I love the movie Run Lola Run. In the film, Lola runs through the same scenario over and over again but each time one tiny element is changed in the timing and the outcome changes completely. So true in life as well. For hours and days after our Thailand car accident I have been going over the day’s script again and again. If I had stopped to try to shoot a photo of that hawk this morning. If we hadn’t eaten breakfast. If the first gas station we visited had the correct type of gas for the car. If I hadn’t missed the park entrance coming the other way first. If. If. If. And it comes down to this: if I had pushed just a little on the gas, just a fraction of a second sooner – a half a second perhaps – I might not be writing this. I was a blink from being t-boned by a rather formidable oversized pickup truck. As it is the truck hit my driver-side door just behind the front tire. My last second twist of the wheel and release of the brake rolled us with the direction of the racing truck trying to pass me on the blinker side. My head smacked the window. I was lucky. Good luck is all a matter of perspective. I could have decided to be rude and cut off the oncoming motorbike I had paused for and just sneak into the park entrance, leaving the pickup truck to recklessly speed past behind us down the road.
That same motorbike came rather close to bad luck as well. I wonder if the rider even realized. Certainly he heard the impact and stopped to ogle with everyone else. But the choice that day was him or me. The pickup truck would have had to swerve a wee bit more to get around me and that would have taken out the motorbike or forced him off the road or even into another motorbike which was at the edge of the road waiting to pull out.
The day’s unfortunate car choreography chose us.
The recklessness of driving in Thailand has been a source of frustration and dark amusement for me. At my most bitter I complain that they burn incense and visit fortune tellers – why on earth would they look both ways before crossing the intersection? No one said they’d have an accident today.
Lanes don’t exist. Speeds on highways range from parked without hazard lights to autobahn-speeds over potholes, all on the same two-lane roadway. Helmetless riders, five to a bike with children dangling, no longer turn my head. Officers take bribes for just about anything. Indeed, I’ve paid a few 100-in-a-80-kmh-zone “fines” of 200 baht ($6) though a couple of times there is no way they knew how fast I was really going before I slowed down for the toll booth. (One clever trap, however, has a second officer radioing license plates or car descriptions ahead to the traffic stops.)
Thailand has the dubious honor of killing more of its own (per capita) each year in traffic accidents than just about any other country. India of course beats it since in a nation of over 1.1 billion, simply parking a car or opening the door is likely to hit 2 to 3 people. With all the outrage over the deaths of 88 people during the two-months of Red Shirt protests and military crackdowns, the 361 who died on Thailand roads during the week of Songkran celebration seemed a matter to yawn at. In fact, it was an improvement from 2009’s total of 373. For this year’s Chinese New Year, we became part of the accident statistics — but fortunately not of the fatal sort.
We waited on the side of a 40 kmh road in Trat until a police officer showed up with the usual Thai uniform — ridiculously tight, the wrinkles in the fabric pulled so much the buttons were straining though his build was slight. He strutted back and forth along the road pointing to tire marks and car shrapnel and talking to apparently no one. When Peung tried to explain what happened, he mostly crossed his arms or waved her away patronizingly and laughed a bit too much in a way that suggested our foolish attempts at logic amused him. I kept trying to remind myself that the Thai smile can also be a cover of embarrassment which could perhaps excuse the apparent jollity of the driver of the pickup truck. It didn’t matter. I was seething and unable to speak Thai to express that — which made me even angrier.
The truck that hit us was not the first vehicle behind us. He was the second driver to see us stopped and with a turn signal on. He agreed he saw the turn signal and he also saw the big Coca-Cola truck pass us in the space on the left (we were turning right). Yet the pickup driver still chose to try to drive around us both in the oncoming lane despite the fact that I was already in the center of the road with a turn signal on and a motorbike was oncoming. (Later Peung told me the driver had confessed to the old lady at the roadside who had seen the whole thing that he hadn’t seen us at all as he raced to pass the Coke truck and anything else in his way.)
“We are both to blame? Fifty-fifty? Are you kidding? If I park somewhere and someone hits my car do I then also share the blame because I picked an unlucky parking spot?” He thought a moment, “Depends on if the car is moving.” He left us to decide whether we wanted to report it or just shake hands and go our separate ways. The insurance guy showed up to assess damage and we bickered a bit longer with the other driver before deciding to head to the station.
We called in every “expert” we knew. Peung’s mother’s friends whom we had visited at the Red Cross camp earlier that day had become our “aunt and uncle” hoping to wield some influence. “If you weren’t moving, then it is their fault.” But now the officer had decided we were moving. A witness had come forward on our behalf at the accident site, but the officer refused to hear her. Several of the teenagers were clearly drunk but there was no examination of the driver.
After two hours down at the station we were told we would be responsible for the deductible AND pay a $12 fine for being at fault while the offending driver would merely pay the $12 (or maybe not) and his mechanic friend would reattach the bumper. My cursing began as mutters and then just gasping interjections as Peung translated. But it meant nothing to them. For all they knew I had a seriously raging craving for a green gourd (which in Thai is fak kiew).
Imagine, all I needed to do to exact revenge on a guy I didn’t like down the street is wait until his car was moving and ram my uninsured junk heap into his Mercedes. Equal blame. It was crazy. Could I not kill him as well and just say, Oh well, he was on the road, moving, and thus, fair game? Especially if he didn’t use a turn signal (as is typical) and then it might even just be his fault completely.
Several Thai friends assumed money had changed hands. Local boys, no insurance vs. foreigner who likely could afford all this. What did it matter? We had no options and so we broke out any pieces in the front wheel well interfering with the tire, wedged the door shut, and limped the four hours back to Bangkok with hazard lights flashing to deposit the car.
Don’t move the cars. If the rest of Thailand (or wherever) never gives consideration to blocking traffic, you should definitely do as the Romans do and avoid muddying up your story of what happened by being in the wrong place when the officer shows up. We had pulled to the far side of the road, thus over the middle line. The officer sprayed paint where we parked, despite all the shattered glass and plastic and skid marks on the pavement down the road behind us.
Know your car insurance company’s policy on whether or not they will bring you a replacement car and for how much. Budget Rental operates on a manager’s choice policy apparently. When we called Budget Car Rental at Suvarnabhumi Airport the manager flatly told us he would only send a car if we paid another $140. We only had one day of rental left. Or we could drive to Pattaya and switch the car – again for $140. We argued that it was a risk to drive it. He was maddeningly unmoved. The insurance guy had declared it drivable but dangerous.
Do get an international driver’s license. Sure all the car companies will rent you the car anyway, but you don’t want to give the local cops any sort of excuse to say Guilty. It’s another potential fine not to have one, even though by itself it is not a permit to drive – it is an international representation of your actual license.
In Thailand and anywhere else where you don’t speak the language, call the Tourist Police as well. I would have been sunk completely without Peung.
Finally, make no assumptions that how the locals interact with traffic is the same as how your home country does it. In Belize, for example, to turn across traffic on a highway, you must pull over to the shoulder of your lane, signal, and wait for traffic to clear in both your lane and the oncoming one before turning across them.
And no matter what the law says about it, wear your seatbelt. Somewhere another car might have your name on it.
In fact, I’ve also had a motorbike accident. My fault 100% that time! Read about that one here.