Anyone who has spent time on the roads of Thailand would have seen an ‘Accident Ahead’ sign which probably resulted in a wry smile; understanding this is a hazard warning rather than a dire prediction.
However U-Turns on major highways are a real predictor of an awaiting accident. Negotiating U-turns on the highways of Thailand have a major impact on the horrific road fatality statistics of the Kingdom. Thailand’s already dismal road safety record sank to new lows over the 2017 New Year holiday as more than 400 people lost their lives in traffic accidents. In all, 426 people died on Thailand’s road between December 29th and January 3rd up from 340 for same period last year.
Featuring as the world’s second highest country (behind Libya) for road fatalities per head of population, means that almost three people die on Thailand’s roads every hour. Road safety remains one of Thailand’s greatest public health challenges. As far as we are aware there are no specific statistics about fatalities or other serious crashes relating to highway U-Turns, but it’s a fair guess to say they are very significant. With underpasses or overpasses being few and far between in our region, getting to your destination on the other side of a highway means negotiating a U-Turn.
A prime example is the highway between Hua Hin and Cha-Am. Frequent commuters on this stretch of six lane highway will know this as a relatively straight road with a good surface. At last count there were 14 designated U-Turns from the airport overpass heading north until Cha-Am. That means 14 ‘accident ahead’ zones with far too many crashes on this main link between the two towns. With continuing growth of condo and resort developments on both sides of this highway so the hazards increase. Imagine if (or when) 6,500 vehicles from ‘The Energy’ returning to Bangkok all need to make a U-Turn after a holiday weekend!
So Why Are U-Turns So Dangerous?
This is because there is a genuine risk of the vehicle making the turn being hit by on-coming traffic. Not only being hit, but being hit at speed! Crashes in built-up areas at low speeds still have risks to life and limb, but when vehicles on highways are travelling at speeds well in excess of the 90 km per hour legal limit, crashes are likely to result in disaster. The highway U-Turn is an unfamiliar traffic hazard for many foreign drivers to carefully consider. In line with an April televised message from the Prime Minister suggesting that more information be provided about how to stay safe on Thai road rather than just dwelling on the problems; here are some of the ways you can consider U-Turn safety.
The Golden Rule Unless you are absolutely sure that you can complete the U-Turn in safety, Don’t Go! Do you really know what’s coming?
With U-Turn lanes usually accommodating traffic travelling in both directions, clear vision of oncoming vehicles may be blocked when both turning lanes are occupied. Additionally vehicles may be in the ‘shadow’ of a vehicle in another lane. Clearly seeing oncoming vehicles is not always easy but vital. If you can’t see what is coming there is no choice but to wait, despite the urging of those behind you. Becoming a ‘lane creeper’ means there’s every chance that a vehicle which has not adopted a defensive mode will be unable to avoid impact on the way through. Arrival time of oncoming vehicles.
Estimating the speed of oncoming vehicles can be difficult. Research has demonstrated that individuals gauge the time-to-passage of smaller vehicles (including motor cycles) less accurately than larger vehicles. Night time estimates are also problematic. Research also indicated that older drivers feel the need for a larger gap than did younger drivers. However one alarming finding was that older drivers’ estimates of the minimum safe gap deteriorated when the speed of the oncoming vehicle increased. Younger drivers lengthened the gap as closing speed increased. However a serious problem is that many young drivers have little or no experience when they start driving and take too many risks! A likely corollary is that being older and inexperienced (especially with motorbikes) is double jeopardy.
A serious problem is that for many impatience kicks in when vehicles have their vision of oncoming traffic blocked. Then drivers creep forward into the lane of oncoming vehicles with tragic consequences. When approaching a busy or congested U-Turn it’s wise to anticipate ‘lane creep’.
A bus or large truck occupies a considerable amount of the road on both side of the carriageway when turning. Lanes can be blocked by the large vehicle trying to complete the manoeuvre. Look ahead and consider a lane change well before the U-Turn when a large vehicle will clearly have a wide turning circle and use the lane you are occupying.
Road rage is never a good response to traffic issues, but when you are waiting for your turn and another vehicle ignores the turning lane and swings in front of you, it’s hard to resist. Our only advice is to stay cool and maintain a defensive, non-aggressive approach. Chances are these drivers will become another statistic before too long. Our photo shows a sedan, pick-up and motor cycle all ready to turn at the same time, a scenario that can cause drama. Choosing a Lane.
Choosing a lane is important for either completing a U-Turn or just passing through. If you are passing through, chances are that the middle lane will be the best option. This is to avoid those who may ‘creep’ into the outer lane. It is also common for markets to be near the inner lane with vehicles blocking or entering the inner lane and traffic (not just motor bikes) going against the flow.
An old pick-up is travelling against on-coming traffic.
Both the cyclist and motor cyclist are risking tragedy. You cannot change lanes alongside the turning lane but this is also not wise well before entering the crash avoidance zone. At any time on the highway you should know if urgent lane changes can be safely executed. Always know the position of vehicles next to your lane. If you are just completing a U-Turn or intending to cross all lanes and exit, be decisive and plan your vehicle’s position well in advance. Indecisive lane choice is another cause of accidents. “Self-awareness is the best form of accident prevention” – Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Often drivers say after a crash “All of a sudden they were in front of me, I had no warning!” These drivers were probably not driving defensively or looking for hazards that could enter their crash avoidance zone. When approaching a U-Turn there is a yellow and black sign just before the turning lane. This is a warning that you are entering a crash avoidance zone and is your chance to survey the situation and to make choices. Making choices includes speed, lane positioning and ensuring that you are in a defensive mode. Whether you have right of way or not; crash avoidance should be your focus. The key to defensive driving is anticipation. The best way to anticipate is to ensure there is enough time to react and to make the safest decision.