That means that almost a third of the population owns a motorcycle, and frankly, many are driven by reckless young men with little concern for their own safety or the safety of others.
The story did not give the source, but the figures do not exactly correspond with statistics from various official bodies, including the Royal Thai Police (RTP).
According to the police, in 2011 there were 68,582 road accidents in Thailand with 20,102 involving motorcycles. Total accidents resulted in 9,205 fatalities (6,858 males and 2,347 females), 4,095 serious injuries (2,627 males and 1,468 females) and 17,822 slight injuries (11,243 males and 6,579 females).
Although deaths and injuries resulting from motorcycle accidents are not specified, most other sources are in agreement with The Guardian’s report – roughly 70%.
Figures for 2010 are even higher, with 83,261 total accidents, including 19,839 involving motorcycles. There were 7,468 fatalities (5,686 males and 1,782 females), 3,544 serious injuries (2,293 males and 1,251 females) and 14,646 slight injuries (9,582 males and 5,064 females). Again, casualties were not broken down as to type of vehicle.
Despite differences between statistics given out by various agencies, it is also safe to assume that Thailand has one of the highest percentages in the world for deaths and serious injuries attributable to the failure to wear crash helmets.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a good quality motorcycle helmet can reduce the risk of death by around 40% and the risk of severe head injury by around 70%.
Three quarters of injuries sustained in road accidents in Thailand are connected in some way with motorcycles, according to the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM). Half of these accidents result in head injuries, and only 14 percent of riders wear the motorcycle safety helmet, according to the report.
What all sources agree on is that the motorcycle-related carnage on Thai roads is increasing, despite an overall drop in traffic deaths, and this is directly related to the failure to wear helmets. The DDPM report gave ten reasons why riders and passengers don’t wear crash helmets:
• I am on a small road (37%)
• I am in a hurry (29%)
• It is uncomfortable and dirty (21%)
• It messes up my hair, clothes (13%)
• I don’t want to carry it along with me (10%)
• The police won’t arrest me (8%)
• I don’t have a helmet (7%)
• The risk is low (6%)
• My passenger doesn’t wear a helmet (4%)
A study from the Accident Research Centre, Asian Institute of Technology says: “Loss of life due to motorcycle crash injuries has been a major problem in Thailand and other developing countries. Head injuries due to motorcycle accidents are the main cause of death or disability among motorcyclists in Thailand. Wearing a helmet is well known as one of the most effective ways to reduce severity of head injuries due to motorcycle crashes. The victims in the pillion position are less likely to use a helmet, and those who ride during the night time, regardless of the seating position, tend not to wear a helmet.”
The study pointed out that the straps of the helmet must be fastened, otherwise there is no protection value.
Thai law is very clear on the obligation of riders and passengers to wear crash helmets. The Land and Traffic Act B.E. 2522 (1979), Section 122 stipulates: “The rider and the passenger of a motorcycle shall wear a motorcycle helmet. The provision under this Section is not for monks, novices, ascetics, persons of other religions which require a turban, or any other person under Ministerial Regulation.” The penalty is a fine not exceeding 500 baht for both riders and passengers, with the rider responsible.
Most motorcyclists interviewed said the fine for not wearing a helmet is usually 200 baht, but instead of paying at the local police station, they claim they give the policeman 100 baht on the spot. They agreed that even the maximum fine of 500 baht is hardly a deterrent. “It should be 10 times as much and then everyone would wear a crash helmet and live longer,” reckoned one motorcycle taxi driver.
Most bikers also said the possible suspension of their license doesn’t worry them because they would ride without it.
Several brands of crash helmets, designed for adults and children, are sold at shopping centers, supermarkets and other retail spots, and they are quite affordable, ranging from about 149 baht up to 1,290 baht in one large international supermarket chain. In one small store the price ranged from 160 to 450 baht, and in some shops it is possible to buy a helmet for as little as 80 baht.
The price of an imported BMW helmet is between 21,000 and 55,000 baht, according to the salesman from an authorized dealer in Bangkok. How well made and therefore how much protection a helmet gives in an accident is very hard to determine just by looking at it.
Every Thai-made and imported helmet should have the Thai Industrial Standard sticker: TIS 369-2539.
Over the years there has been a steady procession of campaigns urging the use of crash helmets, but many people still ignore the law. This is due first to a lack of discipline on the part of motorcyclists and passengers, and compounded by inconsistent or nonexistent enforcement on the part of police. Interviews with a large number of drivers and passengers in Bangkok and the provinces led to the inevitable conclusion that most of them wear crash helmets only to avoid being stopped by police and having to pay a fine at the station or a bribe on the spot, rather than to protect themselves from head injury. In short, helmets are looked at as at best a decoration and worst as an attack on their freedom.
Enforcement in Bangkok is generally much better than in the provinces, where, not coincidentally, most accidents causing fatalities and/or serious injuries occur, especially during the Thai New Year (Songkran) celebrations in April.
But the law is nonetheless widely flaunted in Bangkok as well. It’s not unusual, for instance, to see two, three or even four small passengers on one motorcycle, with none wearing a helmet. This is a common sight near schools, and it should be an easy matter for police to monitor them for violations. Moreover, as confirmed by a survey conducted by The BigChilli, the great majority of motorcycle taxi passengers do not wear helmets, even though many riders carry a spare.
At a checkpoint on the busy Rimthang-Rodfai Road observed on the afternoons of October 27 and November 8, police were seen stopping mainly motorcycles, though not necessarily those riders and passengers without helmets. The police were apparently looking for illicit drugs. Asked why they weren’t issuing tickets to offenders, one officer replied: “We are not traffic police.” This suggests that his particular police branch does not have jurisdiction in traffic cases; rather, it is entirely the responsibility of the traffic police, and no one else.
At checkpoints set up in Pathum Thani province, police were seen confiscating driving licenses and issuing tickets for all kinds of traffic offences, including a failure to wear a crash helmet.
A BigChilli team watched helmet habits at the intersection of Asoke and Sukhumvit roads in Bangkok on November 2. In a short time 1,000 riders and 1,000 passengers of personal motorcycles were observed. Out of these, 843 riders wore helmets but only 181 passengers did so. Out of 1,000 motorcycle taxis with passengers, 860 riders wore helmets; a mere 99 passengers did likewise.
On the same day at Wilai intersection in Pathum Thani city, a survey of 1,000 personal motorcycles showed 525 riders and 98 passengers wearing helmets; in the case of motorcycle taxis, it was 727 and 42 respectively.
On November 5 at Rimthang-Rodfai Road in Bangkok’s Klong Toey area, 565 riders out of 1,000 wore helmets, but only 99 out of 1,000 passengers followed suit. In Nakhon Sawan city, about 220 kilometers north of Bangkok, out of 500 private motorcyclists, 350 riders wore helmets, with a relatively high 150 passengers out of 500 doing so. But in rural Payuhakiri District in Nakhon Sawan province, not a single person was seen wearing a helmet! This seems to reflect the situation in almost all rural areas of Thailand.
A nationwide survey conducted by the Thai Roads Foundation revealed that in 2010 53% of riders and 19% of passengers of motorized two-wheeled vehicles wore helmets; the foundation’s figures for 2011 were 55% and 25%.
By far the majority of thousands of motorcycle taxis in Bangkok and major cities comply with the law and wear helmets; many carry one for passengers. Usually it is neither requested nor offered, however. When offered, most passengers decline. Women commonly cite hygiene concerns or say they don’t want to mess their hair.
“Many serious head injuries and deaths are caused because riders and passengers don’t wear crash helmets or other protective gear,” said Police Colonel Surasak Khunnarong, deputy superintendant of the Pathum Thai provincial police, in charge of traffic. “Wearing a helmet is no guarantee you won’t get your skull crushed and die, but it is a necessary protection to minimize head injury,” said the officer, who is supervises 14 police stations in the province.
Acquiring a motorbike in Thailand is amazingly easy. “They’re so cheap nowadays,” said Colonel Surasak. “You can buy a brand new motorcycle in many shops with no down payment or just a small deposit.”
Tellingly, perhaps, the legal age of ownership for a bike under 100cc is now only 15 years old.
“Many youngsters don’t possess a driving license and don’t know or don’t care about traffic laws. They may drink or be on drugs while riding, endangering themselves and also other motorists and pedestrians. Most of them don’t like to wear crash helmets, saying that they feel uncomfortable.
“We try to educate people during various activities to urge them to wear crash helmets, to save their lives and the lives of others. While driving across the province, you can see billboards on major roads and at intersections urging people to wear crash helmets, but the number of accidents involving motorcycles in Pathum Thani province is increasing and so are the fatalities and injuries,” said Colonel Surasak.
According to Pathum Thani police records, from January 2012 to October 2012, there were 721 accidents in the province, with 448, or 62%, involving motorcycles. Of these, 124 were fatalities and 397 injuries. However, as elsewhere, Pathum Thani police do not keep separate statistics for fatalities involving motorcycles, but Colonel Surasak agrees that these probably represent about 70% of total deaths.
Many helmet campaigns have been organized in Thailand by both by the government and the private sector. For example, on December 14, 2010 the Public Health Ministry declared compulsory helmet-wearing zones. The move was part of the Decade of Action for Road Safety Campaign – from 2011 to 2020 – which is being promoted in around 150 countries around the world.
The ministry has set a target to reduce the injury and death rate from road accidents by 50% by 2020. Encouraging motorcycle riders and pillion passengers to wear crash helmets is considered the most important action to reduce the casualty rate.
Phuket province has organized a 100% helmet compliance campaign. According to the Phuket Provincial Police Commander Major General Choti Chavaviwat, about 15 people die and 33 to 35 are injured each day in road accidents in the province, most of these while riding motorcycles without wearing a crash helmet. Foreign tourists comprise a large portion of the fatalities in Phuket as well as in other popular destinations lime Koh Samui and Pattaya.
In the private sector, the Office of Insurance Commission (OIC) has meanwhile launched a campaign to encourage pillion riders to wear crash helmets in order to reduce injuries and death from motorcycle accidents. According to their website, the OIC has set a target to increase the number of people wearing helmets by 60 percent this year.
“This year, the campaign is placing an emphasis on scooter passengers, both on personal motorcycles and on motorcycle taxis. A recent survey has found that 54% of motorcycle pillion riders in Bangkok wear a helmet, while only 19-24% of other passengers in other provinces do the same.”
A number of foreign embassies in Bangkok issue warnings on their websites to their nationals, like this one from the British embassy: “With motorcycles so widely used in Thailand the majority of road traffic accidents involve motorcycles, contributing to around 70% of all road deaths. If you are riding a motorcycle in Thailand take extra care. According to Thai law, safety helmets must be worn.”
The US embassy has this warning for their citizens posted on its website: “Traffic accidents are common in Thailand, and those involving motorcycles can be particularly deadly. The Embassy strongly recommends Embassy staff and family members not to use motorcycles (especially motorcycle taxis), mopeds, and tuk-tuks in Bangkok, and we advise you to follow this recommendation as well. Use of motorcycle helmets is mandatory, but this law is seldom enforced."
AMERICAN Brian Abrahamson is director of foreign business development for Sumet Cycle Company in Nonthaburi. The company is an authorized Honda dealership and among other services sells motorcycle accessories, including crash helmets. Brian, an avid motorcyclist with a good knowledge about bikes, has been with the company for two years.
“Cheap helmets selling for 200 or 300 baht are probably not very good quality. Whether they can protect the rider in a crash depends on the circumstances – if it’s at low speed, possibly. Even a cheap helmet is better than nothing. Then again, you could have the best helmet on but if you are going fast enough there’s no guarantee that it is going to protect you. But generally cheaper helmets are made from cheaper plastic,” Brian said.
“If you take an expensive helmet and drop it on the ground, it won’t bounce. The cheaper ones bounce, so they aren’t absorbing the impact.
“Generally, Thais don’t like to wear helmets, especially the young kids who maybe think it’s not cool. A lot of girls don’t want to mess up their hair or get sweaty. And a lot of older people, if they’re just riding in the Soi to the 7- Eleven, then they don’t think it’s needed.
“But I would say to every motorcycle rider and passenger – and you hear this all the time – always wear a helmet even it is only a short ride. Our heads are very delicate. You can die just falling from the bicycle.”
Brian confirmed that every crash helmet sold in Thailand – even the cheapest ones – must have the Thai Industrial Standard (TIS) sticker. This applies to imported helmets as well. “I have heard that TIS hasn’t upgraded their standards for helmets for many years, so Thai helmets are probably lagging behind standards around the world,” Brian said.
“Most of the helmets sold in Thailand are locally made. There are probably less than 10 brands made in Thailand, with two or three of good quality, like Bilmola. We are the authorized dealer for this brand.
“You can get a good Thai-made helmet for upwards of 2,000 baht. Very good quality imports are quite expensive and the average Thai doesn’t have 20 or 30 thousand baht to spend on a helmet, which is why locally made brands such as Bilmola and Rider are good alternatives.
“Riders should also wear other safety gear, like a padded jacket with good back protector and pads on the shoulders, a good pair of riding boots and especially gloves. Also, always fasten the chinstrap because if you don’t the helmet will pop right off your head when you fall,” said Brian. He stressed that with the increasing popularity in Thailand of powerful bikes there should be more emphasis on safety.
Witnessing accidents firsthand
DURING the 12 years I have lived in Pathum Thani, I have come across the scenes of many accidents involving motorcycles, some quite horrific. The following are two of the
latest incidents. All are hauntingly similar.
The first accident occurred at around 11.30am on October 11. When I drove past soon afterward I saw two men, one wearing a purple motorcycle taxi vest, lying close to each other in a pool of blood in the middle of Thanon Pathum Krungthep (near Wilai intersection). Both had suffered head injuries which were the cause of death, as determined by a doctor on the scene. Neither was wearing a crash helmet.
Four rescue vehicles, an ambulance and two police cars were at the scene, as well as many onlookers, including a number of motorcycle taxi riders standing quietly on the footpath. Soon a woman arrived, on a motorcycle, and after taking a look at the bodies she cried uncontrollably. A damaged motorcycle was lying near the footpath about 50 meters from the two bodies and a pickup truck with a damaged left side was parked about 100 meters down the road.
Rescue workers and police directed traffic and questioned the driver of the pickup and witnesses. As the rescuers wrapped the bodies in the white sheets and placed them in one of their vehicles, police tried to calm down the visibly distressed pickup driver, who apparently wasn’t at fault. The accident happened about 200 meters from several signboards urging motorcyclists to wear crash helmets. One large sign said: “100% Safety Helmet Wearing Campaign…”
Passing the scene of the accident an hour later, the white painted outline from where the bodies had lain was still visible. Everything else had been cleaned up.
The second accident occurred on the same road at 2pm on October 28. A middle-aged man was lying unconscious with his motorcycle nearby. He had hit a cart loaded with food. The female seller wasn’t hurt. Police were at the scene. The rider, who wasn’t wearing a helmet, suffered head injuries and was quickly taken to a nearby hospital. His injuries were apparently not life threatening as he was semi-conscious. He is one of the lucky ones.
WITH some 20 million motorcycles now plying Thailand’s roads and highways, a huge market exists for crash helmets – especially cheap varieties to suit the pocket of the vast majority of low-income motorcyclists here. This went through the mind of a Thailand-based foreign entrepreneur, who in 2008 attempted to import inexpensive crash helmets from China. His efforts were all in vain, as he explains here on condition of anonymity.
“A large supermarket chain with stores throughout Thailand asked my company in 2008 to bring good quality motorcycle crash helmets to Thailand because they are restricted to two or three suppliers in Thailand. I contacted our subsidiary in the People’s Republic of China asking them to find suppliers there.
“I visited over 20 factories in China where they tested the helmets for us and got pricing. I have been riding competition bikes since I was 15 years old, so I have some experience in determining whether helmets are of good quality, and I was impressed by what I saw in China. Considering that after import duties the helmets would be still competitively priced compared to Thai-made helmets,
I thought there was a huge opportunity here in Thailand.
“I ordered a large number of samples and put them in front of the buyers who were impressed with the quality and price and asked if I could get TISI (Thai Industrial Standard Institute) approval.
“I thought that this wouldn’t be a problem. I was wrong. At the TISI they just looked at the helmets and without any testing said: ‘Those helmets made in China won’t pass.’ I asked them to explain why, and after getting their answers I went to one big chain supermarket, took photos of helmets sold there with the Thai Industrial Standard (TIS) stickers and presented them to the TISI, pointing out some faults they told us our helmets made in China allegedly had. They replied: ‘We will have a word with the factories here.’ In other words, the answer is still no.
“Some factories I visited in China were exporting crash helmets to the United States and EU countries and they were able to satisfy their high standards, yet they weren’t good enough for Thailand. Some of the manufacturers in China had actually tried to bring helmets to Thailand before and failed.
“A friend of mine said, ‘What you are doing is interfering with somebody else’s livelihood. Why would you want to make your life very unpleasant?’ I decided to take his advice and give up on importing crash helmets."