The Songkhran holidays are around the corner and with it comes the almost panicky reaction about road accidents and fatalities. I don't want to minimise the sadness the loss of life will cause. But a few reminders about drinking and driving and setting up road checkpoints will not help much in reducing the casualties. Indeed the number of accidents during New Year and Songkhran holiday periods are high, but they are not the reason why the yearly number of road accidents and casualties in Thailand are among the highest in the world. The problem is much more structural: flaws in the design of the road network is an important contributor.
Recently I was in Sakaew province, driving on road 3395 getting close to Kho Khlan village in Taphraya district. Road 3395 is a 2 lane rural road, rather straight across gentle rolling hills. During the weekdays traffic flows along at quite high speeds. Getting close to my destination I noticed that the trees along the road had been marked with red numbers - a death sentence indicating that in the near future the road will be widened, probably into a four-lane highway. In the minds of planners in Bangkok there might be good reasons why roads need to be widened. But widening the road in front of a rural school like Ban Thai Samakkhi school is an invitation for more accidents and casualties.
In several countries all over the world, road traffic in communities and especially close to schools is restricted and limited to low speeds. The road planners in Bangkok will tell you that that is also the case in Thailand. When driving into a community area, there is a sign that indicates that the speed limit is reduced from 90 km/h to ... 80 km/h. In many countries all over the world the maximum allowed speed in urban areas and communities is 60, 50 or 45 km/h and even 30 km/h around schools. The planners in Bangkok will also tell you that around schools there will be markings on the road and signs informing drivers about a maximum speed limit of 50 km/h. But wait a minute... Have you ever slowed down that much when you are on a weekend trip upcountry?
I frequently take route 321 between Nakornpathom and Kamphaengsaen. It is a concrete road with two lanes in each direction, nicely separated. Safe for cars and trucks to travel at high speed. Once you get into a community area, there is indeed the sign indicating a reduction of the allowed speed. But what driver is going to slow down when all of a sudden the road widens to four lanes in each direction? Sure, that provides some space for safe parking. But the local folks living on one side of the road now have to cross an 8-lane highway with speeding cars to visit their friends or relatives who live just across on the other side of the road. There are two U-turn areas where cars can safely turn and for pedestrians a bridge has been built in the middle of the community. Have you ever seen a villager, old or young, walk 200 m to cross the street high up on the bridge in a scorching sun or drenching rain? How about those folks riding a bicycle or motorcycle? Do you think they are happy to drive all the way to the end of the community to make a dangerous U-turn there when all they wanted to do was to cross the street? In Kamphaengsaen, after numerous accidents and fatalities, an underground tunnel has been constructed to let students living outside the Kasetsart University campus safely cross the highway to get to their classes on campus.
All this could have been avoided had the road planners in Bangkok done a proper study of the local situation and in communities and at places round schools make the roads more narrow, provide raised pedestrian zebra crossing, introduce patches of cobblestones. Thai drivers fear nothing more than damaging their cars. If the roads are narrower, if the surface is a bit rougher, they will feel more inclined to slow down. Of course it would be better if the major roads are constructed around the communities as has been done around some of the major provincial cities but then you also have to restrict development along those roads.
Therefore, leave those trees standing around the little Ban Thai Samakkhi school in Kho Khlan, TaPhraya. Widen the road where it is possible to do that safely, but keep it narrow and slow down the traffic around schools and communities. Such policy implemented consistently around the country will do a lot in bringing down the number of road accidents and fatalities.
Enjoy your Songkhran holidays, but when travelling on the roads, be mindful of the local folks living there. Slow down. The villagers will appreciate it.