Update July 2020: We no longer recommend Thailand as a long-stay destination. See our July 5, 2020 post about changing conditions in this country.
Motorbikers + Helmets + No “Head Checks” = Failure to Yield
Drive or ride down the street, just about any city street in Thailand, and you'll face motorbikers cutting in front in you from behind, the right, left, and against traffic the wrong way up one-way streets — and more. Yes, lane splitting — as they call it in the west — is quite common here. It's all part of the culture, and to some degree, the charm of the country.
And it's understandable. City streets in Thailand were around long before there were cars and trucks. There's hardly any room on most sidewalks. The dearth of parking lots and the sprawl of home-growth businesses and the stands daily market sellers set up in the streets and over the sidewalks are a prescription for traffic congestion.
In part, this drives the need for motorbikes — their small footprint and ease of maneuverability are critical in narrow streets with no shoulders.
The World Health Organization reports Thailand registers the second highest traffic death rate in the world. Seventy-four (74%) percent of traffic deaths stem from head injuries to motorbiker's. Our 2014 visit to Chiang Mai revealed almost no motorbike riders wore helmets.
Fast-forward to 2015. Now we’re shocked to see just how many motor bikers ARE wearing helmets. The Thai Government has done a great job of on this problem despite criticisms to the contrary.
But now we're seeing an unintended outcome of this important enforcement action. Motorbikers — Thai's and foreigners alike — DON'T TURN THEIR HEADS to look for converging or “blind spot” traffic before making their move. This outright dangerous behavior is a display of a lack of training and education for all riders.
See our featured video for recent examples of this behavior.
The first thing a rider learns when taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation approved course in the U.S. (and similar courses in other western countries) is to do a “head check” before changing lanes.
Failure to perform “head checks” is common here, and especially now with Thai riders wearing helmets. We think helmets block the peripheral vision they were accustomed to before they were wearing helmets. In other words, a lack of training is the problem.
Untrained riders remain a big problem in Thailand. Ride the streets here, and you’ll see young school children commuting to school on motorbikes. Training is by the “seat of the pants” and on-the-fly.
We LOVE Thailand. We LOVE the Thai's. That's why you’ll rarely see us posting stories critical of them. The Government has done a great job of trying to deal with this transitional challenge to modernity.
But there’s a lot more to the story of driving in Thailand. As the military junta members in charge crack down with western style rules and regulations, we're seeing more and more adjustment problems for the drivers here. What's next? Those iconic truckloads of workers will disappear. They're entertaining for us gawkers. But we recognize they also pose a potential health and safety hazard.
Stick with us in this continuing series of articles and pieces to learn what the issues are for you driving in Thailand.
What say you, fellow RoverTrekkers? Have any experience with motorbikes in SouthEast Asia you’d like to share with us?
See Our Related Stories About Thailand