Seven deadly days

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 April, 2007, 12:00am

The main floor of the Mo Chit bus terminal resembled a cattle yard as last-minute travellers leaned across ticket counters pleading for seats while passengers dozed off in the stairwells, waiting for their departures to be announced.

Nearby, police and bomb sniffer dogs inspected the luggage of several teenagers as overhead surveillance cameras recorded everything.

Amid the chaotic atmosphere at the Bangkok station, crowds milling by the main entranceway stepped back to make room for a middle-aged man who arrived by three-wheeled motorbike.

He wasn't able to stand, but Loi Bannadsamrong drew applause from the throngs as he turned off the whining engine.

Mr Loi is an amputee whose legs were crushed 30 years ago in the road carnage that marks the annual Songkran (Thai new year) celebration. He is also the face of a public campaign that aims to draw attention to the soaring road toll of the alcohol-fuelled week.

'The Songkran season is a time for family members to be together.

It is not a time to create more cripples,' said the 53-year-old spokesman for Thailand's Don't Drive Drunk foundation. He had just completed a 5,000km, nine-day tour campaigning against the drink driving epidemic that grips Thailand during Songkran.

On the tour he told Thais of the 15 years he spent in hospital and the 48 operations he had endured since a drunk truck driver collided with his motorcycle. With him at the bus station ceremony marking the end of his journey were eight other crippled victims of drunken driving - the youngest just three years old.

This year the government has stepped up efforts to cut last year's Songkran road toll of 482 dead and almost 6,000 injured. Nearly 5,000 drivers were arrested for drink driving during the period.

This year the authorities have dubbed the road safety campaign the 'Seven Dangerous Days' from yesterday until next Wednesday.

As part of the effort road safety officials, medical teams and volunteer units will be manning checkpoints, rest centres and emergency relief sites.

The country's most popular celebration wasn't always synonymous with road carnage. Traditionally, Thailand's Songkran holidays were a time for making offerings to monks, paying respect to parents and renewing family ties.

The sprinkling of scented water on village elders in a ceremony called rod nam dam hua is practised to symbolise washing away bad spirits and bringing good luck.

Chiang Mai province is considered the birthplace of the festivities and many of the original family-oriented traditions are still in place in rural villages there. But in many places the holiday - which begins today - has become a chaotic week of water fights and drinking.

April is often a month of drought in Thailand and this year is no exception, giving added ferocity to the drenching, cooling water fights.

In Chiang Mai, Ruam Jai Rescue Foundation worker Uthai Jaifei predicted another week of mayhem as thousands of outsiders descend on the area. 'This is the second year they aren't selling alcohol around the city centre, but we are still going to have many accidents where the victims are very drunk.'

To help ease the workload for regular medical and rescue crews, volunteers are often enlisted, but there is little training. 'We get about 20 extra volunteers from technical college students who are on three-month holidays,' said Mr Uthai, 24.

There are four levels of training available for emergency medical workers in Thailand, but most staff at the foundation have only basic first-aid skills that they use for either transporting victims to hospitals or ferrying bodies to morgues.

'Our biggest challenge is dealing with drunken people driving motorbikes, usually starting in the early afternoon,' said Mr Uthai.

Some of the prevention measures of recent years are hard to take seriously. Earlier this month about 3,000 monks gathered at Wat Huay Mongkol to bless 140,000 packets of 'super sour' lollies to be handed out to drivers during Songkran to keep them from nodding off at the wheel. The local police chief, who purchased the donations from the local temple, said the sweets were especially sour and would 'wake drivers up instantly'.

Apart from the festival spirit, worries over Thailand's economic downturn, last year's coup and the security crisis in the Muslim-dominated south are fuelling heavy drinking this year. A survey by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said Thais were hitting the bottle harder, a claim supported by an increase in alcohol sales of almost 10 per cent. The study found purchases had risen to 14 per cent of an average Thai's income, up from 5 per cent at the same time last year.

In a country ranked sixth world-wide in hard liquor consumption by the World Health Organisation, commentators say part of the problem is excise regulations.

Critics say that in most western countries, excise tax on liquor rises with the percentage of alcohol, but in Thailand taxes are based on production cost, meaning tax is essentially based on the price tag.

As a result, a 750ml bottle of low-grade whisky can be bought at a corner shop for about 150 baht (HK$30). Regulations also appear to ease and prices fall in outlets further from Bangkok.

Amid lax controls the holidays are a boon for people such as moonshine vendor Tip Pornsawansong. He appeared in high spirits as he carefully filled a plastic jug with lao kao (rice whisky) from his backyard still.

'During the holidays I can sell about 200 bottles a day to the local shops,' the 62-year-old farmer said as he puffed on a banana leaf cigarette. Occasionally, a customer walked in off the dusty road for a short glass at five baht a shot.

Illegal liquor producers in the north are reportedly increasing production to meet rising demand from labourers working closer to Bangkok.

Some of the major registered local distillers are also said to be covertly making and distributing bootleg liquor.

But cheap booze isn't the only problem during Songkran. Police checkpoints are sporadic and ill-equipped to monitor the massive traffic jams as millions take to the roads for family reunions.

This year the Department of Transport has set up breathalyser booths next to police checkpoints to monitor interprovincial bus drivers.

But convictions for driving while impaired usually only result in a minor fine and a suspended sentence. Suspected drunk drivers can refuse to take breath or blood-alcohol tests. It is cheaper to pay the 1,000 baht maximum fine for obstructing the police than face the maximum drink driving penalty of 4,000 baht and a year in jail.

Taejing Siripanich, who founded Don't Drive Drunk four years ago, said the law was not the problem. 'We have good laws but we have bad law enforcement,' the 42-year-old doctor and former government health worker said.

The majority of alcohol-related deaths occurred in the outlying areas of Thailand where local police had closer ties to their communities.

Earlier this week, Dr Taejing, whose group's members include more than 1,000 maimed victims of drink driving, was on hand during the allocation of 300 alcohol detection devices to police across Thailand's 76 provinces.

'There aren't many breathalysers at police stations. I think maybe one for every station. I think they should have at least five,' he said.

While local whisky maker Mr Tip insists his customers in a tiny village near Chiang Mai are safe drivers, not far down the road Pun Guntawong and his wife, Pom, give a special offering of curried beef, grilled pork and steamed rice to monks.

It was a favourite dish of their first son, Wasan, who died three years ago during the Songkran chaos. After drinking beer and whisky, the helmetless Wasan left a temple fair and crashed his motorbike into a bed of rocks.

The 20-year-old was rushed to a local hospital in the back of a pickup truck, suffering serious head injuries. He died two weeks later.

'It's important that other families tell their children not to drive if they drink,' said Mr Pun, after saying a special prayer for his lost son. 'The police must arrest anyone who drives when they are drunk to prevent needless death.'

But Dr Taejing said laws didn't work without proper enforcement. 'We say if you get caught drunk driving you can go to jail for up to three months but it's up to the judge so it can be from zero to three months. And quite often it's zero.'

Dr Taejing said another problem was that most Thais were Buddhists and believed in karma. 'In Thailand most people are very accepting when an accident happens, believing that the person must have done something bad in a past life,' he said.

'We have to change the thinking that an accident is fate. In many cases it is because of the drunk driver who is not thinking of the safety of the public and who is thinking only of himself. But I am afraid that more people will die before this happens.'