By Maxmilian Wechsler
BANGKOK’S traffic congestion gets worse by the day – and there’s no doubt the government’s first-time car buyer scheme launched in late 2011 to boost auto sales after floods had decimated production is largely to blame.
Under the program, first-time buyers receive a tax rebate of up to 100,000 baht for passenger vehicles and pick-up trucks with small engines. The buyers must maintain ownership for at least five years.
It’s unashamedly a populist move that’s resulted in a buying frenzy with most car brands reporting record sales. Insurance companies and repair shops are making money as well. The economic boost, along with the added traffic pressures, extend to five provinces adjacent to Bangkok – Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Nakhon Pathom, Samut Prakan and Samut Sakhon.
This is also the prediction of one traffic police sergeant who agreed to talk with the BigChilli on condition of anonymity about the effect of the scheme on traffic.
The policeman, who has been attached for almost 10 years to a central Bangkok station, is married and has a young child. He is paid a salary of about 10,000 baht a month plus allowances, and receives a percentage of the fines for tickets he issues to offenders. His family lives behind his station and they are entitled to free medical care.
“With so many cars on the road, traffic policemen like me are powerless to do much to make it better,” said the officer. “More vehicles on the roads directly relate to the increasing accident rate. There are more multi-vehicle crashes, mainly on expressways, which might involve three, four, five or even more cars.
“People drive so close to the car in front of them that if it suddenly brakes for any reason they don’t have time to stop, and this starts a chain reaction. And of course any accident, especially one involving several vehicles, results in a traffic stoppage. It takes a long time to remove the vehicles and debris, especially on expressways.”
As he said this I was nodding my head in agreement, as I am frequently and increasingly delayed by multi-vehicle accidents on my daily drive from Pathum Thani to Bangkok. I try to keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front of me, but it seems that many drivers regard this as an opportunity to swerve into the space. It’s very annoying – and dangerous.
The officer said the first-time car buyer program is just one of many factors making driving in the Bangkok metropolitan area more nerve-wracking and more dangerous. Bad driving habits such as tailgating are also to blame for accidents, as are inexperienced drivers and undisciplined drivers who willfully break the laws.
He believes the traffic jams themselves contribute to lawlessness, as they make people impatient and desperate to get where they’re going. Bad roads and a shortage of underpasses, bypasses, bridges and tunnels are also partly to blame, and it all gets worse during the rainy season when roads are often flooded.
Another big problem is people driving too slow in the fast lanes, and these are often new inexperienced drivers who have taken advantage of the first-time buyer program. Drivers talking on mobiles, and especially texting (breaking the law in both cases), are especially dangerous.
The officer admitted that some of his colleagues contribute to the chaos on the roads by acting without coordination with their fellow policemen, for example, in stopping the flow of traffic for various checks and operating traffic lights inefficiently, letting the lights stay red too long at certain intersections.
“Some years ago we were informed that a very expensive computerized system to control the traffic flow in Bangkok had been purchased and installed at many intersections to ensure smooth traffic flow. But traffic policemen are still pressing the switch button manually at almost every intersection. I don’t know what happened to the computerized system,” the sergeant said.
“I would characterize the current traffic situation in the Bangkok metropolitan area as very bad. There are already too many cars on the road and they are increasing daily. The road system is inadequate and construction projects are going at a slow pace. Add to this the gridlock from construction related to extensions of the city’s rail systems. In my opinion these projects are going very slowly.
“There is a need for more overpasses, bridges and tunnels, but in some cases this just isn’t feasible because of the obstructions it would create. There just aren’t any alternate routes to accommodate the vehicles. There was a suggestion many years ago to construct a roadway above Asoke Road. Maybe this would have been possible before, but it is now impossible as it would paralyze traffic in the centre of Bangkok,” the policeman said.
“There should be overpasses or tunnels constructed for the trains or vehicles to avoid this situation. In fact, this should have been done decades ago. If we do it now it will result in more big disruptions for long periods of time.”
Nevertheless, new construction is necessary and it will inevitably result in more bottlenecks on some roads. The officer said that the most congested parts of the city are around Pratunam, Sathorn and Chinatown.
Many traffic cops deserve great sympathy because they stand in the middle of busy intersections while so many motorists whizz by, ignoring them. “To be a traffic policeman is a hard and dangerous job,” said the sergeant. “You have to stand for hours at intersections during morning or evening rush hours when the traffic is the most congested. The face mask can’t really protect you from inhaling fumes.
“Many traffic policemen suffer from lung cancer and respiratory problems. You also have to worry about being hit by a car or motorcycle.
“Some motorists don’t obey my signals and just hurry by. Sometimes they even shout abuse at me. But others are more respectful and might honk and wave in a show of appreciation for my work.”
The policeman talked about the administrative structure of the traffic police, explaining that those attached to the Traffic Police Division (TPD) under the Metropolitan Police Bureau wear white helmets with an orange band.
“Traffic police attached to 88 district police stations throughout the metropolitan area wear white helmets with a red band. The police patrolling the expressways are under the TPD. They are assisted by officers in blue uniforms and white helmets with a blue band. They have no authority to arrest anyone or issue a ticket. They can only control the traffic,” the sergeant said.
“Concerning checkpoints, there are two kinds: One is for crime control, operated by regular police searching for weapons or drugs. The second type is manned by the traffic police checking for traffic and vehicle violations, for example, whether the vehicle has proper registration, the driver has a valid driving license, or a motorcycle rider is wearing a helmet.
“On the expressway, we can set up checkpoints only at toll gates,” he added. “It would be too dangerous on the highway and cause long traffic jams.
“The roads in the capital are generally in a very poor state, especially side streets,’’ said the policeman. “During recent years, very few repairs have been made in comparison to the past. The city roads are under the BMA. They are responsible for road repairs, traffic signs and traffic lights.”
Roads in the provinces are under the jurisdiction of the Highway Department. A few months before the election of the new Bangkok governor, it was noticeable that they finally started to repair some major Bangkok streets.
“The police can request that the BMA make road repairs, for example, when there’s a crack in the road that is a traffic hazard. I will inform my superior and it usually gets fixed within a few days. Sometimes motorists who have influence may contact the BMA themselves and have them take action immediately.”
When asked where the money from fines goes, the officer said this is somewhat complicated as it depends on the offence and whether it falls under the Land Traffic, Motor Vehicle or Land Transportation acts. A percentage of the fine paid by the offenders will go to the BMA or the Ministry of Finance, as well as to the police. The maximum amount going to the police is 95 percent.
“As for parking violations, according to Land Traffic Act B.E. 2522 (1979), 50 percent will go to the BMA, five percent to Ministry of Finance and 45 percent to the policeman who issues the ticket. This is the official policy. However, in reality the chief of the police station will collect all of it and divide it among officers at the station, with some also going to his superior officers.
“As for traffic offences falling under the Motor Vehicle Act B.E. 2522 (1979), for example if the car is not registered, has no license plate or the driver doesn’t possess a driving license, the Finance Ministry gets five percent and the police get the rest. That’s why the police prefer to issue tickets for these offences,” the sergeant explained.
Recent daily activities of the traffic police in Bangkok have included a major focus on ‘dek wen’ (boy motorcycle racers) who have competitions on weekend nights, usually outside the city but also on Kallaprapruk Road in Bangkok.
As for the passenger minivans licensed by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), which are notorious for breaking traffic laws and driving dangerously, the policeman said that they often block traffic by stopping at inappropriate places to let passengers disembark or wait a long time for passengers to board. However, they are rarely stopped for violations of the law.
“No one has ordered us to go easy on them, but in practical terms, instead of arguing with them and further aggravating the traffic situation, we let them go. We will tell them to move on. That’s all. We prefer to stop and give tickets to company truck drivers because they will not argue with us.
“I won’t give a ticket to a public servant, even if it is just a teacher, because we all work for the government,” the policeman added. “For others, I have no mercy.”
He denied that there is any policy to allow traffic on some major roads to flow more smoothly than on others, but said this may be the intention of the particular policeman in charge of changing the traffic lights.
“Also, we don’t favor luxury cars like Porsche, Mercedes-Benz or others and aren’t instructed by our superior officers to do so. On the contrary, I will always stop them if they violate the law, partly to show the drivers they are not above the law. I can’t speak for all traffic policemen, but neither I nor my colleagues from my station show any partiality to drivers of luxury cars.”
Asked if it is legal for policeman to hide behind a tree or building and watch for motorists committing a traffic offence, the sergeant said: “This is perfectly legal. It may look foolish but it’s effective because it serves as a warning for motorists that they may be observed at any time. We like to keep an element of surprise.
“On the other hand, when people see a police checkpoint in front of them, then they will hurriedly try to comply with the law − for instance, put on a motorcycle helmet.”
The officer said that when police make random checks for drunk drivers it is important that the filters for the breathalyzers are changed after every test, which some officers do not do, out of laziness. If the filters aren’t changed it leads to contamination of the equipment and can result in false readings. This is very unfair to the driver, who is taken to the police station. Usually there is no second test given there.
As for the widespread allegations that Bangkok traffic police take bribes from motorists who wish to avoid getting a ticket, the sergeant admitted that some officers are guilty. He said that policemen who collect bribes will usually keep the money for themselves and not share with their superiors.
“Often when I stop a vehicle, the driver will offer me a bribe, just to get on the way and save a trip to the police station. But I always issue a ticket when I spot an offence.
“I don’t think that I am corrupt, but sometimes there is pressure from my superiors to generate some funds,” he added. “I don’t like to talk too much on this subject. My wife is also working and we have free rent. We can get by all right. Of course, we can’t afford to buy luxury items, but we can live without them.”
What improvements would he suggest to make the traffic flow better? “All drivers who park their cars illegally should be punished, without exception. However, there aren’t enough traffic police to monitor and issue traffic tickets. Sometimes a row of taxis are illegally parked. When you approach the first one the others will immediately take off and return after you’ve gone. We need more officers to issue tickets to all offenders. We should hire volunteers to help also.
“In addition, we should establish a traffic court for offenders instead of dealing with them through the criminal courts. There should also be a traffic TV channel to teach drivers traffic rules and to inform people of the traffic situation in Bangkok and nearby provinces. Finally, our main problem is a lack of staff. We need more people, whether police officers or volunteers, to help us keep the traffic flowing more smoothly and prevent accidents.” Despite an overall straightforwardness in answering my questions, the sergeant didn’t want to talk about some apparently sensitive matters; for example, why certain vehicles, including trucks, are allowed to park on roads where parking is supposed to be strictly prohibited. When asked he refused to answer and said with a smile: “You can figure it out for yourself.”