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Is it Safe to Drive in Thailand?

Thailand has a reputation for dangerous roads. But do they deserve this reputation? Well, it is true that Thailand ranks high among nations for traffic road deaths. And every year during Songkran, grim statistics of daily death tolls are published nationally and internationally. However, these media headlines and Thailand’s road death ranking are misleading, causing many tourists to mistakenly believe that it isn’t safe to drive a car in Thailand.

Why is driving a car in Thailand safer than you might think? Because when you drill down into the traffic death statistics, you learn that around 75% of road traffic deaths in Thailand are motorcycle deaths, the vast majority of which are attributed to young males (18-24) who are speeding without a helmet — often on rural roads at night. In addition, the stats show that 50% of these motorcycle deaths are among riders who do not have a license.

Another approx. 10% of road traffic deaths In Thailand involve cyclists and pedestrians. Thus only about 15% of the cited road traffic deaths involve cars, trucks, and pickup trucks. So, when you hear that around 15,000 people lost their lives on Thailand’s roads in 2022, keep in mind that only around 2,250 of those deaths were among drivers of a 4-wheel vehicle, in a country with a population of over 70 million. To put this into perspective, in the United States there are about 20x as many deaths by car crash (46,000), yet the US is only 5x as large as Thailand.

 

Thailand Motorcycle Safety
While most road traffic deaths in Thailand are motorcycles, they can be driven safely with proper precautions.

Understanding the Songkran Death Toll

The “Songkran Death Toll” is what the media refers to as the number of road traffic deaths in Thailand during the “7 Dangerous Days” surrounding Songkran. During Songkran, the percentage of road traffic deaths involving motorcycles jumps to around 80%, with the vast majority of deaths occurring on rural roads at night. A recent study suggested that 40% of these Songkran deaths involved alcohol, but the percentage is likely much higher, because alcohol testing after a nighttime fatal motorcycle accident in rural Thailand happens less often than researchers assume.

Another contributing factor to the Songkran Death Toll of fatal motorcycle accidents is the lack of lights on many rural roads, as well as dirt roads that have changed or are being upgraded from dirt to cement. Many young men who come back to their villages for Songkran, after working in Bangkok, jump on their motorbikes at night to deliver Songkran greetings to friends and relatives. Then they drive too fast and have no time to react when suddenly they find that the rural road they once new so well has been changed or torn up. Fortunately, solar lights are now being added to many rural roads in Thailand.

It’s important to note that road deaths among foreigners in Thailand seems to mirror the road traffic deaths seen among Thais. While there hasn’t been a breakdown of foreigner road death statistics, media reports over the past 20 years suggest that it usually involves young men, riding on a road at night, often speeding without a helmet, while under the influence of alcohol.

None of this is meant to diminish the tragedy of motorcycle deaths in Thailand. Every road death is a tragedy, especially for the families who are left behind. Young males unfortunately are prone to risk taking behavior, and don’t realize they are taking their life in their hands when speeding on a motorcycle (especially while under the influence of alcohol).

We just want to place things in context for those who are planning a trip to the Land of Smiles. Exploring the back roads and communities of Thailand in a car or motorbike is a wonderful experience. It’s not one that should be dismissed because of a mistaken belief that Thailand’s roads are “too dangerous”.

However, having said that, you must take special precautions when riding a motorbike or driving a car in Thailand to ensure your safety. Thailand’s roads can be very dangerous if your mind is prone to wandering. The chief rules of thumb are always to pay attention, drive defensively, take no road sign or rules of the road for granted, and avoid driving at night if possible (especially late at night, so as to avoid drunk drivers).

For more detailed advice on riding a motorcycle in Thailand, read our post: Safety Tips for Driving a Motorcycle Safely in Thailand. The advice given in that post is also important to read if you plan driving a car during your stay in Thailand.