In what has become an annual tradition during the New Year holiday, the Thai authorities once again mounted a massive week-long road safely campaign, erecting countless roadside tents manned by volunteers in yellow-and-teal outfits to raise awareness as Bangkok emptied out.
Just as retail stores in the West rack up sales numbers during the holiday season, so do Thailand’s deadly roads when it comes to claiming lives. The number of people killed during the previous New Year holiday was 463, with 3,892 injured. Not for nothing is the period given the sobriquet the “Seven Deadly Days” (it rhymes nicely in the original Thai phrase but doesn’t sound as good as a straight translation).
Already, I have witnessed my first traffic accident of the season. Just before dawn on Christmas Day, I was in a taxi on a two-lane road driving past a crash scene that involved another taxi and a motorcycle. The sky was dark but I caught a glimpse of a man lying on his side in the middle of the road, motionless.
As we sped away, my driver helpfully chimed in with his reconstruction of the collision: The biker must have been riding dark when the motorbike plowed into the taxi, which had attempted a sudden U-turn – possibly because the driver had spotted someone waving and, seeing no headlights on the other lane, had thought the coast was clear. I was impressed by his unsolicited expert opinion but said nothing.
Thailand had the world’s highest motorcycle deaths and the second-highest overall road deaths per capita according to a 2015 report from the World Health Organization. Fatalities involving pedestrians are fewer and farther between, a stark effect of the country’s rigid road hierarchy where pedestrians are pegged squarely on the bottom rung. Thai pedestrians, knowing all too well their humble standing and diminished rights, tend to be highly alert yet unassertive, compared with, say, Americans.
In a bid to improve traffic flows, pedestrians are now being systematically shunted aside. Entrenched car-first mentality means Thai officials favor elevated footbridges over crosswalks as a way for people to get across, even when the street is narrow and the traffic is light. New footbridges spring up as more and more crosswalks are barricaded off, to the point where many roads are crosswalk-free, making life hard for the elderly, the infirm, and the disabled. Even those who walk just fine but can’t climb stairs have no choice but to be ferried across by car, a superfluous journey that often requires a trip to the nearest U-turn – sometimes more than a kilometer away.
Walking across a pedestrian crossing comes with its own perils. Cars never stop or slow down. Those wanting to cross must wait for a gap in the traffic to materialize and then judge when and how fast to scurry through. The sight of the white stripes makes virtually no impact on drivers’ behavior. Why stick to the crosswalk then? Well, it’s comforting to know that you won’t immediately be blamed – as a jaywalker certainly would – when you are struck.
I grew up in Bangkok, a walkers’ hell if there is one. We didn’t have a car. As a result, I had exceptional footwork. I could weave through traffic as deftly as any Bangkokian.
In 1997, I went to the US to study, and a year later during a semester break came home for a visit. I was strolling through my old neighborhood and was about to cross a street when, for the first time in my life, I froze. Cars whizzed by while I dithered. Only then did I realize that crossing a road in Thailand demands some serious skill, a skill that will atrophy without regular use.
That episode belongs to a distant past, the first and last of its kind, fortunately. At 43, I’m pleased to report that my reflexes are now better than ever.
A few years ago, I visited my sister and her husband who lived in a small town in California. We were walking from a Walmart parking lot to the store when I spotted a car heading toward us from the right. My instinct kicked into full gear. Without thinking, I darted past the car to the other side of the street. When I looked back, the car was barely moving.
It turned out the driver had already been yielding before I even acted. He yelled at me, but I hardly noticed. All I saw was my sister and my brother-in-law standing on the opposite side, shock and embarrassment clearly visible on their faces.