrupt cops in Serpico - this is to ward (warn?) off the police who are endlessly taking tea money off drivers before they can complete their journey.

So what about run-of-the-mill private road users? You will certainly come across a checkpoint from time to time. Does being a foreigner affect your chances? Well it can work both ways depending on the individual officer. Some may not want the hassle of dealing with a foreigner who doesn’t realise he has to pay a bribe and protests his innocence (Don’t try this). Others may see you as a potential for a larger “fine”.
You can also simply be pulled over - in what seems a highly dangerous practice an officer walks out in front of the car and signs you onto the side of the road - I’ve noticed that some people just seem to drive on and pretend they didn’t see.... not recommended!

Do you need to have committed an offence? ... It helps, but not really; they will pull you over for a “check” - then they may decide what you have done wrong - it can be something like “speeding” - the absence of a speed camera doesn’t seem to have any bearing on this.... or it may be something like “being in the wrong lane”, this observation may well have been made with your vehicle out of the officer’s line of vision. Of course once they have you stopped they may find a few other “infractions”.

I have been stopped several times over the last ten years or so and I have to say that firstly it doesn’t always result in a fine and furthermore has only once became acrimonious and that was between my passenger (a Thai doctor) and the rather bemused officer - it resulted in no payment.

I will sometimes haggle - this is a lot easier without showing a wallet full of money, so that’s why it is best to have a couple of hundred baht lying around.
I once asked one officer if 100 baht would suffice, he said “no” as he “had a friend”. Another asked why I had a boat on the roof - my Thai passenger explained it wouldn’t fit in the car... this explanation seemed to satisfy the officer as no fine was paid that time.

This stoppage usually takes no more than 5 minutes and it’s all done, if you elect not to “pay the fine” then you will probably spend the rest of the day in a local cop-shop filling in forms and the “real” fine may well be higher...so most people elect to assume that what they are paying is “legit” - even though it flies in the face of all reason....but when faced with the alternatives the easy way out is very compelling.

Incidentally - the NATIONAL SPEED LIMIT is 90km per hour. On “motorways” it is 120kmh - however be careful here as many motorways can turn into ordinary highways without any real notice. (e.g. - route 7, Bkk - Pattaya).

I find that I get to pay less often as the years go by. Possibly because my Thai has got better and I can engage in some small talk.

Security.
A car offers an extra degree of security for both you and your belongings. Car break-ins are relatively rare compared to the west.... I so long as you don’t make your car look like a shop window your belongings can be safer than in a backpack or even your hotel room. A lot of parking has security, which seems to be sufficient to deter the casual thief. Those awful tinted windows also obscure your stuff from prying eyes.

Insurance
When you pay road tax you also have to buy the compulsory national 3rd party insurance.... this is only a few hundred baht - it doesn’t cover damage to property, it only covers death or injury to 3rd parties and then only for a few thousand baht. In short you can legally drive but you really aren’t covered at all. It is quite likely any vehicle you have the misfortune to collide with may only have this cover, so your own insurance is important here.

For more cover you have to pay; normally about 10 to 20 thousand baht per annum. One thing that you will find is that most insurance companies include a bail bond in their cover. This is down to the way you need to behave in the event of an incident. The first thing you need to do is contact your insurance company and they will immediately send a representative out to the spot. He will deal with the police and other parties on your behalf. In more serious cases the police have been known to lock everyone up until they can sort out what happens - this is why it is so important to have your bail bond at the ready. (It is also the reason why so many bus drivers lope off into the bush after an incident).

Driving licence
I don’t want to get bogged down in minutia here so the comments on documentation insurance etc. are kept brief. It is recommended that you get an International Drivers Permit before you come to Thailand. These are valid for about 3 months in the kingdom and are accepted most readily by authorities and roadside police. In fact Thailand has agreements with several countries to accept their licences, so long as they have a PHOTO and are in English.

“The foreign licence must either be in English, or be accompanied by an official translation into English or Thai. The licence needs to have been issued by a country that has a treaty with the Thai government allowing the mutual acceptance of driving licences.” - http://thailand.angloinfo.com/transport/driving-licences/
- UK - drivers note you need a PHOTO licence.

Thai “road culture”
Does Thai culture play a part in all this? Well I get weary of people using the expression ”Thai culture” as a get-out for all sorts of ills and quirks in Thailand - in fact they are usually just a cover up for someone’s own latent racism. As a cop-out or sidestep I think it’s a waste of time. However if you have some background knowledge on how certain aspects of Thai cultural or religious life connects to driving you may better understand and so anticipate some of the foibles you are likely to encounter on the road.

I’ve already mentioned the Thai acceptance of corruption in authorities. I’ve also alluded to the superstitions, icons and emblems on trucks etc. but how does this affect everyday driving in a private car?

In Western countries we have grown up with the car for over ¾ of a century, most of us are 3rd 4th or even 5th generation drivers; we expect to drive and our “national psyches” are geared to this, as are our road systems and behaviour on them. The systems we drive by date back to those great road-builders the Romans (who it seems probably drove on the left). In Europe before the arrival of the motorcar, we already used a lot of roads and had established some basic highway codes and practices - the roundabout was an C18th British invention, born out of the need to manoeuvre horse and carriages in front of rich housing projects. Driving on the left, which was legally established in the early C19th in the UK, is said to stem from the way we handled horses.

In Thailand ask any car driver if their parents had a car and the vast majority will answer in the negative; mass motorised transport is a relatively new thing here, it has only taken hold rapidly together with Thailand’s rampant industrialisation.
The number of motor vehicles has leapt from 2 million in 1981 to 27.5 million in 2010.

Before this the main form of transport in the Kingdom was by river. There were of course some hand or animal pulled carts but these were very localised and in much smaller numbers than Europe where an elaborate road system had existed for centuries. Many of the roads in Thailand were built or developed in the C20th for military purposes by the Japanese and then the US in the 60s.

The power and influence of the “river” on daily Thai life cannot be underestimated.

Thailand’s transportation on the other hand was for centuries predominantly by river. Thai water culture influences all aspects of Thai life on land. “Kuaytiao reua” boat noodles usually have a boat for display or shape their counters like boats. Buildings from temples to schools to condominiums to brothels are frequently built in shapes that mimic boats.
The roads are no different - The ornate decorations on buses, trucks and other vehicles have most of their roots in the decor of boats and barges. Taxis and many private vehicles have ornate shrines in the front that are just the same as the boats with offerings to Mae Yanang.................

“Many Thai people believe Mae Yanang to be a female spirit that resides in the body of the boat, it is also said that Mae Yanang is the Goddess of journeys.
By paying respect to Mae Yanang passengers can expect her protection and be assured a safe journey”.

Thailand imports and then “adapts”. Adding bits of tradition and culture to whatever it is they have taken a shine to...the car is no exception. Look inside any truck bus, taxi or car in Thailand and you’ll see evidence of this. The Steering wheel, the roof, dashboard are adorned with symbols and rituals taken from boats - Garlands hag from the “stem” the rear-view mirror - shrines to Mae Yanang

And thus on almost every car...

Many people who “don’t believe” still pay a nodding respect to Mae Yanang and it obviously influences their attitude to driving.. (Note in Europe and the West the saluting of spirits under bridges and the ubiquitous St Christopher medals in cars). At every traffic light you can be offered a garland of flowers to hang of your mirror to show respect to this goddess. (BTW - it’s 20 baht a time and give them the old one for recycling)


Anyone who has owned or moored a boat will recognise the similarities with the double or three deep “mooring“ in car parks and the moorings for boats on a bank or jetty; vehicles are left with no brake on so they can be pushed out of the way like any boat at a mooring.


The proposition that the Thai national psyche is orientated towards river transport is to me particularly appealing. It could indeed account for a lot of road traffic behaviour that seems to show an abundance of those characteristics. In towns it flows much more as if on water than on asphalt. Even out on the open road you can see behaviour that fits more with navigating a boat on a river than the western idea of driving a car. The sweeping lines taken around bend across the lanes of traffic, no sudden halts just gentle drifting out into mainstreams. Swinging into the current from a tributary (side road) - The contraflow traffic moving slowly alongside the bank (i.e. - hard shoulder or central reservation) sheltering from the oncoming current… moving off so slowly so as not to upset the load…and of course parking nose first - putting in the bow and hoping the stern will drift in round behind...all a perfect examples of how to handle a boat on a river. The Thai driver - anthropologically speaking at least - seems to be in a boat.

Needless to say that add to this the speed capability of the motor vehicle and you get a potentially unsettling mixture of fluidity and danger.

…But next time you’re out driving, just keep repeating to yourself “I’m in a boat, I’m in a boat, I’m in a boat” and you may be pleasantly surprised to see how it all comes together!”



So - should you drive yourself in Thailand? - YES! ...but not unreservedly so.

If you do decide to drive yourself the benefits are many. Make your own schedule, stop where you like - no pissing into your empty water bottle on long bus journeys, trying to get comfortable whilst next to overweight flatulent sleeping strangers who have gorged on garlic,...no timetable to follow and find places that no bus or minivan could ever be booked for. Carry your belongings in the car not on your back or under the floor of a bus where it gets rummaged through by porters.

The only proviso is that you need to truly assess your driving abilities. If you aren’t a confident driver at home, then why should you be in Thailand? If a lot of the stuff above is new to you, then I’d suggest that you need to assess your own abilities. It’s not really just down to driving in Thailand, it’s down to driving anywhere in the world...and do you seriously think that the unshaven young man with the pinprick pupils in the driving seat of that minibus is less likely to have an accident than you?

In reality the roads in Thailand are dangerous - particularly for motorcyclists, but if you are a competent driver, you should be able to have a safe and enjoyable journey.... and a few experiences to talk about at home. So don’t blame others take control yourself and have a safe trip.

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