Thailand - Nice People, Ugly Drivers
Driving In Thailand
Despite their eccentric beliefs, values and behaviour, most Thais are nice enough people. They mean well and there is a lot of kindness. However, when I started driving regularly in Thailand I saw a side to Thais that I had not seen before. It was quite shocking.
Road rage, inconsiderate behaviour, and general hostility and aggression on the roads is a worldwide problem, but of all the countries in the world where I have driven, Thailand is by far the worst.
Thai roads are extremely dangerous. According to statistics, Thailand has the second highest road fatality rate in the world after Libya. Thailand is the world leader for motorbike accidents.
The first statistic is widely published on-line. I haven't seen anything on-line about motorcycle accidents, but I did see the following sign published by the Thai General Insurance Association. It states that Thailand has the highest number of motorcycle accidents in the world.
Thailand has the highest number of motorcycle accidents in the world
Not only are the country's roads statistically dangerous, but the general style of driving is extremely aggressive, selfish and inconsiderate. I used to enjoy driving in the UK and I used to drive for pleasure. I don't enjoy driving in Thailand and I only drive when it is absolutely necessary. Occasionally, in isolated rural areas the fun returns, but the school runs and shopping trips are absolutely no fun at all.
With so much unpredictable behaviour it is necessary to concentrate fully all the time and this gets very tiring. I also suffer from muscle fatigue as a result of having to constantly bite my lip and hold my tongue.
While driving in Thailand there are other potential dangers in addition to being involved in a road accident. You will meet the most appalling drivers, but to challenge them can be dangerous. In fact, it can be lethal. Aggressive drivers carry around all sorts of weapons in their cars, including guns, and they don't worry about using them.
I enjoy my life in Thailand, but if I could have one wish it would be that I didn't have to drive. Unfortunately, with two young children and living outside of the town centre, that is not possible.
When I first became aware of the ugliness on Thai roads I wasn't sure if this was a case of Thais changing as soon as they take control of a vehicle or whether they show their true colours while driving and put up a facade the rest of the time.
I believe it is the former. I know many Thais and I have witnessed first hand how some perfectly amenable people can turn ugly as soon they get behind the wheel.
My next question was why. Why are Thais such ugly drivers? If you look for answers on-line as to why people generally change personality when they are driving you will find some common reasons. These reasons also apply to Thais but, in addition, I believe there are other reasons because of the particular vagaries of Thai cultural behaviour.
This is why I have included this page in the section about Thai cultural behaviour.
One of the general reasons for why people act aggressively while driving is because of stress. Driving is potentially a very dangerous activity and when people are on edge they cannot control their emotions. They become irritable and lose their tempers very easily.
The fact that Thai roads are so dangerous (borne out by statistics as well as observation) would indicate that drivers in Thailand are even more stressed and on edge than those driving elsewhere.
Thais are obsessed with status. The strict hierarchical status in Thai society is pyramid-shaped with a few important people at the top, but the majority of Thais have a low status. They observe their low status and continue to be deferential to those of a higher status, but many resent it. To understand this from a Thai perspective it is worth reading 'The Privileged Elite Versus The Common Man' by Sulak Sivaraksa.
Magically, when they get into a vehicle with blacked out windows they become invisible and anonymous. All the normal 'rules' regarding hierarchical status in Thai society disappear. They are on a level footing. In fact, it is more than that. They are now in a position to actually turn the tables for once.
Thais love putting signs on their vehicles. Normally, these signs include the word 'racing' to reflect the road racing culture that exists in Thailand, but VIP signs are also quite popular. They have a great desire to have a higher status than other people and, just in case there is any doubt, they will display a sign telling the world that the driver is a very important person.
Thais like to think of themselves as very important people
On Thai roads the only law that applies is the law of the jungle and having a bigger vehicle and driving more aggressively than other drivers can reverse the normal situation and make other people act deferentially. Is it any coincidence that Thailand is the second largest market in the world for pickup trucks after the United States?
Bearing in mind that the population of the United States is almost five times as large as Thailand, the per capita ownership of pickup trucks in Thailand must be the highest in the world.
Admittedly, there are many one-man businesses that require a truck to run the business, but there are an awful lot of trucks in Thailand that never - or very rarely - carry anything in the back. There is also a trend for trucks to get bigger every year. When I see 20 year-old pickup trucks they aren't that big. These days, the oversized Toyota and Isuza trucks are huge.
All Thais aspire to having a higher status, but normally this isn't possible because their status is determined at birth. However, by buying the biggest possible vehicle they can own and driving in an aggressive manner they can impose themselves on the roads.
On one occasion I went to collect some German friends in Trang and then drove them back to my house. I will never forget the words of my friend as we sat waiting at traffic lights, while he observed a Thai going through red lights, entering a lane of traffic in the wrong direction and then doing a U-turn to get where he wanted to go.
His exact words were, "In Germany you would get thrown in jail for doing that." He was right, but I have lived and driven in Thailand for so long that after a while it starts to become normal. The truth of the matter is that what happens in Thailand all the time would actually be regarded as serious road crimes in developed countries.
Thais have respect for certain people in society, not for law. Law is simply a peculiar foreign concept that was introduced to give the impression to the outside world that Thailand is a civilised country. Some Thais might pay lip service to law, but in reality it is non-existent.
Every time I drive I see Thais blatantly breaking laws every few minutes. Further, there is no law enforcement whatsoever. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, those responsible for enforcing laws are also Thai and they have the same views regarding law. There is very little will to enforce laws.
Secondly, the situation has now reached a point whereby, even if there was a will to enforce laws, it is almost impossible. Let me give you some examples.
Example 1. Thais drive at insane speeds and one of the most dangerous places I have driven in Thailand is Phuket. The driving in Phuket is horrendous. I was therefore very pleased to read a few years ago that speed cameras were being introduced in Phuket because virtually everyone speeds.
However, my pleasure was muted when I later read that since the introduction of speed cameras only about 10 drivers had been ticketed and, of these drivers, only a few had paid their fines. This was beyond comprehension.
I then watched a video on a BBC report about Thailand's dangerous roads in which a Thai police officer was interviewed. He was observing a road with an 80kph speed limit and explained that if he issued tickets to everyone exceeding the speed limit he would issue tickets to every driver. For practical reasons this wasn't possible. He therefore upped the speed limit and ended up issuing a ticket to one driver driving at 129kmh.
Example 2. Many Thais working in markets use motorbikes with home-made sidecars. These contraptions offer a very cheap way of getting their goods to market, but they are dangerous. The wheel on the sidecar doesn't have a brake and if they are driven at speed, which they often are, and have to brake heavily they spin around or somersault. They are quite wide and because of their relatively low speed, compared with cars, they cause traffic jams.
All vehicles designed to be used on public roads must satisfy certain road-worthiness tests. These vehicles are never tested. They are illegal and shouldn't be allowed on the road.
The Thai authorities are aware of all this, but they are also pragmatic. They know that if they were to enact a ban on these illegal vehicles there would be outrage. The markets that Thais rely on to bu their food would close and there would be angry protests.
When Thais are angry - as we have seen with political protests in recents years - they aim to cause as much disruption as possible. They block roads, close down airports, and basically do whatever they can to disrupt normal life.
I have encountered female drivers who drive fast and like to constantly swerve in and out of lanes, but most of the problems on Thai roads are caused by male drivers who believe it is necessary to demonstrate their machismo by always driving as fast and aggressively as they can.
Watching adverts for new cars in Thailand gives a few clues to the mentality that exists. My memories of the UK are now fading, but I seem to remember that new cars were advertised in a very different way compared to Thailand. In Western countries cars are advertised for qualities such as their practicality, safety features, low fuel consumption, etc.
In Thailand I just see two kinds of advert for new cars. The first type is aimed at the rugged, outdoors man and it is for tough (just like him) pickup trucks that can go anywhere and cross any terrain in any weather conditions.
The second type is for the Thai boy racers and the emphasis is all about speed. Many Thai men like to add 'go fast' accessories to their cars, such as fake exhaust pipes and spoilers, and they like to think that they are on a race track every time they drive.
There is no pride about being a good driver, or a safe driver, or a considerate driver. The self-esteem they desperately seek comes from proving their manliness by driving as fast as they can, aggressively as they can, and as near to the car in front as possible.
There is a huge after-market car decoration industry in Thailand and it is centred on a racing theme. Vehicles with their original wheels are very rare and even many passenger transport vehicles have replacement sets of mag wheels and low profile tyres.
Cars are fitted with spoilers and body kits, and there is a particular obsession with exhaust tailpipes. The fashion used to be for huge exhaust tailpipes that made a lot of noise, but did nothing for performance.
In recent years that fashion has been overtaken by the one for adding fake tailpipes to make the vehicle appear to have twin or quadruple exhaust systems. If you look a little closer you will see that only one is used and that the others are perfectly clean.
The old Thai boy racer exhaust trend
The new Thai boy racer exhaust trend
The Thai men who attempt to make their vehicles look like racing cars then feel the need to try to drive like racing drivers. In most other countries if they tried the same thing they would be stopped by the police, but that never happens in Thailand.
The result, with Thais tailgating you as close as they can, driving as fast as they can, and always trying to overtake (or undertake), is that driving in Thailand is akin to driving on a race track.
A cult series of movies in Thailand
Typical Thai boy racer car
The Fast and Furious series of movies is very popular in Thailand and there is a serious racing culture. The irony is that despite its large population, high rate of vehicle ownership and most Thai males thinking they are racing drivers, the country have never produced a world-class racing driver.
Small countries such as Finland and Scotland have produced many world-class drivers in all forms of motor sport. Thailand, not one.
Thai cement truck in a ditch
Regardless of the type of vehicle, many Thai men will drive as fast as they possibly can without the least concern for their own or anyone else's safety. This applies just as much to big trucks as it does to private cars and pickup trucks. There has been a big construction boom in recent years and this has resulted in lots of concrete being moved around the concrete. It terrifies me at times to see how cement trucks are driven.
Whereas machismo behaviour is related to the physical traits of speed and aggression, this aspect of Thai cultural behaviour is related to Thais (normally men) trying to demonstrate their mental superiority by doing sneaky, underhand things to get ahead of other people. They think they are being really clever, but other people only see them for the idiots they are.
If you drive regularly in Thailand you will see many examples. Perhaps the most common example is disobeying traffic lights. Thais might stop at lights temporarily (at other times they don't bother stopping at all), but take off before the lights have changed to green.
As a pedestrian in Thailand you must always look both ways before you cross one-way streets because if it saves them a few minutes Thais will just drive the wrong way along a one-way street.
There is absolutely no lane discipline. Thais will use whicehever lane has least traffic and then cut in aggressively to get in the lane they want. At traffic lights they will use the emergency lane to undertake cars waiting in the correct lanes to get to the front of the queue.
They act this way because they think they are being clever and because no one takes any action. The police aren't interested and other drivers understand that challenging drivers who do these things can be dangerous.
Poor Driver Training
Most of the problems on Thai roads are caused by bad attitudes, but poor driver training is also partly to blame. When my wife learned how to drive her training was carried out in a car park. She just learned to operate the controls in the car and didn't learn how to actually drive on the roads.
After she got her license she then had to learn how to drive. She was never taught how to parallel park, how to do a hill start, or how to use a roundabout. Despite every roundabout having signs to give way to traffic to the right, Thais don't. As usual, the biggest vehicles and most aggressive drivers get right of way.
Several times when joining a dual carriageway I have encountered cars that have stopped on the slip road waiting to join. On one occasion when I accelerated on the slip road, indicated and was about to merge with the traffic, a guy in a Toyota Vios started flashing his lights like a madman because he didn't want me to merge.
The standard of driving education is extremely poor and basically Thais don't know how to drive. I doubt very much that there is one Thai in Thailand who could go to the UK and pass a UK driving test. They have their own ideas about what is wrong and what is right, but in real world terms they don't have a clue.
Lack Of Responsibility
Thais don't like responsibility and refuse to take responsibility for their actions. The act of driving a two ton truck around at 100+ kmh is something that should carry an enormous amount of responsibility because it is capable of causing death and injury very easily.
Unfortunately, the words Thai and responsibility can't be used in the same sentence. There are many horrendous road crashes in Thailand and a high percentage involve passenger vehicles. You would think that drivers carrying paying passengers might show some responsibility for those passengers, but sadly that isn't the case.
It even applies to drivers of school buses and vans. These vehicles are clearly marked as vehicles carrying children back and forth to school, but some of the drivers drive as quickly and insanely as other Thai road users.
This is one of the aspects of Thai cultural behaviour (there are many) that is a good thing in its original form, but it has been distorted so much that now it is often more negative than positive.
The original meaning is an extreme reluctance to impose upon others. The problem with many Thais, especially Thai drivers, is that they have absolutely no intention of being greng jai towards others, but they expect other people to be greng jai towards them.
This gives then carte blanche to do whatever they want on Thai roads - including parking in such a way that they put whole lanes out of traffic - and because of greng jai they don't expect anyone to say anything to them. They see it as basically a license to do whatever they want.
If you do say anything to them expect at the very least a verbal volley of assault and, more likely, some form of physical violence.
Salaries are unbelievably low in Thailand. The average Thai salary is not sufficient to provide the basics in life, let alone the basics plus those things that make life interesting. Most foreigners can afford regular vacations to keep life interesting and they have enough disposable income to buy the things they want. It's different for many Thais.
Many young Thai males earning Bt10,000 per month would love a car or pickup truck, but they can only afford small motorbikes. A lot of goods are transported by road in Thailand and, unfortunately, the drivers employed are usually from the same demographic - the young men with no money who lead boring lives due to lack of finances.
They get jobs as delivery drivers and suddenly find themselves in possession of pickup trucks that can actually travel as quite high speeds. They have no sense of responsibility for other people and while delivering goods their main objective is to drive as fast as possible to relieve their boredom.
I am very wary of all Thais drivers, but there are certain categories of driver to who I give a very wide berth. I am very wary of any form of passenger vehicle, but also the pickup trucks with custom built boxes on the back that are used in courier services.
Many of the Thai males driving these truck drive like absolute maniacs and, of course, there are no deterrents.
Other Thai Culture Pages You May Be Interested In
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