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Road safety across much of Asia is based on compliance approaches that do little to understand the core beliefs and cultural challenges found on the roads. I propose that this should be addressed and instead new thinking should be applied that works with core beliefs to improve the situation for all. There is a new approach to occupational safety that is being used to improve the situation in other safety critical areas, I will argue that this new approach has similarities to Buddhist teachings, along with other Asian beliefs, and could be applied to make much of Asia’s roads a lot safer for all.
I have been fortunate to be able to spend some time in Thailand. In 2014, on a motorcycle tour across Southern Thailand, I made a good friend (one of many) who got me thinking about sharing my Motorcycle defensive rider training skills in the country. My friend has been a Buddhist monk and now works with the volunteer rescue services and Royal Thai Police on the island of Koh Samui in Surat Thani, Thailand. The islands mix of Thai’s and Tourists on hire motorcycles makes it an accident black spot. My first approach to this was to suggest the lack of training as a cause and suggest that what was required was something more similar to the UK’s system.
I have spent many years teaching people to play by the rules. In the UK there are two main National motorcycle training standards that have measurable tests to insure conformity.
First is the UK Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) Compulsory basic training and licence testing standards.
The second being the Roadcraft Standards used by Police and other service training institutions and bodies; such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM). This standard is for post test “Advanced” training.
All riders in the UK must pass a Compulsory Basic Training (CBT) course before being allowed to ride on public roads and only then with restrictions. There is then age and engine size/power output requirements to be eligible to pass the DVSA Theory and Practical tests to acquire a full licence. People are then encouraged to take further post test “Advanced” training to improve their skills.
An issue with the approach in the United Kingdom is that although the UK has some of the safest roads in the world, motorcycles, along with other vulnerable road users, still show up high in the road accident statistics. This has led to the development of a new approach to helping riders avoid accidents which is called “No Surprise / No Accident” (www.nosurprise.org.uk ). This is based on ideas about addressing safety in general that is often termed “Safety II” or “Safety differently”. This in turn can trace it’s roots back to the Japanese “Kaizen” or continuous improvement approach to working practices.
The new thinking can be referenced here:-
Safety-I and Safety–II: By Professor Erik Hollnagel
Safety Differently – by Sidney Dekker http://sidneydekker.com/papers/
In Thailand and across Asia, there has been only limited success in the application of the standard compliance based approaches to road safety, this can be measured recently by the failure of the “Decade of action for road safety” to make a significant impact on the road fatality figures, despite being seven years into the “decade”. Instead the statistics have stagnated or continued to rise.
There are two issues that I think stand out when looking at the compliance approach to road safety and it’s application in Thailand:-
First is the helmet law. Many Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation. In both direct and indirect research, it has been repeatedly mentioned that they see helmets as unnecessary or contravening core beliefs. In the UK, followers of the Sikh religion are excluded from the helmet law on the grounds of their religion, Sikh’s are not required to wear a helmet if wearing a turban. Yet in Thailand, helmet compliance is singled out as the major focus for Road Safety, often at the expense of better approaches such as improving road user education.
Second is the focus on speed. In London and Bangkok, two of the most congested cities in the world, the peak time of the day for road traffic accidents is afternoon “rush hour” peak travel times, hardly the times to find a clear stretch of road to speed on. These are two examples, but the same applies to cities around the rest of the world as well. “Speeding” is an easy target for someone wanting to find blame when investigating an accident, it can be measured and is used to find post accident fault in the absence of a better explanation. However, the vast majority of accidents in Thailand involve motorcycles, the majority of these being smaller motorcycles, not the vehicles known for their abilities to exceed the limit, particularly in slow moving congested traffic.
Every day there are posts from Volunteer emergency services across Thailand that report accidents via their Facebook pages. From this data, it is easy to build a picture of the most common types of accidents with simple rights of way errors feature as the major cause. People pulling out of side roads, turning across the path of others and attempting U-turns are a daily cause of surprises that often lead to collisions. The rule that says motorcycles should keep left aggravates the issue by removing riders from the focus of other road users, while then encouraging riders to pass slowing vehicles on the left, increasing the possibilities of rights of way errors.
Buddhism in Thailand includes threads of Hindu origin such has the appeasing of spirits and widespread use of amulets to protect the wearer. This also suggests another reason for accidents and the widespread use of spirit houses at accident black-spots is testament to this.
However there are other aspects of Buddhism that tend to go unexplored in it’s application to road safety. Buddhism encourages learning, it’s followers earn merit in their actions towards others. While also seeing virtues in patience and seeking good karma. one should live ethically and not cause suffering. This is where Buddhism and Safety II meet. Through understanding and the wish to not harm others, we can apply approaches to aid us in that aim.
Core Buddhist beliefs include a belief that desire and ignorance lie at the root of suffering, also that people should not harm others.
Quote: “Buddha was a unique psychotherapist. His therapeutic methods helped millions of people throughout the centuries. Today the Western world has realized the psychological essence of Buddhism. Many Psychotherapeutic systems in the West are derived from Buddha’s teaching. Buddha showed empathy and non-judgmental acceptance to everyone who came to him. He helped people to gain insight and helped in growth promotion while eliminating troubling and painful emotions. His therapeutic methods are exceptional and can be applied for all times”
Source – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705677/ Buddha philosophy and western psychology, Tapas Kumar Aich 2013
We can start to improve things with a change to the way people are taught to ride and drive. Currently all licence testing in Thailand is conducted on off-road training sites. There is no requirement to display any real world interactive skills. This is an integral part of testing in countries with lower road accident fatality rates. The current testing regime to acquire a driving licence in Thailand being focused on learning the Land Traffic act rules and passing a theory test, along with a display of basic machine control skills conducted in off-road training facilities. There is no requirement to interact with other road users and therefore non of the accompanied training requirements found elsewhere.
Another reason for the abundance of accidents in Thailand is the years of being able to buy licences and also the many road users who drive and ride without licences. While it may appear that all that is needed is increased enforcement, this is oversimplified thinking and as many years of evidence demonstrates, repeating calls for more enforcement have a history of failing to address the problem.
Due to the lack of proper interactive real world training, people apply their own approaches to dealing with the situations they encounter on the roads. They commonly revert to the only way they know well, to apply the rules they learned as pedestrians. No matter how much changes to address this situation, it is going to take years to address the standards.
The safety II “No Surprise / No Accident” approach offers a different way to address this that is more in line with Buddhism in the manner it looks to self and one’s own reactions, rather than expecting others to change. Also in line with Buddhism, it looks to avoid confrontations, understanding where the most likely dangerous interactions take place and applying strategies so we are less likely to be involved.
Current Training limitations
There has been some research in Australia that has suggested post test training is limited in it’s success and that skills training does not help riders to have fewer accidents.
This is currently the basis for much of the training in Asia, conducted in off road training sites, the focus is on learning motorcycle handling skills and the rules of the road. The research mentions:
“Some evaluation studies suggest that riders who scored higher on vehicle control skills in some tests had more crashes later. The newer tests requiring higher levels of vehicle control skills (such as MOST) did not reduce crash rates. There was some suggestion that training on cognitive skills can improve these skills and reduce crash involvement. However, to ensure that such components are included in training, there is a need to ensure that they are emphasised in the learner permit and licence tests.”
(http://motorcycleminds.org/virtuallibrary/testtrainingassessment/muarc165_motorcycle_training.pdf N. Haworth, R. Smith and N. Kowadlo Final; 1999 )
Currently there are proposals to increase the amount of training in Thailand to fifteen hours. This is a good thing, however the focus of the extra training is based more on compliance with the rules, rather than improving the interactive and defensive skills required to deal with the interactions encountered daily on public highways.
We know have the research and understanding to change how we teach people to ride. For example, a common accident cause is right of way errors at junctions when an emerging driver fails to see an approaching rider and fails to give way to them. Under the current compliance system these types of accidents, in the absence of evidence of drink, drugs or speeding, blame is attributed to the emerging driver failing to look properly. However there is now plenty of research to demonstrate limitations with this approach ( see the vision section on the “no Surprise” resources page for examples of this https://nosurprise.org.uk/research-papers-and-resources-library/ ).
Limitations of the human eye and brain mean that a rider can be lost in a complex urban road environment. More experienced drivers tend to scan less and focus on the areas of greatest danger, easy for a rider to be lost in peripheral vision. Camouflage can also make a difference, but the standard approach of high visibility clothing and using lights has also been scientifically proved to have limitations. The motorcycle keep left rule in Thailand was designed to remove riders from danger, however the evidence demonstrates the reverse of this is true. Removing riders from the main flow of vehicles can add to the probability of other road users failing to see them. Putting riders in the nearside part of the road also puts them in an area that is likely to have more confrontations with emerging and turning vehicles. The compliance approach adds to the danger.
Currently, the compliance approach to road safety creates a conflict with Buddhist beliefs, it would be far more productive if instead a philosophy that worked with cultural beliefs and used education to improve the road safety situation was applied. Rather than the current focus on learning the rules and basic machine skills. Far more should be done to address the daily interactions and surprises that lead to the majority of accidents.
This is possible through improving education and understanding and requires far less investment than other suggested approaches to achieve far greater results