AnneMarie and Andrew

Annemarie and Andrew – Trekking Asia

The Economist | Road safety: Reinventing the wheel

It’s Friday and as usual I downloaded the latest edition of The Economist. Perfect timing as today we take the train back to Bangkok then another train journey to Kanchanaburi, about 4.5 hours on a train in total.

Anyway, I was reading this article about road safety:
Road safety: Reinventing the wheel

Road safety in Asia seems to be either completely ignored by governments and the police or everyone just breaks the law and seems to get away with it. A lot of Asian driving techniques appear to be based on luck, if they did it before and it worked they’ll do it again (until their luck runs out). Cutting corners, skipping red lights, just pulling out onto a road are all normal driving techniques.

In most of Southeast Asia, in the cities and large towns at least, there has usually been a footpath at the side of the road. But, that footpath is usually used for anything but walking. In Vietnam almost all paths were used for restaurants, shops and moped parking. This made the paths almost unusable and we had to walk on the road, which in Vietnam is a terrifying experience. In China the footpaths are often shaded by trees, great to keep you out of the heat but annoying because the tree trunk takes away about 75% of the path width and also creating a very uneven path as the raised sections of soil provide a huge number of obstacles to avoid (I tripped on these so many times!). Also the path is often used by mopeds to keep them separated from the cars. In Thailand most footpaths are an extension to a shop or are in such bad repair that it is easier and far quicker to walk on the road. As The Economist article states the simple measure of having usable footpaths is a great way to improve safety, but there should be enforcement to stop encroachment onto the path.

Driving techniques and modes of transport vary around the region but the one thing they have in common is appallingly low standards (which in a slightly arrogant way annoys me because I can’t drive in many of these countries without paperwork when I’ve passed tests in the UK far above and beyond the local standards).

In China it feels like the people have just bought a car and driven off. Lanes in the road appear to meaningless as people just drive all over the road, ignoring the lines and swerving in front of each other. The law stating that turning right is allowed at any time regardless of traffic light colour results in an incredible sight (cars driving into a solid block of cars and hoping to get just enough of their car in front of another so they can pull out). On mopeds people act as of they are on a bicycle, ride on the wrong side of the road (quicker than going to the next junction to do a U-turn to come back up and turn off), use the footpath, ignore traffic lights, use pedestrian crossings to cross major junctions.

In Vietnam the interesting technique of using the horn to warn other drivers of their presence is noisy but seems to be effective. A car will beep at a bike as it passes to warn that it is there and swerving around obstacles will have to wait. Bikes and cars will often pull out directly onto a road without anymore than a glance to check for oncoming traffic (usually not even a glance). This means cars and bikes have to watch side streets as they approach and beep if they see something to warn them not to pull out. No horn beeping means the rider/driver is free to do what they like. This makes Vietnamese roads as noisy as they are dangerous.

In Thailand the low standard of driving is coupled with pretty good roads and decent cars. This means they drive fast! Minivan drivers are often used to transport tourists around the country or to and from major tourist sights. These are private vans which the owners seem to take great pride in. Many are modified and almost all are driven by madmen. The minivan we took from the Cambodian border to Bangkok was doing about 75mph, swerving through traffic on the three lane motorway and hammering it over bridges so fast that the tyres would usually grind on the wheel arch. Many cars were travelling faster than us. Public buses sometimes aren’t much better, the bus from Chiang Mai to Sukhothai went so fast down the dual carriageway it needed both lanes to get around the corners. The usual technique of low gear to go downhill was clearly lost on this driver as he put the bus into as higher gear as possible on every downhill slope and hit the brakes hard on every corner (they smelt rather hot after a while of driving like that). At many pedestrian crossings, cars have driven straight through the red light, totally oblivious. Cars will then go again as soon as the crossing is clear (usually with the lights still on red). But overall Thai drivers abide by the rules of the road to a greater extent than other Asian countries.

Helmet wearing is patchy. In most counties maybe half of the riders have had helmets, even though the law states it’s compulsory in all the countries. Only in Thailand have we seen police pull people over.

In China there are pedestrian crossings at major junctions, but they make no sense. The green man lights up but cars are still coming through (partly because of the turning right rule) because there usually isn’t a pause to all 4 directions of traffic to enable people to cross. This results in finding a small gap and then run for it. Vietnam didn’t have pedestrian crossings outside of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city, both of which followed the Chinese example of green man meaning it’s slightly safer to cross the road but look in all directions!

Seatbelts aren’t provided on most buses and even the drivers don’t bother wearing them. Driving or riding whilst on the mobile phone is normal, almost every bus and minivan driver we’ve had has used the phone at least once. The bus in China (a big new double decker) which took us to the Vietnamese border even had a speed camera detector. Driving on your mobile is illegal but similar to the UK many people ignore this law.

As The Economist argues the biggest way to cut deaths on the roads are simple and cheap methods. Enforcement of the law is also a good idea, but from what we’ve read (Thailand mainly) the police prefer bribes to fines. It’s not difficult, but so far in most of Asia no-one seems to give a damn.

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