THAILAND - Think of Songkran and two things immediately come to mind: water-splashing fun and deadly road accidents. Midway through the "Seven Dangerous Days", dozens have been killed in auto accidents, snuffing caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's hopes for "seven days of happiness".
Worse, the number of road accidents has risen. The first three days of the festival, Friday through Sunday, saw 1,539 accidents, compared with 1,446 last year. No surprise, then, that injuries rose from 1,526 in 2013 to 1,640 this year.
The number of deaths - 161 - is thus far lower than last year's 174, but that could easily change by the end of the festival.
The major causes of accidents remain unchanged. We know them well: drunk driving, speeding, and failure to wear helmets or safety belts. Each is longstanding and preventable, but we lack the determination and collective will to tackle them.
Instead there is a tendency to shrug shoulders at the annual tragedy, as if it were an inevitable downside of the national holiday. In fact, people are killed in auto accidents every day in Thailand, whose roads rank as the 6th most deadly in the world.
The spike in accidents over Songkran should be taken seriously, but road safety should be a concern year-round. The death toll over the festival period last year was 321, accounting for just 1.2 per cent of the 26,000 people killed in road accidents every year in Thailand. In fact, the numbers of road users killed outside festival periods is not much lower. Meanwhile 90 per cent of all accidents involve motorcycles or pickup trucks.
Since 1996, motorcyclists and their passengers have been required by law to wear helmets, but only 43 per cent of them complied last year, down from 46 per cent in 2012. More shocking still, only 7 per cent of child passengers wear a helmet, according to the Thai Roads Foundation. The result is that Thailand ranks among the top five countries in the world for annual motorcycle-related deaths.
All motorcyclists should wear helmets, and not because doing so is mandatory, but because it can save their life. Likewise, drivers of pick-up trucks and their passengers should belt up out of real concern for their own safety rather than anxiety over breaking the law.
It would help, of course, if the laws were more strictly enforced. Meanwhile we need more severe penalties for drunk drivers, another major cause of road accidents. Slapping a 10-year driving ban on anyone caught drunk at the wheel would cut the accident rate dramatically.
But the battle for safer roads must be waged collectively, by government, the law and the public. With our thoroughfares among the top-10 deadliest in the world, road safety must be made a national priority. Big corporations - especially manufacturers of motorcycles and autos and those who sell alcohol - should do their bit. There is no excuse for inaction when we already know the major causes of accidents. The battle against them needs to be waged every day, not just over the Songkran period.