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Handlebars of Death

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HANDLEBARS OF DEATH

By Andrew Biggs

Bangkok is a great city for anybody with a death wish.

If you want to overdose on heroin, come on over. Try crossing the street on a zebra crossing. Just choosing the wrong song in a karaoke bar can get you killed.

And here is a new way: slip on some spandex and spending a leisurely day on a bicycle.

Bangkok is a city choked by traffic. Most western cities allocate up to 30 per cent of their surface area to roadways. In Bangkok we have just eight. Then there are those 500 new cars that go onto the roads every single day.

Not enough roads. Way too many cars. So what does the government do? It builds bicycle lanes and encourages bike riding! Are they crazy?

Ten years ago the only cyclists on the streets here were the certifiably insane. Now it is trendy to bicycle, the perception being that more bikes in Bangkok makes us more eco-friendly and less reliant on our cars.

If Bangkok’s traffic is a monster, then bicycling is the little lamb it is devouring with relish. For it is neither healthy nor even eco-friendly to ride a bicycle in Bangkok. It is plain stupid.

Two terrible bike accidents, one taking place in Chiang Mai, in the space of 48 hours this week has brought to light the folly of getting on a bike.

On Sunday a drunken 24-year-old female university student crashed into a trail of cyclists, killing three and injuring six. The next day in Bangkok, a man crashed into three cyclists on Ratchada-Ramintra Road, killing one and severely injuring the other two.

How do we describe these accidents? Tragic. Horrible. But let’s call a spade a spade; they are also expected.

Every Friday I wake up at 5 am to make the trek from my home in Samut Prakan to the province of Patum Thani just north of Bangkok. What a picturesque province Pathum Thani is, with winding country roads amid rice fields alongside the sprawling bends of the Chao Phraya River.

It is this rural beauty, especially in the early morning, that attracts lines of bicyclists along the narrow roads. And that is what scares me most.

This being Thailand, motorists race through those curves at breakneck speeds. The scenario may be peaceful, but the pick-up trucks speeding down those roads are anything but. I want to wind down my window and shout at these cyclists: “Go home! You’re way too young to die!” but that would just make me look like an idiot, regardless of how true my words may be.

Of course cyclists must die on the roads here. It is a logical result of the unbridled chaos on our streets. How irresponsible it is for the powers-that-be to actively encourage citizens to ride bicycles. You may as well actively encourage them to play Russian Roulette.

Two years ago a new campaign was announced called “Bangkok Smile Bike,” the idea being you could make use of free bikes provided by the city. Again, what a great idea … but only if you had a death wish.

Perhaps for this reason the campaign was discontinued in January this year but I heard the bikes were being stolen, for which we must thank the thieves. Who knows how many lives were saved.

Bangkok desperately needs its citizens to swap cars for bikes, but you can’t just paint little green lanes on the sides of the roads, or set up a network of smiling bikes, and expect things to change overnight.

First of all the shoulder, or the side of the road where cyclists have to be, is the most dangerous part of any road. It is here where cars wanting to escape the jams in the real lanes choose to drive without fear of road rules, let alone speed limits.

Coupled with that are the motorcyclists and even cars that choose to brazenly ride on the wrong side of the road. And street stalls. And motorcycle taxi drivers. And you want to ride a bicycle amid all that?

If I were a more optimistic man I would immediately answer: strict law enforcement is the answer. Crack down on drink drivers for a start. That 24-year-old Chiang Mai girl would surely agree with me. If only a police road block had arrested her before her accident; how much less of a burden on her conscience would a court rap have been … as opposed to what she has to live with now?

There needs to be more strict enforcement to stop riding the shoulder, texting while driving, riding on the wrong side of the road and speeding. Only then would you even think to consider a campaign to use bicycles.

But as I said, I would have to be a man of hope and optimism to suggest all that. I am not that man. The problem runs deeper than just getting tough on motorists.

Road deaths are so commonplace now the media doesn’t report them unless it’s a slow news day. It’s like bombs blowing up people in the South. We just aren’t horrified anymore.

Each year 13,000 people die on the roads in Thailand and another 20,000 are injured. We no longer stop to consider what that that means in terms of humanity.

As an example, take Thunyakorn Densirimongkol, an intelligent and beautiful young woman doing her Phd in Architecture. You should see her picture; she literally radiates with life.

Bright, attractive … and dead, as of last Monday, all because she chose to ride a bicycle with two friends down Ratchada Road at 8 pm. She was struck and killed by a man who, after the crash, got out of his car, took one look at the three fallen cyclists – and ran for his life.

That’s as tragic as the story of Peter Root and Mary Thompson, a British couple who travelled the world by bicycle. The two 34-year-olds had spent two years bicycling through Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and China before making the mistake of coming to Thailand. In Chachoengsao they were killed by a pick-up truck driver who swerved as he picked up his cap from the floor of his vehicle.

Not tragic enough? A Chilean man who spent five years cycling 250,000 kilometres around the world was struck and killed near Khon Kaen in February of this year. The facts speak for themselves; Thailand is one of the world’s worst countries for cyclists.

I have a friend, Jonathon, who is a long-term resident of Bangkok and an avid cyclist, eccentric as he is. While writing this column I called him up, and this was his one piece of advice: “Don’t ride in Bangkok.”

“I used to ride from Ekamai to the Grand Palace. It was really enjoyable. Once in a while you’d have a bus on your tail but other than that it was fine.”

That was 15 years ago.

“These days I won’t ride down Thonglor or Ekamai. People are so short-tempered. I have to stop on every corner because of some idiot making an illegal turn.”

I asked Jonathon what he thought could be done to alleviate the situation. “Scream abuse at them,” he said, before I clarified my question: What could be done to make it safer for bicyclists?

“Nothing,” he said. “Don’t even think of riding here. It’s a death wish.”

A death wish, dear reader! Jonathon’s own words!

Didn’t I say that at the beginning of this column?

That is the reality of Bangkokม a city where spandex and bicycles are on a par with tourniquets and heroin. Just say no.

/Andrew



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