By Andrew Biggs
Late Saturday night something happened to me that has never occurred before in the quarter-century I have spent here in Thailand.
I got breathalyzed.
It was an experience that filled me with a number of emotions. Thankfully one of them wasn’t remorse for downing a Smirnoff Ice four-pack in the hour preceding, since I am a responsible upstanding member of society who doesn’t mix alcohol and driving — that and the fact I was battling a severe cold.
Instead I felt surprise, revulsion, elation and finally irony, and it is those four emotions we will examine in this column this week.
First of all, surprise.
How is it I can manage to live 25 years of my life in a country that figures prominently in the Top Five Road Deaths Per Capita In The World without ever getting breathalyzed?
Figures are unreliable but conservative estimates show that every year, 12,000 to 15,000 Thais die on the roads. Another 70,000 are maimed. Most are due to alcohol and speeding. I don’t know about you but that sounds to me like a national disaster. An annual national disaster.
I was here back in the 1990s when the police announced breathalyzers had been purchased from overseas and they would start to be implemented in this country.
For a very short time the cops even announced where they would be setting up their roadside breathalyzer stops, providing drivers with an extensive education on alternative, albeit circuitous, routes home.
The fact is, they have been in place for at least 20 years and not once have I ever been stopped.
I am not exactly a hermit, either. I have lurked in the trendiest bars and restaurants around the Thonglor-Ekamai area for more than two decades. I’ve danced, maybe not until dawn, but at least until 11 p.m. at RCA, Saphan Khwai and Ratchadapisek shoulder to shoulder with the country’s best known actors, singers, society figures and yes, even children of politicians when scraping the barrel. Each time I did this I had to get myself home. Never once did I get pulled over.
Well that is not entirely true. I’ve been stopped at police breathalyzer points before, but I’d always been waved through.
Never once has a machine been thrust in my face. Until last Saturday night, that is, and that’s when the second emotion, revulsion, set in.
I must quickly add that it was not revulsion towards the police, who were doing their job. The revulsion was directed towards what was in their hands.
I got stopped on Srinakharin Road. The police often set up there late Friday and Saturday nights, but it has been a source of curiosity to me in that they set up on only one side of that road – the side going into the city, not out of it.
In other words, they are breath-testing those already showered, dressed and ready to have a night out on the town. This is convenient for all those drunken revelers making their ways home after numerous rounds of vodka shots at Ekamai nightspots.
That all changed this week. The police set up on the left side of the road, or rather the right as in “correct” side, catching those coming home, including me.
This time I was waved over and upon winding down my window, a friendly police officer shoved a long thin box at my head.
“Please blow into this,” he said.
It was a rectangular-shaped four-sided metal box, probably half the size of a Chivas container but of the same length. At the end of it, barely centimetres from my face, was a round hole. No rim; no tubing. Just a round hold cut into the metal.
And I have to blow into that?
No disposable plastic attachment, no protective tissue paper. I assumed this box was travelling from car to car, each driver thrusting his mouth against it as if kissing some unresponsive fellow patron at closing time.
You don’t get to my age without having had some pretty strange things pass your lips. I will not traverse any deeper along that particular path.
It has to be said, though, that I draw the line at having to put my mouth against something perhaps a hundred of my Samut Prakan brethren have just kissed. We Samut Prakanians are hardly the crème de la crème of Thai society; we have sweat shops and garbage dumps and the Crocodile Farm. I ain’t getting up close and personal with all that! Wasn’t there some way we could do it and avoid oral herpes at the same time?
In the end I found a way to blow into the hole without my lips ever touching metal, and within a minute I was on my way.
I waited 25 years for that?
The third emotion was elation.
Finally the Thai police are getting serious about drunk driving. Those road toll figures are nothing short of a tragedy and it appears the police are taking their first steps towards controlling that deadly toll.
As stated too many times in this column, I come from a country where driving and alcohol used to be rampant too. Our death toll was horrendous, until the Australian cops realized how much money they could make out of fining people for drink-driving.
How cynical of me for writing that, but you know what? Let them make money from it. Their crackdown drastically reduced the Australian road toll and exactly the same thing can happen here, too. There is only one way to stop people drink-driving on a mass scale and that is to scare them into not using their cars. The ramifications have to be worse than the risk.
That’s why I was elated to see the cops last Saturday night. I don’t care if the decision to set up breathalyzer stops is a financial one. Well done, boys in tight brown!
We have arrived at the final emotion; that of irony.
My very first foray into alcohol breath-testing in Thailand occurred the same month two high-profile news events took place on the same topic.
In the first, a local actress while driving home late at night ploughed her Mercedes Benz into a parked police car, killing a 44-year-old Suphan Buri police inspector.
The circumstances are dubious, thanks to that actress’s absolute refusal to be arrested, be breath-tested or even go to the police station, and instead going home to bed.
What a great example of how the media has a role in educating the general public; it is good to know that in Thailand one has such choices. I know if I committed a heinous crime, my warm bed would be far more desirous than any dirty police cell.
The second incident is more intriguing.
The city police bureau chief got stopped not once like I did, but twice, at roadside breathalyzer stops. On both occasions the chief lashed out at his subordinates for doing their job … on him of all people.
He refused to blow into the box and, this being Thailand, his subordinates sent him on his way.
An actress, a police chief, and your humble columnist. Only one obeyed the law and blew sober. Ah, the irony.