This post was updated on October 14, 2019.
Dying To Have Fun: Scooters in Thailand
What could be more fun than riding a motor scooter in Thailand. Exciting, romantic, adventurous, daring, cheap, convenient, and above all else cool.
I couldn’t agree more. But allow me to add one more breathless adjective-lethal.
Statistics Do Kill
If I told you that last year 250 people died and thousands of others got violently ill eating food at Chiang Mai restaurants, would you go to a Chiang Mai restaurant? No, of course not.
If I told you there was a Siamese psycho on the loose in Thailand who had killed and maimed tens of thousands, including many tourists, would you still go? No, of course not.
But, if I told you that Thailand has the highest per-capita deaths caused by motorcycle accidents than any other country in the world, would you still rent out that scooter? Yes!
It’s true. Thailand does have the highest rate of death by motorcycle accident per capita than any other country in the world. And yet tourists, who know little about Thai roadway norms, are inexperienced with motorcycles, and are often even confused about simple directions, still gleefully hop on a scooter, often after drinking and without a helmet. Go figure.
2018 Chiang Mai Traffic Deaths & Injuries
The stats are in for most of 2018 and there not pretty for Chiang Mai Province-the most dangerous province for driving in all Thailand. Yes, even more dangerous than Bangkok. (Traffic stats are hard to find for the nation as a whole.)
- In the first 10.5 months of 2018, there were 13,051 accidents which resulted in 14,465 injured and 246 dead in Chiang Mai Province. (This stat leaves out December which is one of the most lethal months.)
- Of the 246 dead, 25 were foreigners; of the 14,465 injured, 1,100 were foreigners. In other words, foreigners make up over 10% of traffic deaths and almost 8% of traffic injuries.
- Of the 246 dead, 236 were on motorcycles; of the 14,465 injured, 14,211 were on motorcycles.
- Thailand’s roads [in 2018] are currently ranked the second most lethal in the world after Libya’s by the World Health Organization. [Source-Johnathon Head, BBC News]
Read Johnathan Head’s article “Life and Death on Thailand’s Lethal Roads“.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the best chance you have of getting killed or injured in Thailand is by hopping on a motorcycle.
I know. I know. These stats are either wrong or they don’t apply to you. Talk to any smoker and they’ll tell you why cigarette stats and life expectancy don’t apply to them either.
Go ahead and drive if you must those lil’ scooters. You’re dying to have fun in Thailand. But allow me to give you some insight on how Thais drive. It might save your life.
Thai Road Rules: Chaos Explained
At first glance, Thai roads seem chaotic. And they often are. Thai drivers can seem like kamikazes. And they often are. But there is a method to this Thai driving madness. Understanding this madness might save your life.
The “Right Side Habit”: Many tourist are from countries that drive on the right side (Brits and Aussies excluded). Thailand is a left side country. A tourist’s “right-side habit” of driving can be a quick killer. A split second reliance on your “right side habit” when entering a roadway can result in a horrific accident. Why? Because you’re checking traffic from the wrong direction.
A little further down in this post, you can watch a German motorcyclist killed instantly by a momentary reliance on his right side habit.
Rule #1: Double Check Traffic Both Ways.
Always double check the direction of possible on-coming traffic. As you turn or enter a roadway, traffic can come at you from any direction. Remember, this is Thailand. You’ll commonly see all sorts of vehicles driving where they shouldn’t be, going in directions that the roadway never intended. Double check all possible directions of traffic-not just the legal direction.
This rule also applies to pedestrians. Vehicles have the right-of-way over pedestrians in Thailand.
Rule #2: Be Prepared To Share The Road.
“Sharing the road” is a basic concept of Thai driving and explains much of the craziness we farangs observe.
You don’t have inviolate rights to your lane of traffic (and shoulder) as drivers in Western countries are taught. You have a right to your lane until another car (usually passing in the opposite direction) needs it more than you. Then you must yield to the side or shoulder. No road rage. No fingers. No horns. You’re expected to yield to the side of the road.
On coming traffic frequently drifts a few feet into the oncoming lane to pass by scooters, tuk-tuks, vending carts, farm machinery and slower cars and trucks. You’re expected to in turn drift over a few feet into the shoulder, or slow down, or both to accommodate them. Got it? Share the road.
This concept of sharing the road manifests itself in all aspects of Thai driving and helps explain their sometimes bizarre driving habits to the Western mind. Understanding this concept will help you anticipate and avoid potential collisions.
Rule 3: Nudge Into Traffic.
Thai drivers wait far longer than farang drivers before entering a roadway. They want a nice big space to enter. I’m from L.A., and as soon as we see any opening we hit it (and on-coming traffic expects us to do so). And if we don’t, the guy in back of us will lay on the horn. Not so in Thailand.
Thai drivers wait patiently for a sizable opening and then proceed very cautiously-first driving on the shoulder and slowly building speed before fully merging into a lane of traffic.
Nudging into traffic will make your driving safer, and Thais expect you to enter a roadway gradually.
Driving A Motor Scooter: The Scooter Rules
For scooters, Thai road rules are even more relaxed. If driving a motor scooter, the following concept should be applied: Do whatever to get from point A to point B safely.
Scooter Rule #1: Follow all the above rules.
Scooter Rule #2: Don’t Drive in the middle of the street. The middle of the street is for cars and trucks. Always drive on the shoulder or side if possible. By driving off to the side, you keep yourself out of harms way. Don’t believe me? Watch the video below.
Also, your violating the principle of “sharing the road” if you drive your motor scooter in the middle of a lane. Your hogging the whole lane when you can be riding on the shoulder. Makes perfect sense…kind of.
Scooter Rule #3: Wear A Helmet. Did I really have to tell you that. Besides, Thai cops are now enforcing helmet laws, especially in the cities and beach towns.
Scooter Rule #4: Use Extreme Caution Making U-Turns. U-Turns, especially on divided highways, are always fertile areas for violent collisions. The scooter has to deal both with the cars and trucks making the U-Turn, and the fast oncoming traffic.
Proceed with utmost caution and don’t forget that the other U-Turning vehicles can collide with you-not just on-coming traffic. Remember, you need to get to the opposite side shoulder asap.
Scooter Rule #5: Speed Kills. Simple enough.
How To Kill Yourself On A Motorcycle-Video
Death takes a split second. The video above is not gory as the camera is too far away, but you do get to watch a foreign motorcyclist make critical errors and as a result meet instant death.
Watch in the upper right-hand part of the screen as the German tourist gets on his motorcycle and exits the 7-11 parking area.
Let’s review a series of fatal errors made by the motorcyclist:
- Violation of Rule #1. Double check all on-coming traffic both ways. Had the driver done that he probably would have realized he’s about to go the wrong way on a divided highway. The driver is from Germany where they drive on the right side. That “right-side habit” is a killer, but not the exclusive cause of his death.
- Violation of Scooter Rule #2. The motorcyclist immediately drives into the middle of the street. Motorcyclists in Thailand rarely drive in the middle of the street. It’s too dangerous out there and that part of the roadway is yielded to car traffic. Motorcycles stay as much as they can to the shoulder of the road.
- Violation of Rule #3. The dead motorcyclist enters the roadway at a steep angle and high acceleration. Thai motorcycles usually enter the shoulder very gradually and at a very slow speed. They “nudge” the motorcycle onto the shoulder from a gentle angle.
Had the German motorcyclist followed my Thai driving rules, he’d be alive today.
The Art of Yielding
When and how Thais yield to other drivers is an art form that you’ll never learn from just a few trips to the country. And since yielding is at times a life and death decision, it’s why I don’t recommend tourists drive.
Therefore, the rule for novice foreign drivers is when in doubt yield. Or at least slow way down. (Thais don’t get mad at slow drivers like we do in L.A.) Don’t have the mind set that since you technically have the right-of-way, traffic will yield to you, especially on a scooter.
Driving at Night in Rural Thailand
Driving can be more dangerous, especially at night, in rural areas. I’ve spent lots of time driving around at night through Esaan and the Golden Triangle areas. Here’s a few reasons why darkness means danger in rural Thailand:
- Car speeds are usually much greater in the countryside and therefore passing on two-lane roads is much more dangerous and frequent. Distances are much harder to judge at night.
- Rural roads are less likely to have shoulders than urban roads. When trouble comes, your only recourse may be to drive off the road into a deep irrigation ditch or down a steep embankment. (That’s the most likely scenario of why Vanalyn Png [photo above] and her boyfriend crashed and died.)
- Motorcycles and farm equipment are often poorly lit, or have no lights at all.
- Cattle on the roadway. Hitting a cow is like hitting a brick wall.
- Drinking and driving
End of the Road
The above video shows the aftermath of a scooter vs. pick-up truck crash. Scooter deaths are not reserved for the young. The victim in this crash was 76 years old. He violated Scooter Rule #4: Use Extreme Caution Making U-Turns.
Many people will be angry with the casual attitude of the rescue workers in this video. Thailand-The Land of Smiles. But when you’re a paramedic, coroner’s official, or any other emergency worker, you must cushion the psychological trauma you face daily. Gallows humor-it’s nothing personal.
Think carefully before deciding to rent that scooter. I know, all the cool farang are doing it.
But maybe…just maybe, it’s cooler to hop into a songtao along with some of the locals and a cage of chickens. Or what about a tuk-tuk? After twenty years, I still love jumping into a tuk-tuk after drinking way too much. Or get a boring cab. It’s Thailand-they’re cheap.
A Final Thought
I’ve never mentioned this in my blog, but I’ll say it here. I was a career prosecutor in Los Angeles. I specialized in DUI’s and other traffic related crimes. I’ve met with countless families whose loved-ones were killed in traffic collisions. (Prosecutors don’t say “traffic accidents” because they’re not accidents.)
Unlike many other parts of life, such as marriage or SAT tests, with traffic collisions, especially fatal ones, you don’t get a do-over.
The roads in Thailand are dangerous. I hope this post saved your life.
A special thanks to the website www.farang-deaths.com This website keeps track of all farang deaths in Thailand and was a tremendous resource for an article such as this. Visit the website, and if you can, donate a small amount so they can continue their important work.