Thailand’s Songkran Road Deaths Can Be Avoided
Thailand’s road crashes spike, tragically, at times of festivity, including the Songkran new year festival. Photo by Tatsuya Fukata/Flickr

Too many of us have been personally touched by tragic road crashes that have maimed or killed a loved one. For far too many, Songkran – Thailand’s festival to celebrate the traditional new year – will be a moment not for merriment but for mourning. Thailand has among the highest rates of road fatalities in the world, ranking top in the region. More people die in Thailand from road crashes in two days than have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. And the numbers, tragically, always spike at times of festivity, including Songkran, when many people are traveling longer distances to see family. 

The situation is trending in the wrong direction. Despite laudable government plans and efforts – including the 4th Master Plan on Road Safety (2018-2021) – the problem has stubbornly persisted, and indeed road fatalities have increased. During the holiday period at the end of 2020 – a period known as “Seven Deadly Days” – there were 2,748 crashes and 316 deaths, representing increases of 9% and 16% respectively from the same period last year.

This doesn’t have to be so. A growing number of countries and cities have demonstrated that road fatalities can be drastically reduced with proven policies and actions that, taken together, make roads safe for everyone. For example, Bogotá, Colombia, managed to reduce traffic fatalities by 32% in less than 2 years, with the introduction of a Speed Management Plan to help set and enforce safe speed limits.

The following are crucial elements of a comprehensive approach to improving road safety. 

First, political leadership and investment of resources in the right institutions is needed. The fragmented structure of road safety responsibilities is indeed a major barrier to effective action on road safety in Thailand. Currently, a plethora of government organizations have shared roles and responsibilities for road safety, including the Royal Thai Police, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Public Health, the National Institute for Emergency Medicine, and the Road Accident Victims Protection Company.

In 2011, the country established a management system to coordinate all stakeholders and activities to galvanize action as part of the Decade of Action of Road Safety. While this was a step in the right direction, the current approach relies too much on the attention of high-level politicians with over-crowded agendas and limited time. The budget management structure within the Ministries also drives each department to prioritize their main functions. When road safety is not the main function, there is a lack of road safety program and corresponding funding.

Second, political leadership and investments need to be guided by a shared vision and robust common framework that has all peoples’ safety at its heart. Sweden, the country pioneering “Vision Zero” policy, has the lowest annual rates of road deaths in the world today. Globally, the Safe System approach is increasingly recognized as a key principle to tackle the issue of traffic crashes and injuries. The Safe System approach puts people at the center and shifts the onus for road safety onto the people who design, build and manage roads, vehicles, and those that provide post-crash care.

Stronger controls of vehicle speeds have a crucial role to play. The current speed limits in Thailand are generally high, particularly in urban areas where the default speed limit for most private cars is 80 km/h. Research shows that the maximum speed limit for urban areas should be 50 km/h.

The key risk factors that contribute to motorcycle-related crashes, injuries and deaths are associated with the road environment, the vehicle, the road user and the standard of available trauma services, all of which constitute the Safe System pillars. Speed, which is at the center of Safe Systems, is highly related to the safety of motorcyclists. Motorcycles can go at very high speeds but lack protection during a collision, making them extremely vulnerable. Given the risk involved, we recommend a speed limit of 40km/h for motorcycles, and 20km/h for lighter two-wheelers. In highways where motorcyclists mix with heavy vehicles and regular traffic going at high speeds, speed management and road protections are even more critical.

Third, road transport policies and plans should prioritize vulnerable groups. According to WHO, road fatalities in Thailand are dominated by powered two-wheelers, which account for three out of every four deaths. Pedestrians are the second largest victim group.

Too often, cities are built for faster and more vehicle traffic. This is against the principles of road safety, while also creating multiple negative effects such as air pollution, noise and, ironically, traffic congestion, which Thailand’s capital Bangkok is known for. We need to prioritize walking, cycling and public transport as a comprehensive solution to both road safety and urban sustainability. Meanwhile, in streets where multiple user groups coexist, pedestrians, cyclists and passengers to public transport should be given the highest priority and their safety at the first place of considerations.

Apart from this, behavior and design measures can be combined to improve safety. Helmet wearing, for example, is an effective measure to increase the survival rate of motorcyclists after crashes happen. Antilock braking systems on motorcycles which help the rider maintain control of the vehicle during an emergency braking situation improve the handling and stability of the motorcycle, thus reducing the rate of severe and fatal crashes. Proper separation of motorcycle traffic, visible and effective pedestrian crossing facilities, and wide enough sidewalks, just to name a few, are good practices of road design to secure the safety for vulnerable people.

The Safe System approach is well suited for countries with tight public budgets as it focuses resources and attention on high risk areas, a practical and cost-efficient approach. According to data analysis conducted by WRI, four out of every five fatal crashes in Bangkok between 2014 and 2017 happened on arterial roads – wide roads with multiple travel lanes designed to facilitate fast traffic. Among those arterial road crashes, 27% happened at intersections. Focusing attention on arterial roads and intersections then can lead to drastic improvements in road safety. Since 2015, WRI has been working in Bangkok to improve dangerous intersections. Many of them have been improved with visible and shorter crossings and motorcycle boxes. These measures now need to be scaled up to other parts of the city and other cities.

Last but not least is the importance of investing in data analysis and diagnosis. You cannot improve what you cannot measure.

Most important is to take bold action now. To save lives on Thailand’s roads, it is time to shift to a Safe System approach. With a strong political will, the right institutional set-up, a comprehensive set of countermeasures, and data systems that can guide effective action, we can finally put an end to the grim ritual of Songkran road deaths in Thailand and safely celebrate the solar New Year.

The original version of this article appeared in the Bangkok Post.

Leo Horn-Phathanothai is Head of WRI’s London Office and Director for Strategy and Partnerships at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Claudia Adriazola-Steil is Deputy Director of Urban Mobility and Director of Health and Road Safety at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Evelyn Murphy is Technical Officer for Unintentional Injury Prevention at the World Health Organization.

Wei Li is a Research Analyst for Sustainable Transport at WRI China Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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