If you live in any Thai city other than Bangkok, the easiest way to get around is with your own set of wheels. Motorbikes are particularly well-suited to Thailand’s climate and an urban lifestyle. But riding a bike always comes with a higher risk of injury in an accident. Unfortunately, your chances of getting in an accident are increased by the bad habits of all the other drivers on the road.
When driving in Thai traffic, you need to always be aware of everyone else around you and expect the unexpected. You also can’t be in a hurry to get anywhere. Driving needs to be treated as an exercise in getting from point A to point B and nothing more. If you get impatient or start having too much fun, you’re likely to get distracted just long enough to not brake in time for an obstacle that suddenly appeared from nowhere.
The internet is full of traffic accident videos these days, and Thai people in particular seem to like sharing them. One can only hope that by seeing the dangerous effects of bad driving, people will start to use their brains more when they’re behind the wheel. In the meantime, here are 10 stupid, dangerous, or annoying habits of Thai drivers that you should look out for.
1. Driving through red lights
Driving through red lights is both dangerous and inconsiderate. At large intersections, many selfish drivers won’t slow down when the light turns yellow. Just the opposite—they’ll speed up to try to get through the intersection so they don’t have to wait for the next green. In many cases, this means that they’ll be moving quite fast when the light actually does turn red, so of course there’s no way they’re going to stop, even when the other side has a green light. When the roads are crowded and traffic is moving slowly, it’s not unusual to have to wait for 4 or 5 cars to cross in front of you after your light has just turned green. Drivers who only think of themselves figure that if they’re close enough behind a car that went through the light they can too. So you’ll end up with a train of cars who all think the red light doesn’t apply to them.
What this means for you is that you can NEVER simply accelerate when your light changes from red to green. Always take a glance at the direction of the traffic that had the green before you to make sure there’s not some idiot trying to barrel through a red light.
2. Turning out into the road without looking for oncoming traffic
This is a bad habit that I’m truly amazed by. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen a driver (usually on motorbike) pull out in front of me suddenly from a side street or parking lot without slowing down or even turning their neck slightly to check if there are any oncoming vehicles. It seems that they just assume anyone in the road will slow down to avoid hitting them. As a driver, this means you have to stay mindful of entrances to side streets at all times.
3. Pulling a U-turn where it’s prohibited
This habit is more annoying than dangerous. Motorbikes are allowed to make U-turns in more places than larger vehicles due to their smaller turning radius. But you very often see drivers of pickup trucks trying to make a U-turn where they’re not supposed to in order to avoid having to drive further out of their way. This usually results in them blocking two lanes of traffic as they have to stop and back up at an angle to make the turn. As a driver, you mostly just have to be aware that cars and trucks might try to do a U-turn where they shouldn’t, and if they do then you need to just have a little patience to wait for them to make a Y-turn, since they don’t have the tight turning radius needed to make a U-turn.
4. Crossing multiple lanes to make a turn
This is a habit that’s just plain idiotic. A driver needing to make a left turn will stay in the right lane until the last second, and then suddenly cut across two lanes of traffic to do so.
If you happen to be driving in Chiang Mai, you also need to be aware of Chinese tourists driving rented motorbikes who will try to turn right from the left lane—thus cutting in front of anyone in the right lane who planned on going straight. I know they drive on the right side of the road in China, but I can’t fathom why that would make them think they shouldn’t slide over to the right lane before making a righthand turn.
5. Not using turn signals
Quite often, you’ll see someone turn or change lanes suddenly without bothering to use their turn signal to notify the drivers behind them of their intentions. Equally as bad are the drivers who do use their turn signal, but not until they are already half-way into the next lane. As a driver, you need to be aware that someone might suddenly shift into your lane ahead of you with no warning.
6. Stopping without warning
This is especially true of song-thaew (pickups with bench seats in back that act as mini-buses) in Chiang Mai. They will stop anywhere and everywhere they want in order to pick up a new passenger, drop off a passenger, or just holler down some pedestrians that aren’t even looking for a ride. If you’re driving behind a song-thaew you need to be aware that they could stop at any given second. And trying to drive around them after they’ve stopped could be dangerous if traffic is moving quickly in the other lane.
7. Drifting into your lane
Thai drivers respect the lanes of traffic much better than drivers in India, for example. But there are still many who’ll drift across the dividing line and hog up two lanes of traffic. For some reason, many drivers also seem to drift into other lanes when going around corners. In particular, I notice that when driving around the interior road by Chiang Mai’s moat, many Thai drivers in the outside lane will cut way into the inside lane when turning a corner. It’s like they just don’t trust their own ability to handle a curve, so they overcompensate.
8. Parking in a driving lane
This habit is one that’s more selfish and inconvenient than dangerous. It’s not unusual to see a car or truck parked in the middle of a lane intended for driving. As long as they flip on their hazard blinkers they figure it’s no big deal because they don’t plan to stay there more than 5 or 10 minutes. If it’s a truck making a delivery to a shop, this might be the case, but another thing entirely happens in the late afternoon near any large school—dozens of parked cars will be blocking the road from parents coming to pick up their kids directly from school. I’m not sure why so many parents feel the need to come to their kid’s school each afternoon, but if you’re driving in the afternoon, it helps to be aware of the locations of large schools in order to avoid traffic jams.
9. Inefficient 4-way intersection system
This is one’s not so much a driving habit as it is a stupid practice of traffic management. At most medium and large sized 4-way intersections, only one side is allowed to go at a time. This means that when the traffic coming from the north has a green light, the traffic heading in the opposite direction from the south has to wait at a red. Surely you’d think that traffic could flow better if the two opposite sides were allowed to go at the same time, incorporating green arrows for those making right turns. But maybe it’s just too much to expect the people who want to turn and those who want to go straight to be able to get into the correct lanes before coming up to the intersection.
10. Drivers in a hurry to get to the next red light
This bad habit is mostly just kind of funny, but also annoying and potentially dangerous. It has happened many times that I’ve been driving my motorbike and a car or pickup behind me will beep their horn because the driver thinks I’m too slow and need to get out of their way. Then after shifting over to the next lane, the car will roar past at a high speed…only to come to a complete stop 300 meters down the road behind a long line of cars waiting at a red light. Then since I’m on a bike, I can always pass them up by squeezing between the cars to get to the front of the line. I always wonder why people are in such a hurry to wait longer at the next red light.
11. Using the phone while driving
OK, this was supposed to be a list of 10, but this is the bonus bad driving habit, and it’s one that Thailand certainly shares with many other countries. Just put the phone away while you’re driving. If you’re typing a text on your iPhone with one hand and trying to drive your motorcycle with the other, I don’t want to be anywhere near you on the road.
And as a final word of warning—If you’re driving a motorbike in Thailand, please don’t forget your helmet, because you’re just stupid not to wear one. Not wearing a helmet is also the only bad habit that the traffic police seem to care about. It might mess up your hairstyle, but you know what…so will a shattered skull.