People who live in or even visit Chiang Mai are well aware of the problems regarding traffic. Crossing the street can sometimes seem like a life or death decision and motorbiking across town a game of survival. Thai citizens might be able to keep a cool head in enraging situations, but it does not take away the fact that something has to be done about the current situation and all the dangers that come with it.
In December of last year, Panadda Diskul, Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Interior, and previous governor of Chiang Mai, pledged to cut road fatalities by more than 50 percent by 2020, which in numbers means under 10 deaths per 100,000 people per year (down from 38.1 in 2010 according to the Global Status Report on Road Safety). In the past, the government has launched a number of public campaigns informing the public on road safety, yet they have yielded little to no results. This has made Thailand home to the sixth most deadly roads in the world, killing up to 10,000 people a year. One of the most prominent problems is the lack of safety measures followed by road users, such as wearing helmets and seat belts. According to the Global Status Report on Road Safety, published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2013, three quarters of all fatalities in Thailand are motorcyclists and tuk tuk users.
To get to the bottom of things, I spoke with Police Colonel Sitthichai Thananchai, who has over five years of experience as the Head of Traffic Police in Chiang Mai. Here is his take on Chiang Mai's traffic troubles, as well as some potential solutions.
Citylife: What are the main causes of the traffic problems in Chiang Mai?
Pol. Col. Sitthichai: In my eyes, the major flaws are the drivers and their driving habits, especially those of tourists. It's too easy for tourists to rent motorcycles and cars without having a proper license or knowing the Thai traffic rules. Tourists often complain about the fines they are given but we're just trying to make sure they know the Thai law and abide by it. I hope I make myself very clear when I say that we only accept Thai or international licenses. National licenses from other countries are not accepted under any circumstances. We also have a language barrier with many foreign tourists. Thankfully we recently hired a Thai-Chinese translator to smooth communication. The influx of Chinese tourists hasn't gone unnoticed and common offences are: weaving through streets due to lack of experience driving a motorcycle, stopping in the middle of the street and looking at their map when they're lost and driving on the right side of the street instead of the left. We hope to come to an agreement with the motorcycle renting companies concerning the use of legitimate licenses as well as handing out flyers regarding road rules here in Thailand. Rental companies who rent out their motorcycles to people without the proper paperwork should be punished as well as the tourists. I get the impression that many tourists feel like they have the right to disregard the law because they know their stay is temporary.
Citylife: In December 2013, the government made it a priority to cut road fatalities by 50 percent by 2020. What is the local government doing to reach this goal?
Pol. Col. Sitthichai: To reach our goal by 2020 we are implementing the "5E theory." This consists of engineering, education, enforcement, emergency response and evaluation. We are trying as hard as possible to improve in each of these areas but we have insufficient funds and manpower to reach our goals as swiftly as we'd like to. Education and enforcement are two fields we're putting a lot of effort into because more education means less enforcement. We have 200 traffic policemen for Chiang Mai city's approximately 450,000 road users; as you can imagine, not nearly enough to fully control the situation. The government quota for such an amount of road users is 300 but we just don't have the funds to pay for an extra 100 traffic policemen.
Citylife: The high number of deaths on the roads due to speeding and drunk driving has been a problem for years. What do you see as possible solutions?
Pol. Col. Sitthichai: The laws regarding drunk driving have been revised and harshened in the past 10 years. In the past a fine would only run up to 1,000 baht but now they can be as high as 5,000 or even 10,000 baht and one year in jail, depending on the severity of the violation. The most important and probably one of the most effective newly introduced punishments is community service. This might not seem like an asset at first glance, but you must realise that saving face in Thailand is very important. What this does is make sure that the wealthier vehicle users don't just get away with their crimes by paying a fine. People who are better off often don't feel penalised as they're taking a minor hit in their wallets. Community service sends them [wealthy vehicle users] onto the streets where they can't hide or run. You're seen by everyone.
Citylife: "Year of the Helmet" was a nationwide safety campaign launched in 2010, yet four years later statistics have shown that still only 43 percent of motorcyclists wear helmets. What would you suggest as an effective solution to this problem?
Pol. Col. Sitthichai: The national percentage is indeed very poor and we must all improve. I work very hard to get the numbers up and motorcyclists wearing helmets in my jurisdiction is now between 70 and 80 percent. If I see that other districts are below 50 percent then I set up a meeting to discuss the causes and look for possible solutions. All road users must keep in mind that they're not only putting their lives in danger when they neglect safety measures such as wearing a helmet; their decisions affect others too. For instance, it costs the government money to send out emergency response units. This is something people don't think about enough.
Citylife: Are you happy with the government's decision in 2012 concerning the first time car buyer tax rebate policy: 100,000 baht off the price of a new car for first time buyers? Didn't this cause more traffic on the roads? Do you think that the government may have been more helpful by investing in public transport?
Pol. Col. Sitthichai: Well, there are two sides to the story. On one hand, I'm happy for the consumers and Thai people because everyone had the chance to buy a car. On the other hand, the traffic jams all over the country as well as in our city have worsened. Since the tax rebate policy there has been an increase of over 50,000 cars in Chiang Mai, a massive number that our roads just can't handle. The policy had also led to parents buying their children cars so it's no surprise that the roads are jammed during rush hours. For example, at Montfort College we now see up to 500 students driving cars to class instead of going by motorcycle, which makes that district very busy. Although I must mention that another positive is the fall in the number of motorcycle fatalities.
I would like to see a public transportation system put in place here in Chiang Mai but once again I must point out that we just don't have the funds for such an investment. The tax rebate policy is also a lot bigger than just making it possible for Thai consumers to buy cars; it must be seen in the context of the floods of 2011. The Thai government was worried that car manufacturers would move their factories out of the country so they implemented the policy. A lot of car owners also had their cars damaged or swept away due to the tropical storms and the government saw it as an opportunity to stimulate the economy and encourage the worried car manufacturers.
Citylife: What about the one-way experiment along Nimmanhaemin Road? You tried it, then cancelled it, and now apparently you want to try it again?
Pol. Col. Sitthichai: Once again this is something in the grey zone; there's no right or wrong answer or solution that everyone is happy with. The residents living on Nimmanhaemin Road are generally negative about the one-way idea because they can only travel in one direction to leave as well as come back home. The commuters, on the other hand, are fond of the idea because the roads are much broader and they no longer have to give way to drivers coming from the opposite direction. Cars parking in both directions were also a source of slowing down traffic. Personally I thought it was a good idea but it depends on the public vote and city hall's decision. We also have to keep in mind that with our manpower it is difficult to enforce constantly.
Citylife: What about parking? It seems that if people weren't allowed to park along all roads the traffic flow would be better.
Pol. Col. Sitthichai: Issuing more parking tickets and putting more wheel clamps on cars parking illegally is something we strive to do. Our best weapon is our tow truck but once again to do all this we need more police officers. We're doing as much as possible with our means but we cannot handle the amount of violations we see every day.
Citylife: What are your thoughts about new buildings and malls causing more traffic?
Pol. Col. Sitthichai: During the initial two weeks there is a major rush; everyone is curious and excited about visiting the newest shopping malls. But in the long term it creates a lot of benefits. The traffic is no longer focused on one point or area and spreads out across the city, creating fewer traffic jams.
Citylife: Would you like to add anything else?
Pol. Col. Sitthichai: There should be a public campaign informing the citizens on minor offences and raising awareness on how their actions can affect others. A very common offence that irritates pedestrians is when shopkeepers or restaurant owners put chairs along the sidewalks. Many people assume that the sidewalk in front of their house is their property, but it belongs to the city. I want people to realise that the needs of many outweigh the needs of a few.