Here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I see lots of people getting stopped by the cops for traffic violations. But why does the same cop give you a ticket for not wearing a helmet in the morning, but in the afternoon he couldn’t care less?
This is a somewhat bizarre ritual. Here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, there are regular traffic stops, and they work like this. A number of cops are ordered to set up a traffic stop at a certain street or intersection, let’s say from 10 am to noon. There might be half a dozen of them jumping in front of every single motorbike where the driver is not wearing a helmet (a very common scenario).
The cops take the operation very seriously. Many drivers gets pulled over, and the cops either write a ticket or in some cases will accept payment on the spot. You can guess where that money goes!
Helmet laws in Thailand
The fine for not wearing a helmet is not very high, about US $13, and the “pay on the spot method”, especially if it comes from a young pretty girl with a good sob story, might only be a quarter of that amount.
In contrast bike riders who get caught without a helmet in Thailand’s neighbor country Malaysia pay about ten times the amount of the Thai fines, and guess what – they all wear helmets. I wonder why!
Back to our traffic stop in Thailand. So for two hours no helmet-less bide rider will escape their fate of having to pay up. Despite those regular police stops plenty of people will absolutely refuse to wear a helmet for some reason which I will never understand.
Selective enforcement of traffic laws
But here is the real mystery. Let’s say at noon the official “stop the offender” campaign is over. The cops get on their own scooters and they leave the scene. From now on they might stop at a red light next to a whole bunch of bike riders. But it will be a totally different scenario.
Even if not one of them wears a helmet, one has 4 people on the bike instead of the legally allowed 2, another one runs the red light, and another one makes an illegal turn, the cop who just five minutes ago was so eager to catch the violators, will not even blink an eye – he won’t do anything. He will act as if everything is normal, and all the offenders are perfectly safe from him.
It’s not his job anymore to catch traffic offenders. That official job ended a while ago, and now the cop is “traffic offender blind”.
So sometimes the law is enforced, and at other times it is a free-for-all situation. However I have to say that there are areas in Thailand where the traffic laws are enforced more strictly, like in Bangkok for example. So don’t rely on this selective enforcement.
Why do so many Thais not wear a helmet? There are some “important” reasons. The girls don’t want to get their hair style messed up by a tight helmet, and the boys want to look cool. Besides most helmets which are sold and worn in Thailand are only good for not getting a ticket. They won’t be of much use in a real accident. After all what can you expect from a helmet that costs about US $ 6.
Speed limit – what’s that?
There are other mysteries when it comes to traffic in Thailand. Hardly anyone knows the speed limit. They are rarely posted anywhere and even if you ask people, nobody knows what the speed limit is.
This is not a big issue since in most areas of Thailand there are no speed traps or cop cars with radar guns lurking behind the bushes. So you won’t have to worry too much about getting clocked. However in some areas the cops do have speed traps, so you cannot rely on lax or non existing enforcement.
Luckily in most rural or small town areas hardly anyone will drive very fast. This changes quickly once you get to the highways around Bangkok or some major long distance highways where you will encounter quite a few speeders.
With the right attitude driving in Thailand is not so bad
The best rule in Thailand is to not expect that others will follow the traffic laws but to always expect the unexpected. That will go a long way in ensuring your safety in traffic.
I don’t want to make things appear worse than they are. I have been driving my motorbike in Thailand for 14 years without a single accident. I am used to the style of driving here, and I feel quite safe and comfortable in traffic. And I find it more relaxing that there is not a cop around every other corner getting you for driving 3 miles above the speed limit.
By the way, after those 14 years of driving in Thailand I still have no idea what the speed limits are, and neither does my Thai wife. In those 14 years I have never been stopped by a cop since I always wear a helmet. Truth be told, driving in Thailand is quite a civilized affair compared to many other developing or third world nations.