Did I say safely?
Some kids are walking home and a few have bicycles but most leave on a motorbike. The law says that you have to be 15 to ride a bike with a 110cc engine. This would include scooters such as the Honda Click and the disturbingly-named Suzuki Smash; anything with more grunt than this and you have to be 18. The chap controlling the traffic outside the school today seems happy that everyone conforms with these rules though, frankly, many of the children zooming away in the traffic look underage to me.
He may be able to judge ages better than I can, but we’re both equally capable of counting motorbike passengers. You’re allowed only one pillion rider in Thailand, but most of the bikes disgorging from the school car park today have two on the back and some are packing three. They glide past under the seemingly unconcerned eye of the public custodian.
Then there’s the big one: helmets. In Thailand the law requires the rider and the passenger to wear, and fasten, proper motorcycle helmets. Today, I notice that less than a fifth of the kids coming out of the school have them. In the case of students being picked up by motorcycle taxis, the commonest arrangement is thus: adult taxi driver wears a helmet, his one or two child passengers do not. How can he feel happy with this? The chap on points duty is actually wearing a crash helmet himself (ironically, since it’s not unusual to see police officers riding motorbikes without them) but he doesn’t see the need to encourage others to do the same.
Whoa, there! Hold on a minute, Kuhn Pobaan, I hear you cry. Kids mustn’t be mollycoddled. We shouldn’t stop them climbing trees, leaping off cliffs or throwing things at each other. Letting off small amounts of explosive is a part of growing up.
And I agree. The young Mr Pobaan used to take fireworks apart to blow up armies of model soldiers. And it didn’t do me any harm.
But I’m not talking about things that don’t do any harm looked at in terms of risk, including extreme sports and amateur pyrotechnics. I’m talking about Thailand’s killing fields—its roads.
If you’re a faithful reader and have the memory of an elephant, you may recall (I had to look it up) that a couple of years ago I reviewed the World Health Organisation’s research into road safety. From the 2013 report we learnt that Thailand was the world’s second most dangerous country for road deaths (38 per 100,000 population a year, beaten at the tape only by the Dominican Republic). That’s 13,400 bereavements a year in the Land of Smiles, 74% of them motorbike riders. The good news in the report was that the Thailand government had set itself the target of cutting road traffic fatalities to less than 10 per 100,000 of population by 2020. So, two years on, how’s that working out?
On the positive side, we have reduced deaths on the road from 38 to 36 per 100,000. The bad news is that, excluding Libya which has its own special problems, Thailand now has the most dangerous roads on earth. Yes, we’re No 1 in the world. Our death rate is double the average for Southeast Asia and worse than every African country including runners-up Malawi, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Rwanda and Burkina Faso. Yet who would have thought we’d perform worse than these places?
The 'less than ten by 2020' target is still in place, though it's going to take drastic action to meet this; we won't get near it at the current rate of reduction.
The UN is very complimentary to Thailand for its legislative framework, which it describes as best practice and better than some developed countries including the USA. We have the right laws, the UN says, perhaps turning a blind eye to the clause in the Act that exempts monks, novices, ascetics and people who don turbans for religious reasons from wearing a motorbike crash helmet, perhaps because such people's skulls are rendered unbreakable by divine intervention unavailable to the rest of us.
So it's not our laws that are at fault. The challenge appears to be in persuading people that bad things sometimes happen to those who take risks, that their injury or death would be a family tragedy and that simple safety precautions are in the best interests of themselves and their loved ones. Wearing a skid-lid reduces risk of serious injury by 70%. Riding safe is actually good for everyone; after all, road deaths cost the country an estimated 3% loss to its GDP.
And of course the law should be enforced by those tasked with that job. It's not only the police. Don't schools have a duty of care to their students? Should the one in our street allow their pupils to break the law and risk their lives on the school run? I don't mean to imply, dear reader, that the motorbike trip to school is a certain death-trap. On the other hand, 37 people will die on Thailand's roads today and it's close to inevitable that some of them will be school kids.
I also don't want to ally myself with the obsessive health and safety lobby so prevalent in developed countries, the way of thinking that tries to put people off any activity that involves an element of risk. Not at all. Although many would be horrified at the thought, it is arguable that in the West life has become over-valued, that people there strive officiously to conserve life at the expense of living.
Well maybe, but it's not part of the same argument that we should set our standards any lower here in the Land of Smiles where, by the evidence collected yet again by the UN, there's no denying that, here more than in most other places on earth, life is cheap.