Thailand is a dangerous place to drive.
Every year, thousands of tourists visit the land of smiles and rent motorbikes, without realizing how dangerous the roads are. Thailand has the second-highest amount road accident deaths per 100,000 people in the world. This ranking includes all third world countries, not just Western nations.
If you talk to someone who has lived in Thailand long enough, they will know someone involved in a tragic accident. Everyone knows somebody who has been killed or seriously injured on a motorbike.
Before visiting Thailand, I had never seen a motorcycle accident in person. Sure, I saw the occasional fender bender between cars, or the aftermath of an accident on a highway, but never a motorbike accident.
In the past five years, I have seen the aftermath of dozens of motorbike accidents. No matter how many times I see it, I still get chills when I see someone lying motionless on the ground. Some of the accidents have been extremely gory, but I’ll spare you the details.
Living in Phuket has exposed me to far more accidents than most people will ever see in their entire lives.
Phuket’s special combination of impatient taxi vans, bad foreign drivers, Thai drivers who don’t believe in speed limits, and motorbikes zigzagging through traffic, has resulted in the deadliest roads in all of Thailand.
Fortunately, if you are careful and know how to drive a motorbike in Thailand, you can minimize your risk.
I’ve driven in Thailand for over six years and have only been in one minor accident. That accident happened because someone sprayed me in the face with a water gun during Songkran (on the Thai water festival).
The goal of this article is not to scare you from driving a motorbike in Thailand (although it might), but to make you aware of the dangers you face when you do drive a motorbike on your holiday.
Before I discuss tips for driving a motorbike, it is important to look at why motorbike accidents happen in the first place.
5 Reasons Why Motorbike Accidents Happen
Over the years I’ve met countless tourists and expats people who have been in motorbikes accidents. Just because you are a good driver, doesn’t mean you are immune from the dangers of the road. You can be doing everything right, when suddenly a car cuts in front of your bike and BAM……game over.
Here are a few reasons why people end up in motorbike accidents.
#1. Inexperience – You Don’t Know How to Ride a Motorbike
Getting access to a motorbike in Thailand is easy. You don’t need to know how to drive a motorbike to rent one. Most shops will rent you a motorbike if you have a passport, 200 baht (5 USD) per day, and a small deposit. Shop owners are desperate to rent out their bikes, so they won’t even ask you if you can drive. If you crash the bike, they often make money because they will double the repair costs.
In 2007, when I did a University exchange in Bangkok, a group of 10 of us students rented motorbikes on the island of Koh Samet. Since we were all young kids at the time, nobody would admit that they didn’t know how to drive a motorbike. Out of the 10 of us, three guys crashed their motorbikes. Luckily, Koh Samet is a small island, and you couldn’t go fast, but imagine if we rented bikes in a place like Phuket.
I still remember the scene when we first rented the bikes. One guy jumped on the bike, immediately hit the accelerator, and kept on squeezing it when he panicked. He drove head-on into an oncoming taxi, that had fortunately stopped. His bike was totaled and he drove it for 10 seconds.
If you don’t know how to drive a motorbike, do not learn in a place that has fast-moving cars. Go to some small side roads and stay on those side roads until you are 100% confident in your driving abilities. New drivers can sometimes squeeze the gas handle when they get nervous, causing them to speed up, instead of slow down.
Applying the brakes is another skill that causes new drivers issues. I know a guy who crashed 4 times because he kept on jamming on the breaks too hard, causing his front tire to skid out when he stopped too fast.
#2. Drinking and Driving – The Biggest Killer
Outside of a lack of experience, drinking and driving is the biggest cause of accidents in Thailand. While drinking and driving is illegal in Thailand, it is common to see locals and foreigners driving their motorbike to the bar and drive home drunk.
While the capital city of Bangkok is the one place that has cheap taxis, most of the cities in Thailand have a tuk-tuks that are controlled by the mafia. This means that they charge high rates (10x more than in Bangkok), which people don’t want to pay. Because of the Tuk Tuk prices, people are willing to risk driving home instead of taking a taxi.
If you ever go out drinking in Thailand and visit a late-night bar at 2 am, you will notice everyone gets pissed drunk and gets on their bikes to drive home. It doesn’t matter that you would probably NEVER drive drunk in your own country, for some reason tourists let loose when they visit Thailand. Maybe it is the sex industry or party life down here, but tourists are much more willing to take personal risks.
While the police do set up road blocks from time to time, it has no effect on the number of drunk drivers on the road. These roadblocks are designed for fining people who don’t have helmets, licenses or updated insurance papers.
For this reason, I recommend avoiding the roads late at night, unless you need to go somewhere.
#3. Poor Road Conditions
Another common cause of motorbike accidents is wet and slippery road conditions. You can drive your motorbike fine, but when you hit a patch of sand on the road, the thin tires have a tendency to lose their grip. This happens when you are going around a bend with a little bit too much speed, and you feel your tires start slipping.
Wet roads are another significant cause of accidents. When it hasn’t rained in a while, the roads become very slippery. You often see motorbikes skidding out as they try to apply their breaks. This is especially true if you are using a motorbike that has tires that are worn out.
I’ve seen multiple accidents in a single day because of slippery wet roads causing people to lose control when they apply the breaks. The more experience you have driving on poor road conditions, the better you will get at dealing with these conditions.
#4. Bad Drivers – Other People on the Road
While the first 3 causes of accidents are the result of driving skills, another big factor is other people on the road. Almost all the near accidents I have been involved in was the result of a car cutting me off. Sometimes cars won’t wait for you to drive by before they turn into your lane, they will just go. This requires you to drive AROUND the car, or break. If you expect the car to stop and let you drive through before turning, you are going to crash.
Cars rule the road in Thailand. If you are driving on a motorbike, you are the last on the pecking order. Expect cars to dominate the road and force you to play by their rules. If you are driving your motorbike and wondering whether that car is going to cut in front of you, expect them to.
Thailand has millions of stray animals that are wandering the streets. A lot of times these cats and dogs can end up bolting in front of the road when you are driving your motorbike. Most of the time these animals are fast enough to avoid getting hit, but sometimes people react on the bike and crash because of these animals.
When you drive a motorbike, you must drive with the flow of other bikes. If you stay in the flow of traffic, you will usually avoid any problems. However, when you need to get out of the flow and make a turn, that is when you are at risk of danger.
You should also keep in mind that a lot of vehicles will pass people using the oncoming lane. This means if you are casually driving in your lane, you will often have to veer off the road as you see an oncoming car coming right at you. While the cars will flash their high beams to let you know they are coming at you if you don’t move you are going to get hit.
#5. Being Distracted While Driving
If you thought driving a car while texting on your phone is bad, wait till you see people texting with one hand on their motorbikes. I kid you not, I’ve seen some ladies hold a baby on their lap, with a phone on the ear, as they apply gas and drive with one hand.
Tourists are often guilty of driving by a restaurant, or bar and staring at it, as they don’t pay attention to what’s in front of them. This can cause them to collide with vehicles that end up breaking in front of them.
I’ve also noticed that some people driving with audio books or music in their ears. This is another easy way to get distracted and crash. When you are driving, you want to keep your eyes and ears vigilant of what’s going on always.
Whenever you change lanes or move to the center of your lane, you need to do a check and make sure no cars are speeding up behind you. I know someone who was run over by a bus because they changed lanes without looking and the bus ran him over. Always do shoulder checks when you are on your bike.
How to Stay Safe While Driving a Motorbike
Now that we understand why you are likely to crash your motorbike in Thailand, we can talk about some of the ways to prevent crashing. While this list offers suggestions, just like driving back home, you can never guarantee that you won’t crash. These tips will only minimize your chance of crashing.
Tip #1 – Don’t Drive a Motorbike
If you aren’t comfortable driving a motorbike, rent a car or take a taxi. If you crash your motorbike, there is a good chance you will end up in the hospital. If you crash a car, however, you have a much better chance of walking away unscathed from the incident.
Even if you pay a little more for a taxi, trust me, it is worth it. While I will be the first to admit that exploring an island or city on a motorbike is incredibly fun, it is not worth the risks if you don’t know how to drive. If you don’t need to drive a motorbike in Thailand, don’t. That is the easiest solution.
If you must drive, don’t drive in a place like Phuket. Stick to smaller islands that have a laid back atmosphere with slow speeds.
If you drive a motorbike in a place like Koh Yao Noi, with a total island population of a few thousand people, there is really no risk on a motorbike. However, when you drive in a death trap like Phuket, with thousands of fast moving aggressive cars on the road, your chance of injury drastically increases.
Tip #2 – Stay on the Left Shoulder of the Road
When you drive your motorbike, do not drive in the middle of the lane. Cars will drive much faster than you and will zip past you. If you try to occupy the center of the lane, they will tailgate you, sometimes even push you off the road.
When on a motorbike, you have to yield to all of the bigger vehicles on the road. The shoulder of the road is your domain. If you try to take up the middle, you are also more likely to run into an oncoming car that cut across your lane.
The only time you should drive in the middle of the road is on small Sois (side streets) or when you are about to make a right-hand turn. When you turn right, you need to cross the lane to the middle to turn.
Tip #3 – Avoid Driving on Fast Highways
If you can avoid driving with fast moving cars, try to. Obviously, if you are experienced on the motorbike then you can drive anywhere you like, but most people aren’t. Driving on the big highways where cars are ripping 120+ km/h is very dangerous.
As I mentioned before, cars don’t give a damn about motorbikes. If a car kills someone on a motorbike, they must pay their hospital fees, and there is a maximum fee of around $3000 (100k baht) if they are killed. That fine is not enough to make drivers worried enough to slow down.
I’m not sure the exact breakdown, so please do not quote me on those prices. The point is that it’s not a big deal if a car kills someone on a motorbike.
If you need to go somewhere that is a long distance away, rent a car or take a taxi. Assuming you are only spending a few weeks in Thailand, you can afford to spend a little bit more money on transportation.
Tip #4 – Wear a Helmet
I know this sounds like a given, but a lot of foreigners do not wear a helmet when they drive motorbikes. Maybe they don’t want to mess up their hair, or they don’t like the fit, whatever the case, foreigners don’t like wearing helmets in Thailand.
When you drive around on some of the smaller islands, there is nothing wrong with this. But driving in the big cities, you need to put on a helmet. Even if the helmet isn’t going to save you, it is better to have some head protection, so your brain doesn’t splat on the concrete.
Tip #5 – Don’t Drive at High Speeds
Sometimes when you drive around with a group of friends, there is always one asshole who decides to be speedy Gonzales. This guy (always a guy), wants to show off his driving skills and will try to go as fast as possible. Not wanting to lose your friend, you are often forced to keep up with this guy who doesn’t care about the people he’s with.
If you ever drive somewhere with a friend going fast, let him go. Driving fast is a bad, bad idea in Thailand. Unless you are on a clear stretch with a big divider in the middle that prevents people from turning into your lane, there are too many things that can go wrong.
Motorbikes do not respond well when you try to squeeze the brakes at 90 km/h. You will skid out and end up all over the pavement. However, you don’t want to be that one asshole on the road holding up the people behind you because you are going to slow. So drive at a speed you are comfortable, but also ensure you aren’t holding up traffic.
Tip #6 – Go with the Flow of Traffic
The best advice I can give you is to follow the lead of everyone around you. Most of the time there are a lot of motorbikes on the road, and they all follow the same flow. The cars will hog the main roads and force the motorbikes to skirt around on the side of the road.
Going with the flow of traffic can help you glide in and out of lanes, without risk. Try to emulate how the other motorbikes drive on the road.
Use Hand Signals When Turning Right
Sometimes when you drive a motorbike and move into the middle of the road, there is a danger of a car trying to pass you. They might not see your turn signal and move to go around you on your right side. This can result in being hit as you move to make your right-hand turn.
Tip #7 – Don’t Drink and Drive
I mentioned this point before, but it is important to say it again. DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE. If you know you are going to be drinking, share a taxi with friends. Simple as that.
Even though the taxi prices outside of Bangkok are a rip-off, it is worth the extra money. Taking a taxi to your destination prevents you from bringing your motorbike in the first place.
If you end up driving your motorbike to the bar, leave it there and pick it up in the morning. Driving a motorbike drunk is not something you should do. I’ve seen guys crash their bikes within 10 seconds of turning it on. These guys usually end up in a hospital covered in scrapes and broken bones.
Drinking and driving is a common event among locals. If you party with locals, you can expect a few of them to drive home drunk. Keep in mind it is illegal to drink and drive, so if you run into a road block, you could have problems. I know a Thai friend who lost his license for being drunk, so it does happen on occasion.
I should also point out that getting on the motorbike of an intoxicated person, is even dumber than driving drunk yourself. Drunk people ALWAYS feel confident in the driving abilities, no matter how many beers they have consumed. Don’t risk your life just because a friend is trying to convince you that he’s ok to drive you home.
Be Aware of the Risks of Driving in Thailand
If you decide to rent a motorbike in Thailand, understand the risks involved. If you are comfortable on a bike, you won’t have any issues unless you have too many drinks at the bar and decide to drive home drunk. If you are aware on the roads, you can survive the streets of Thailand without a scratch.
While most people always think, “it will never happen to me,” a lot of good people have died or been seriously injured on the roads of Thailand.
Road accidents are the leading cause of tourist deaths in Thailand. Google search tourist death in Thailand and you will see dozens of sad stories of people who have died on the roads of Thailand.
Young, old, men and women, people from all backgrounds have come to Thailand for a holiday, ended up being shipped home in a coffin. If you don’t have confidence in your driving ability, do not drive.
If you have time, get someone to teach you how to drive on small roads that don’t have any traffic. A few days of learning and you should be ok to drive around the local areas.
Every time I see a motorbike accident I get a sick feeling in my stomach. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing a person lying on the ground covered in blood, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers who are waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
Unfortunately, I know it is only a matter of time, usually a few weeks, sometimes days, before I see another person spilled on the ground.
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If you know someone visiting Thailand, send them this article. It might make them think twice about renting a motorbike if they don’t know how to drive one. At the very least, it can make them aware of some of the dangers that await them if they do drive in Thailand.