Better design of roads can save lives

The tragic death of Dr Waraluck Supawatjariyakul, an ophthalmologist with Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine, who was hit by a powerful big bike as she was negotiating a zebra crossing in January highlights a sad fact about the danger pedestrians face in their everyday lives.

Credit: Bangkok Post, A woman holds up a rabbit sign urging motorists to stop at the pedestrian crossing on Phaya Thai Road in Ratchathewi district where Dr Waraluck Supawatjariyakul was killed by a Ducati super bike ridden by off-duty policeman, Norawich Buadok, on Jan 21. by Apichit Jinakul

Apart from the recklessness of the motorcyclist who is also a police officer, the traffic system that gives priority to motorists, not pedestrians, is to blame for the ophthalmologist’s premature death.

The policeman who ran over the pedestrian at a zebra crossing in Bangkok three months ago has been sentenced by the Criminal Court to one year and 15 days in prison.

The police man — now being fired from Royal Thai Police (RTP) after the court verdict on Monday — is then Pol L/Cpl Norawich Buadok, 21, an officer with the Metropolitan Police Bureau’s Protection and Crowd Control Division.

Thailand is notorious for road accidents. Combined state data — from the Department of Disease Control, the Royal Thai Police (RTP), and Road Accident Victims Protection Co Ltd — showed 700 pedestrians on average were killed on the road during 2012-2019, or 7.12% of the total road fatalities, each year.

Road accident-related deaths cause massive losses, about four billion baht, or around six million baht/case, each year. The loss is much higher if we include injuries, with many paralysed, and the psychological impact on the families of the deceased and those injured.

In general, road accidents involve speeding, reckless driving, drunk driving, and poor traffic infrastructure in the absence of prudent town planning. Sub-standard infrastructure is to blame for poor visibility that compromises pedestrians’ safety. Although the country has the Land Traffic Act BE 2522 that protects the right of pedestrians, requiring motorists to exercise caution when on the road and avoid hitting pedestrians, especially children, the elderly and the disabled, weak law enforcement significantly hinders state efforts to reduce road mishaps.

The case of Dr Waraluck triggered public awareness about the right of pedestrians and the need to boost road safety in accordance with the principle that the roads are for everyone.

Back to the case of Dr Waraluck, it was found that the police/motorcyclist drove the vehicle at a very high speed that made it impossible to stop it in time.

It should be noted that the current speed limit, which is at 80kph under the law for vehicles travelling in urban and community areas in Bangkok, Pattaya, as well as municipal areas is still high, compared to the 50-80kph limit imposed in advanced countries.

We should look at reports by the World Health Organization (WHO) on road safety that connect speed and the odds of pedestrians’ survival. The higher the speed, the less chance of survival when there is a crash. If a vehicle is going at 30kph, the chance of survival is around 90%. But it falls to 50% for a vehicle travelling at 45kph.

According to a study by Taweesak Taekratok, a lecturer at Naresuan University’s Civil Engineering Faculty, the impact of a crash involving a vehicle travelling at 80kph is similar to a fall from an eight-floor building, and the chance of survival goes bottom-low at 10%.

The WHO thus recommends a 30-40kph speed limit in community or pedestrian areas.

Thai authorities have launched quite a few measures including closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras as well as a point demerit system in order to force motorists to observe speed limits. However, the point system still cannot be fully implemented given the absence of data links between related agencies, ie, the Royal Thai Police, and the Land Transport Department. Weak traffic law enforcement makes matter worse.

More importantly, Thailand has only one rate of fine for breaching the speed limit at a 1,000-baht fine maximum while advanced countries like the US, France, the UK and Japan where the traffic authorities stringently enforce the law, have imposed progressive penalties depending on the places where the speed violations occur or the speeds the motorists use in particular cases. In certain cases, the motorist can be stripped of a driving licence for good.

In Thailand, more often than not, the authorities choose to reduce a fine to a warning. Such compromises make it hard to discipline motorists.

At the same time, poor traffic infrastructure increases the chance of accidents. In Dr Waraluck’s case, the zebra crossing could hardly be seen as there are no warning signs for motorists to slow down ahead of the spot. Also absent is an automated pedestrians’ signal. The spot in question is very dark with poor lighting. Yet, the street is very wide, with three lanes on one side and four lanes on the other. With such a design, many motorists feel free to speed up.

In fact, it’s necessary that traffic engineers simultaneously design pedestrian crossings when constructing a road. In addition to convenience, they should take into consideration public safety when calculating road widths, and the speed allowed in certain areas, like hospitals where there are vulnerable groups such as patients. Grade-separated crossing or underpasses, not overpasses, are more appropriate at such spots.

Needless to say, the authorities should impose a lower speed limit, at 30-40kph, at crowded pedestrian spots like schools, and markets, to ensure safety. In addition, the authorities should install closed-circuit television devices and speed cameras in community areas.

The penalty for speed limit violations should be progressive, with the rate of fine varying depending upon the place where the violation occurred and the speed of the drivers. The penalty for speeding should be separated from other traffic minor offences. The RTP and the Land Transport Department are obliged to link their data to improve traffic law enforcement, making it possible to implement a demerit point system that enables the authorities to suspend or even revoke a driving licence when motorists commit a serious offence.

On top of that, traffic engineers must do more to improve road design, making sure that they’re up to standard, with sufficient infrastructure which can accommodate vulnerable pedestrians. When designing a road, the engineers must make pedestrians’ right to safety the priority.

Article by Jitlaykha Sukruay and Atcharaporn Ariyasunthorn are researchers at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays with the Thailand Development Research Institute.

First Published: Bangkok post on April 27, 2022 

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