When you drive in Thailand, the rules change, and some of them are quite curious. Here is a collection of driving and traffic tidbits.
Q: How many people fit on a small scooter in Thailand?
A: 3 or 4 is not uncommon, but I have seen 5. Only two are legal, by the way, but nobody cares about that.
Q: What kind of helmet is the most popular in Thailand?
A: The one that prevents you from getting a fine. This is mostly a super cheap proforma helmet which costs about $3.- or 4.- God forbid you need it to protect yourself in an accident.
Q: Why do so many Thais not wear a helmet on their motorbikes?
A: For the girls – it messes up their hair. For the guys – it is not cool. Helmets cost money. Helmets get stolen. As you see there are many excellent reasons not to wear one.
Q: Is there a law in Thailand that requires you to wear a helmet?
A: Yes there is. Here in Chiang Mai the fine is 400 baht, or about US$12.- In reality few people pay that since you can often slip the cop 100 baht, or US$3.-, and the problem is solved. You spend less money and the cop supplements his meager salary. Everyone happy.
Many riders keep a helmet in their little basket in front of the handlebar so they can put it on if it looks like there is a police check ahead.
Q: Do the cops stop motorbike riders who do not wear helmets?
A: It depends on the area. In Bangkok the rules are pretty strictly enforced. In many rural areas they are not enforced at all. Here in Chiang Mai you often see a whole group of police at an intersection and they stop every single bike rider without helmet.
But this happens only during the official stop-the-helmetless-riders hour. As soon as the cops leave their official ticket-writing assignment and continue with their regular duties, they could not care less if you wear a helmet or not.
You could be riding a little moped with 4 people on it and no helmet anywhere in sight, and the same cop who just stopped everyone at the intersection, pulls up next to you at the light and does not even blink an eye. It is truly selective enforcement.
Q: Do you need a drivers license to drive a motorbike in Thailand?
A: Yes you need a license, but many drivers just don’t bother getting one. After all it is a hassle. You have to take a test, spend money, learn the rules – so why bother.
In most cases the test does not make anyone a better driver anyway. In Thailand most 12 year olds are capable of driving a small motorbike, and I have seen even younger ones drive. Legally you have to be 15 years old to drive a bike.
I know people who have been driving their bikes for decades without a license. If they get stopped by the cops, they will be asked for their license. But if you don’t have one, you just pay a little fine and that’s it. Car drivers however generally do have driving licenses.
Q: Whose fault is that accident?
A: In most cases whoever has the bigger vehicle has to pay. If a truck hits a car, the truck is at fault unless the car is so blatantly wrong that the truck driver could not avoid the accident. If a car hits a motorbike, the car driver is automatically at fault even if the motorbike driver did something totally wrong and illegal. Don’t ask me to explain that one!
Q: Pedestrian only traffic lights – do you have to stop?
A: Theoretically yes. In practice most drivers will stop if they see someone attempting to cross the road. If they don’t see anyone they will just drive through the red light.
Q: Do motorbikes get stolen easily?
A: Yes, it is a booming business. Since most of the bikes are small and light, two men can easily grab one of them and throw it in the back of a pickup truck. Your lock does not help at all.
The bikes can be sold easily in areas with little or no police presence or abroad to Burma, Laos or Cambodia (neighboring third world countries), or they can be stripped down and sold as parts.
My solution is to drive a bike that is so heavy that it takes at least 4 men to lift it. I hope it helps. By the way, you cannot buy theft insurance for motorbikes when they are more than two years old.
In summary, traffic rules in Thailand differ from the west. Some may sound strange, but once you get used to those rules or idiosyncrasies, you can drive here with no problem. I have been driving in Thailand for 10 years accident free. Knock on wood!
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