Commuting in Thailand brought me closer to God.
I worked in Thailand as an English teacher in the South. Every time I drove my motorbike, I thanked the universe for my ability to hear, my ability to see, my ability to quickly react. I woke up every morning praying for safety. I thanked the universe every night for my extremities still attached. When I told my parents I bought a motorbike, they (rightfully) freaked out.
Driving in Thailand is a risky business. Thailand has the second highest traffic fatality rate in the world. The rate of death by motor accidents in Thailand is more than double the global rate. According to this article, 74% of the deaths on the road involved motorbikes. The majority of fatalities are teenagers on motorbikes. And these are only statistics taken from the police reports of people that died on the scene. Many more die later in the hospital from complications caused by their accident.
Thankfully, I survived driving in Thailand without an accident. My friends and colleagues were not so lucky. All the foreign teachers I met had accidents. Most fell and got scratched up, some were irresponsibly driving while drunk, one friend broke her foot, another friend lost his finger, two tourists in the community fell into comas, and one tourist in the community lost her life. And these are only the foreigners I know of during my ten months living in Southern Thailand.
Thailand has excellent paved roads with wide shoulders. The infrastructure is quite developed compared to other Southeast Asian countries.
So what makes it so dangerous?
1.) Traffic patterns
There are simply no rules in Thailand. There are, but they are rarely enforced. People drive on the opposite side of the road, drive without licenses, drive while intoxicated, drive with 5 people on a motorbike, drive with large cargos, skip red lights, etc. I have seen prepubescent children driving a motorbike with 3 of their younger siblings/friends (I saw this at least once per week). On the road, you will find small scooters, big motorcycles, pedal bicycles, older vehicles, pick up trucks, sedans, SUVs, tuk tuks, songthaews, and lots of people. All of these factors make traffic in Thailand very different. In the States, you will never see a tuk tuk stop suddenly and move to the other side of the lane in order to pick up a passenger. In Thailand, you will see this happen every single day.
Take some time to get used to the flow of traffic.
If you are a foreigner driving in Thailand, DO NOT assume that you can apply the same rules as you do at home. This is a common mistake of foreigners that may cause an accident. Observe and follow traffic patterns.
- Don’t follow tuk-tuks (and especially stay away from their left side)
- Don’t trust other drivers to use their signals or drive straight (everyone weaves through traffic like they are on fire)
- Traffic does not flow, it is “stop and go” (always be prepared to stop or slow down suddenly)
- Pick up trucks drive like they are motorbikes (they weave through traffic as if they are only 2 feet wide)
- Don’t stay too far to the left (Drivers that merge from a smaller street often do not look)
- The biggest vehicle has the right of way (Motorbikes must slow down and move over)
2.) Driver fault
In Thailand, you don’t need a license to buy a motorbike or pick up truck. You just need money to pay for it. Many drivers are inexperienced or ill-trained.
Common violations you will see every day:
- Driving on the wrong side of the road, this will happen on one way streets as well
- Not stopping for red lights
- Not putting on signals/indicators
- Not looking before merging or switching lanes
- Stopping suddenly
- Making U turns in the middle of the road
- Driving while drunk
- Driving with 5 passengers and pets and cargo
How do you protect yourself from these violations?
Always expect the worst from every one on the road, even pedestrians. Not to the point of being paranoid, but with caution. If someone is slowing down for no reason, you slow down too. Scan the roads, look in your mirror, keep your distance, and drive within your ability. Drivers on the road are often unpredictable.
3.) No helmet use
76% of all fatalities from motorbike accidents are due to head injuries. Many people on motorbikes do not use helmets, and if they do, they are not wearing proper helmets. Invest in a proper helmet that fit you. If you are renting, most rental stores will have better quality helmets for a higher price. Take it.
“Protect your head, don’t end up dead.” -billboard in Jamaica
4.) Road conditions
Sometimes, it will rain heavily and create large puddles. Sometimes, there will be sand on the road, or construction debris. There will be fallen branches, potholes, anything and everything.
You can avoid accidents by scanning the roads, slowing down, and moving over with caution.
The island of Koh Phangan is the most dangerous in the world in regards to road fatalities. The Koh Phangan Rescue Team has so many unclaimed dead bodies of young tourists, they don’t know what to do with them. This factor increases the already high fatality statistic. Much of this is due to inexperienced drivers, intoxicated drivers, and/or road conditions. Koh Phangan is very popular among young people for its full moon parties. The roads are also very steep, hilly, and sandy.
Most tourists will hand over their passports to a rental company and drive away on a motorbike with no practice and too much confidence.
You need confidence to ride, yes. You can’t hesitate while on the road, that causes accidents.
However, spend some time to feel comfortable on the bike. Check the brakes, check the lights, practice shifting gears. Drive once around the block and make sure you know how to stop and how to turn comfortably.
If you are a tourist staying in Thailand for only a short time, I would suggest paying for a taxi or tuk-tuk. Tourists rent motorbikes for the independence, convenience, and bargain. It is much cheaper to pay 200 THB to rent a motorbike for the day rather than 200THB each ride on a tuk-tuk. However, it doesnt have to be that expensive or inconvenient. Share a ride with other tourists. Get the taxi’s number so you can call them to pick you up at your convenience. Ask the hotel to arrange a driver for you. Get a phrasebook and learn numbers so you can bargain. Tuk tuk drivers often charge 10 times the local price to foreigners simply because they can. If you bargain with them in Thai, they are less likely to rip you off.
I’ve heard people say that getting into a motorbike accident in Thailand is a “right of passage” and “unavoidable.”
While some accidents are in fact unavoidable, I do believe some are preventable if you take the necessary precautions. After all, these precautions may protect your face, limbs, or your life.
***This post was mostly from my observations. Please do your own research about motorcycle safety from credible sources. Please exercise caution and be safe. ***
***All photos were taken by Kem Ramirez and used with permission.***
***If you are looking for a motorbike rental company in Surat Thani with safe and legal bikes, I highly recommend XRentals. They are honest and will give you driving lessons and a better helmet if you ask for it.***