To show what can be achieved, in Singapore it was five and in Sweden three. I know that if we wanted to be like Singaporeans or Swedes, we could go and live in one of those places rather than Thailand, choosing between not being able to buy chewing gum and not having any daylight in the winter. Clearly, we don’t want to do that because we prefer living here. But, even more than that, we’d like to live in Thailand without the smash-ups.
‘It’s very dangerous in Nepal,’ says Mrs Pobaan. ‘Don’t forget what it was like in those buses. Lorries were overtaking on bends. They drive like crazy people in Nepal.’
Mrs Pobaan has made a good point and I commend her for her statistical brain. In Nepal, of course, they have plenty of people but not as many vehicles as in Thailand. So, while their figure for road-deaths as a proportion of population is low, you have to take your life in your hands when venturing out on to the road because each vehicle is more likely to come a cropper than here in Thailand.
The total number of people who died in road accidents in Thailand was 13,800. Three-quarters of these were motorbike riders. Before coming to live in Thailand, I don’t think I’d ever seen a dead person. Now, when there’s a hold-up on the Sukhumvit Road and traffic is reduced to one or two lanes, I am prepared for the inevitable: some broken glass and plastic, a gaggle of well-meaning on-lookers, a shocked driver sitting on the kerb, one or two motorbikes on their side, a pickup with its nose in the ditch, the flashing light of a Sawang Boriboon ambulance and a lifeless body lying awkwardly on the road.
According to the WHO, wearing a motorcycle helmet correctly can reduce the risk of death in an accident by 40% and of severe injury by 70%. You might think that a benefit of this order was obvious and yet helmet-wearing is far from universal, even in Pattaya where there is at least some attempt to encourage it through road-side posters and police enforcement, however haphazard. In country areas, helmets are a much rarer sight; on jungle roads I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen one.
It occurs to me that, to be sustainable, the impetus to wear a crash helmet regularly must come from the motorbike drivers themselves and will only operate when they understand the consequences of a serious head injury and the risks they face of acquiring one.
Those insights aren’t going to come any time soon. Many people I have met, including many members of the extended Pobaan family, bear their motorbike scars, if not with pride, then with a sense of grim inevitability. Coming off your bike is something that just happens and nothing can be done about it. That may be true, but a helmet allows you to reduce the risk of pondering your prang from a wheelchair.
The official figures for helmet wearing in Thailand are 53% of motorbike drivers and 19% of motorbike passengers. The WHO claims that when helmet laws are enforced effectively, usage rates can increase to over 90%, so the efforts of the police here are clearly not effective. In Pattaya, this could be due to their piecemeal approach. Officers will set up a junction roadblock for the afternoon and extract a fine from every bareheaded biker that comes through. At other times, cops on the beat ignore miscreants entirely. And there’s the importance of setting an example: we have all seen police motorcyclists driving around without their classy black-and-gold helmets on their heads.
The WHO researchers clearly visited Pattaya before compiling their report because they point out that the effectiveness of motorcycle helmets is in part a result of their quality. So the unlined plastic skins that motorbike taxi drivers provide for their passengers probably aren’t going to be much help. Nor are those Hell’s Angel-style military helmets that make their wearers look like panzer commanders. Such headgear may deflect a glancing blow from a sniper bullet, but will offer little protection from a rapidly advancing Vigo.
The good news is that the Thailand government has set itself the target of halving road traffic accident fatalities by 2020. As our own humble contribution to achieving this improvement, today the Pobaans set out, with a female friend, to purchase a pair of crash helmets. I never ride on a motorbike if I can help it, but Mrs Pobaan occasionally cadges a lift from friends and has been observed lidless at times. Our friend owns her own scooter but is too mean to fork out for the required accessory.
This happy trio proceeds to Big C where they stock a wide selection of biker’s safety gear.
‘What about this?’ I venture, indicating a robust-looking black helmet and encouraging my companions to try it on.
‘Too big,’ says Mrs Pobaan.
‘Too hot on my ears,’ says the friend.
‘Well, what about this one,’ I suggest, lifting a substantial white helmet off the shelf.
‘Still too big.’
‘Still too hot.’
Helmets in plain black or white are clearly not going to find favour among my ladyfolk. At the back of the store, I locate the more visually appealing merchandise. The women’s eyes light up when I propose a bright red, shiny helmet. ‘Try this one on.’
‘Perfect. I’ll have this one.’
‘Very cool on the ears. I’ll take one too.’
‘You’ll look like a couple of Swan Vestas,’ I remark unkindly but receive no response.
Overall, I count the expedition a success. Not only have we contributed to improving Thailand’s accident statistics, we have done so without compromising the fashion imperative.