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Street Food, Street Carnage

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STREET FOOD, STREET CARNAGE

By Andrew Biggs

There are two categories where you can find Thailand sitting at the top of the world charts.

The first is for street food. There isn’t another country in the world that can match the variety and quantity of what is peddled roadside here. CNN has lauded Thailand, in particular Bangkok, for the best street food in the world. So has Conde Nast Traveller, Virtual Tourist, Skyscanner … the secret is out.

The second category where we have clinched pole position is in road fatalities.

For years we languished at number 2. That all changed late 2017 when it was announced we had finally taken over the top spot with a road death rate of 36.2 per 100,000. On that dubious chart, Thailand is followed by Malawi, Liberia, The Congo, Tanzania … hardly the type of countries you would bring home to meet Mother, and we managed to top them all.

There you have it. Two world number ones for Thailand  – street food and road fatalities.

A person unfamiliar with the way we do things in Thailand may find it a little curious, perhaps, to learn that the powers-that-be have cracked down on, and taken major steps to eradicate, exactly one of those two categories. And it ain’t road fatalities.

There has been fervor in the way the government has blotted out the lower classes wheeling their street carts onto the footpath. They cite “social order” and “adherence to the law” as the reasons — their words, not mine.

“Social order” and “adherence to the law” are laudable aspirations, but talk about skewed priorities. I wonder how a stout middle-aged woman selling fried noodles is a greater danger to “social order” than, say, a drunken meth-head racing his motorbike home at 140 km an hour after two bottles of rice whiskey.

This column was written last Thursday, at the close of “Seven Dangerous Days” as the police call it. This is the period between December 28 and January 3 where fatalities are at their peak.

Actually there are “Fourteen Dangerous Days” in Thailand. The period over Songkran in April has its own “Seven Dangerous Days” as well. We don’t bundle them together because it’s nearly half a month and that may frighten away some of those 30 million tourists who visit Thailand annually. And anyway … just the fourteen? When you’re number one in the world it’s “365 Dangerous Days,” isn’t it?

Last year almost 500 people were killed in the seven-day New Year period. As I write this the figures are in for Day Six and 375 are dead, which means this year’s toll will end up around the 450 mark. That’s less than last year.

One wonders if the road safety folk will be smiling and patting each other on the back over that. It does remind me of the 2010-2011 “Seven Dangerous Days” when, the week prior to the start, the then-police chief ordered a death toll of “no more than 300.”

Imagine that: “I want to see 300 dead bodies lined up outside my office by the end of the week and no more!” It ended up at 358.

This week the Probation Department hit us with the most telling statistic of all; that drunk-driving cases accounted for 90% of traffic offences over the New Year Holiday period. We can safely say that the one, single, solitary reason we kill each other in such huge numbers is alcohol.

Whatever you do don’t show that above paragraph to the powers that be. They will use it as a tool to continue what has been a litany of misguided campaigns over alcohol in this country. Those campaigns are nothing but half-measures up against an inherent culture of drinking-till-you-drop.

As I drive into the city on the freeway, I see the same tired old billboard that depicts a New Year’s basket with a bottle of alcohol inside. “GIVING ALCOHOL IS AKIN TO CURSING THE RECIPIENT!” it shouts, as if somehow this is going to reduce the road toll. By January each year it disappears so we can all get on with our lives — except for those who were killed over New Year.

Meanwhile police are “cracking down” by seizing the cars of drivers found to be drunk. This is not a crack-down. This is common sense!

The cops are quick to point out that the cars will be returned after the holiday period. Well thank goodness for that. How is a drunkard expected to get around without his vehicle? It must be a relief for the country’s burgeoning drunk-driver population to know that they can quickly get their cars back and continue their behavior in peace.

There are other admirable but futile attempts, such as a law forbidding alcohol to be sold between 2 pm and 5 pm in order to stop people drinking during that time. Or no alcohol to be sold within a radius of 1 km of schools or temples to stop students and Buddhists from drinking. Whoever thought up these laws no doubt still puts their teeth under pillows for the tooth fairy to collect.

Absolutely everything implemented to reduce the death toll in this country has been a failure, because they are really just skirting the big issue: Nobody is afraid to drink and drive.

Towards the top of this column I mentioned Thailand having an inherent culture of drinking-till-you-drop. I, too, come from such a culture. We Australians are big drinkers, and yet our road toll, per head, is way lower than that of Thailand’s.Is it because we are smarter than Thais? Good lord no. It’s because we are afraid.

One of the dubious claims to fame of my state, Queensland, in the 1970s and early 1980s was its high road toll. There was a reluctance to accept the correlation between guzzling bottles of Bundaberg Rum and Fourex beer, often at the same time, then getting behind the wheel and driving home. Queensland is the only state with more rural folk than city dwellers which, like Thailand, is where the majority of drunken accidents occur

Queensland continued along in its alcoholic daze until someone in government looked at the road toll – and health care costs -- and decided something had to be done.

The cops got tough on drink drivers, starting random breath testing and dropping the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.05. Anybody could get pulled over and if they were over the limit, they lost their licence. As simple as that. No giving it back after the holiday. It was gone for at least three months.

Judges lost their licenses. So did politicians. Even the cops! We all knew somebody who fell foul of the law and lost their privilege — not right — to drive. It was only this fear of hitting a random breath testing stop that made us curtail our behavior.

Here in Thailand such a heavy crack-down would be greeted with howls of dissent. Losing your license? Then how on earth are you supposed to make a living? What about the poor rural folk, whose very lives depend on their vehicles?

The answer is: Tough. You drink-drive, you lose your license. Next.

One day – one day – somebody high up in the Thai government will cotton onto this simple fact. The road toll remains high as long as repercussions remain low. Tough cops, tough laws and a strong educational campaign about drink-driving really does work, even on us Queenslanders.

And it’s not as though there is any place to set up roadside breathalyzer stations. Look at all that space on the sidewalks.

Cheers,
/Andrew

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