Hands up if you've ridden a motorbike in Thailand. Most foreigners have; whether you straddled a big boy to Pai when you first arrived as a backpacker, rented a Honda Dream by the month during your first year of living here or own one straight out. It's cheap, you are generally not even asked for your driver's licence and you can learn how to drive in five minutes...enough to think you know how, anyway. But what risks do foreigners really take when they drive a motorbike in Chiang Mai? From small fines to deadly accidents, here's an overview of what you should be aware of if you decide to hit the road on two motored wheels.
Welcome to the Jungle
I just recently arrived in Chiang Mai, and the city's streets have definitely caught my attention. Dense traffic, reckless drivers, a seemingly nonexistent highway code and an impressive number of motorbikes. Then again, I am from Switzerland. The locals seem to know what it's all about, as do some long-term expats, but it's always a laugh to see newbies crawling along on the shoulder, wide-eyed and terrified. Being one of them, I know.
Sure, traffic lights and roundabouts are universal and not hard to decipher, but I have found other aspects of driving here quite confusing. The good news is that most drivers are calm and polite, a nice change from some countries where road disagreements can degenerate into ugly brawls. And while we are not all fans of driving on the left hand side, well, it is what it is. I learned the hard way that when I am flashed by a car, it doesn't mean 'go ahead' like it does in Europe; it means 'don't you dare!' Larger, more determined vehicles also appear to have the perpetual right of way, like some vehicular version of survival of the fittest, or speediest, or biggest road rule. These informal rules, coupled with heavy traffic and a multitude of different vehicles - tuk tuk, songteaw, busses, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, samlor - lead to serious potential for chaos.
Laws of the Land
In spite of these apparent unwritten rules of the road, I have learned that there is indeed an official highway code - who would have thought! It's called the Land Traffic Act B.E. 2522 of 1979, and it is as complete as any western law. The head of Chiang Mai traffic police, Colonel Sitthichai Thananchai, assured me that it's "more strictly enforced than before," and applied evenly to locals and foreigners. To support his position, he proudly showed me a big sign where all fines for highway code breaches were listed.
It just takes a glance at the road to find this claim hard to believe. Despite the visible presence of the men in tight-brown, most motorbikes are manned by helmetless drivers; cars and bikes are constantly seen going against the traffic; and who hasn't turned a head at a family of five zooming by on a Kawasaki? The fines are relatively low, but still crippling for most if received on a regular basis. So, I decided to go straight to the source and asked a few street cops about their enforcement habits. I was told that most of them don't systematically fine offenders and if they happen to see one, they usually just issue a warning. Only rarely will they chase after a naughty law breaker. The many locals I have talked to confirm this, saying that outside planned special ops, when groups of traffic police set up checkpoints and patrols, there is no real day-to-day enforcement. For the most part, drivers are left to their own devices.
But chances are - with increased weekend patrols, late-night sting ops and checkpoints being applied - you will be stopped at some point. So what can you expect? Once again, Colonel Sitthichai is categorical: anybody caught for a highway code breach has to forfeit his driving license, and can't get it back before paying a fine at the police station or by post. When I asked locals for confirmation, they all smiled and explained to me that yes, while that is one option, corruption is still common and the procedure is not always as formal as the head of traffic police claims.
Crime and Punishment
While a forgotten helmet or license can often be swept away with a few hundred baht or a flutter of the eyelashes, some more serious breaches are no longer being treated in such a flippant manner, especially drunk driving, previously a national pastime. And for good reason, according to Tulip Mahawong, a representative of the Chiang Mai Rescue Team whose job is to scrape up the dead and the injured from our city streets. Drunk motorbike drivers are the cause of over 80% of road accidents in the city, he told me. One resident I spoke to recalled that ten years ago, the whole of Chiang Mai had only one breathalyser kit. How things have changed!
Since October 2012, nightly checkpoints controlled by traffic and regular police have visibly multiplied around town, and a motorbike driver returning home after a drunken night out is more likely to be arrested. The procedure is simple: if the driver's blood-alcohol level is more than the legal limit of 0.05% (around three cans of beers or two glasses of whiskey, according to Colonel Sitthichai), he goes directly to jail for the night (do not pass go, do not collect - or pay - 200 baht). The offender will most likely find themselves in court the next day, where the sentences can vary between 5,000 to 20,000 baht, followed by a session with an assigned social worker. Prison sentences are possible for repeat offenders. Drunk driving is a serious problem in Chiang Mai, said Tulip, and even sober drivers should stay alert and drive carefully at night.
One thing is for sure, accidents are common, especially in touristy areas. A shopkeeper in the Old City told me that no less than three accidents a week occurred in front of his store before the police finally set up a permanent checkpoint there. According to Citylife's lawyer, Mr. Big, when accidents happen and no one is seriously hurt, negotiations transpire immediately between parties, often before the police even arrive. If it is obvious which party is at fault, matters can be settled quickly and insurance agents contacted. But, he said, while the law does require every motorbike to be covered by insurance, the lowest class of insurance doesn't even cover material damage, only (rather pessimistically) funeral costs or death and disability compensation. As a result, post-accident negotiations can often get quite heated.
When Tragedy Strikes
Sadly, if you hit someone and the worst happens, according to Mr. Big, basic insurance will normally only cover between 50,000 to 100,000 baht for death or disability. As for the law, the colonel told me that the driver at fault would end up in court and most likely face jail time. Again, locals I spoke to said money can always pave the path out of jail. The richer you are, or are perceived to be, the more you will be expected to pay. Mr. Big agreed and said that if the relatives of the deceased are satisfied with the compensation, then jail time can most likely be avoided.
But where there are the guilty, there are of course the victims. According to The Guardian newspaper, Thailand is the deadliest country in the world for motorbike drivers, with more than 11,000 deaths every year. And Chiang Mai has the distinction of being the third most dangerous Thai city in terms of road accidents. Last December alone, 22 people died from motorbike accidents (statistics provided by the National Statistical Office of Thailand). These figures are even more alarming when you consider the fact that the numbers are only included in the statistics if the person dies directly on the spot; deaths on the way to or inside hospitals are not included.
You can imagine the real numbers, but maybe it's best not to. Most people I have spoken with have known at least one person who has died from a motorbike accident in Chiang Mai, and many have withessed tragedy on the city's roads. The fact that foreigners are not used to the Thai way of driving (and are often motorbike virgins) puts them in an even more dangerous position.
The Open Road
In spite of these doom and gloom facts, there is something wonderful about driving around Chiang Mai on a motorbike. It's surprisingly easy to get one and to get around on one, and with hair flying in the warm wind, pretty girls to flirt with at traffic lights and quick illegal u-turns to be made for a suddenly-spotted new bar or restaurant, it's definitely a fun way to explore the city.
Coming from Switzerland, where getting a motorbike license is even more difficult than finding a non-pirated DVD in the Night Bazaar, I must admit I was pretty relieved to get away from an almost despotic highway code and to be able to drive around like a Hell's Angel wannabe. It's easier to navigate the traffic-clogged streets on a motorbike than it is on a car, and it's less sweaty than riding a bicycle. To not rely on tuk tuk, to be able to explore remote parts of the province and, most importantly, to feel an integral part of the city's energy are all elements that make motorbike driving simply irresistible. The key is not to get careless, to always wear a helmet (I recommend the ones with full face and jaw protection), and to avoid the false feelings of invincibility that can quickly turn a joy ride into a nightmare.
On that happy note, have fun and stay safe!