Thai Police and Farang Drivers
The police pick on farang drivers. This is something we in Thailand hear so often that it must be true. "Thai police see a white face and think 200 baht" or "if you are in an accident with a Thai then the police will always say it is your fault".
I have heard these truisms repeated so many times that it is easy to accept them as fact. They must be true, right? Everybody says so. Many, many times I have sat in a bar and listened to westerners complain about their latest run in with Thai police. Not wearing a helmet - 200 baht. Not carrying a driving license - 200 baht.
The funny thing is, now I look back on it, not one of them was actually complaining they were innocent of the offence and wrongly fined. They were all guilty but complaining that it was not fair for more obscure reasons - usually that they were only picked on because they are farang.
I have received quite a few driving fines during my time in Thailand. If I look back on them dispassionately, I have to admit I was guilty for every one of them. More to the point, I don't think they once picked on me for being farang. They were usually fining Thai drivers for the same offences.
Let me look back at my offences:
Not wearing a crash helmet - my first driving fine in Thailand. I was riding around Phuket Town. It was early days for me and I had foolishly believed a story that you do not need to wear a helmet on Sundays because the police are not working. Well at least one policeman was working and I quickly found myself at the police station. A 200-baht fine and lesson learned. But I was not alone. There were several Thais paying fines for the same offence. Before I move on, lets all agree that riding a motorbike without a crash helmet is stupid.
Illegal Right Hand Turn - I had made this turn many times without ever realising it was illegal so I was a little surprised when a policeman pulled me over and gave me a ticket. Just the same, they were also fining Thais for the same thing. And the next time I drove through that turn I did notice the no right turn sign.
Not Carrying a Driving License - I have actually been fined three times for this one. Remember the law in Thailand is not that you must possess a legal driving license - you must actually carry it when you are driving. Well three times I have been fined for this and every time there were lots of Thais receiving the same fine.
Driving in the Outside Lane - Anyone who has ever driven along Thailand's highways will know that the inside lane is often a bumpy ride. Poor construction and the pounding from overladen heavy goods vehicles mean the inside lane can be an undulating, pot-holed, bone shaking ride.
The result is a lot of traffic sticks to the outside lane. Well this is illegal in Thailand and rightly so. The outside lane-hoggers are a pain as they force the faster traffic to overtake on the bumpy inside lane and make dangerous maneuvers.
I must admit that I often stick to the outside lane although at least I do move over to let faster traffic pass. I was rather surprised when a traffic cop pulled me over on highway 4 for doing this but there was no argument, I was doing it.
This is a blatant police tea-money stop. Nobody wants to interrupt their long journeys to go find the local police station so everybody will pay on the spot. The policeman was very pleasant about it. He politely explained I needed to go to the local police station and pay 200 baht. Then he suggested I could instead help out a friendly policeman with an on the spot 100 baht donation. There were other Thai drivers making payments for the same thing and I don't believe they were paying less than 100 baht.
Bangkok - Wrong Lane at a Toll Booth - I don't drive in Bangkok very often but whenever I do, it is always a headache. I stick to the toll ways as much as possible but being inexperienced in Bangkok, I did not know they have special toll booths for tag holders. Instead of a cashier collecting money, you just flash your pre-paid tag over a scanner. It is faster so there are shorter queues which is what attracted me.
I was confused when I got to the booth and there was nobody there to collect my money but I figured I had just got lucky so I drove on. The barrier came down on my bonnet. A policeman appeared and I was moved to the side of the road. It was a 1000 baht fine and I would have to go to a police station to pay.
Even as I was pleading to be allowed to pay on the spot, a truck behind me made the same mistake as I had. He hit the barrier so hard he knocked it off.
He was Thai and also got a 1000-baht fine. While I was pleading to pay on the spot, he was pleading to not have to pay at all. The police were having none of it and sent him to the police station. They then quietly accepted my 1000 baht and let me on my way.
Bangkok - Changing Lanes at a Toll Booth - Bangkok toll booths catch me out again. This time as I approached a queue for a toll booth, I noticed another queue was shorter and changed lanes. It seemed a harmless maneuver but on the other side of the booth, a policeman pulled me over. Changing queues is not allowed.
This time it was a 500-baht fine and a trip to the local police station. The policeman was very stern but as I tried to talk my way out of it, he lightened up a little. I told him I had a long drive to Phuket and I didn't have time to find the police station. He looked at me patiently, his pen hovering over his ticket book. I slipped him 500 baht and was on my way.
So that is it. The full extent of my motoring crime spree. It is not so bad when spread over 7 years. Looking back at it, two things come to mind. Firstly, I had always committed an offence. They never fined me for something I hadn't done. Secondly, in almost every case there were Thais being fined for the same offence and paying the same amount as me.
My personal experience is that Thai police never picked on me because I am farang. In fact, I think there have been times when I have received preferential treatment because I am farang.
Only last week a traffic cop pulled me over on highway 4 again. Yes, I was hogging the outside lane again. I rolled down the window and the police officer was clearly a little taken aback. "Farang!" he exclaimed. He looked in the car and saw my two kids asleep on the back seat. "Dtem luuk dooay" he said (the car is full of kids). He nodded sagely and paused for thought. "You can go".
I think there were two things working in my favour here. Firstly, he considered the kids asleep in the back to be a good reason for taking the smoother ride in the outside lane. Secondly, he was a little unsure how to deal with extracting a backhander from a farang.
Another time I got very good treatment from a traffic cop when I really should have got a ticket. I was in Bangkok again and trying to find my way onto Sukhumwit. I had already missed the turn once and had spent half an hour lost in Bangkok trying to find my way back. Now I had Sukhumwit in front of me again but there was a no entry sign, buses only. I was already peeved and the only other turn was back onto the toll way. I went through the no entry sign.
A traffic cop immediately pulled me over. I felt it was one of those situations when it was best to not speak Thai so I feigned confusion. He told me I could not drive this way. I tried to look as lost as I could and told him that I was trying to get to my hotel in Sukhumwit. The policeman took a quick look around to make sure there were no superior officers around. He then gave me directions to my hotel and sent me on my way with a big smile.
The police are also very generous to farang when it comes to accepting foreign driving licenses. Strictly speaking, you should have an international or Thai driving license. Yet many times, I got away with showing my driving license from my home country. I even know one guy who gets away with showing his PADI diving card. Typically, since I actually got a Thai driving license, the police have never asked to see it.
I am not saying that the police never pick on farang. But not only has it never happened to me but I don't know anyone who has convinced me it happened to them. The stories I have heard have always been third hand accounts. I am sure it does happen but I think it is the exception rather than the rule.
There isn't even a two-tier pricing system for the fines if you pay officially. However, I do know a few Thais who say there is a two-tier pricing system for paying backhanders. They say the going rate for Thais is 100 baht while the police will usually collect 200 baht from a farang. I can certainly believe that.
When Farang have Accidents with Thais
What about the old story about what happens when farang have an accident with a Thai? Is it always the farang's fault? I have been lucky enough to never have an accident so I cannot give any personal experience. I certainly believed this one. It is just repeated ad-infinitum wherever westerners gather so it just must be true. Or is it?
Certainly, I think this is often the first reaction when police arrive at the accident scene. After all, not only will the policeman naturally tend to side with his own nationality but also the Thai can give their side of the story much more effectively than the farang.
Also, Thais have a common belief that farang do not know how to drive in Thailand and are an accident risk. Phuket has the highest accident statistics in Thailand. If you ask a Thai why that is, they generally believe it is because there are lots of farang drivers who do not understand the local driving conditions. The fact that most accidents involve Thais does not shake this belief. The real reason is that there are lots of vehicles squeezed onto a small island and also some very hazardous stretches of road such as Patong Hill.
So yes, I do believe the first reaction of a policeman is likely to be to blame the farang. I don't think it is an intentional effort to cover up the truth and pin the blame on the farang. It is just that local prejudices mean it is natural for the policeman to think the farang is at fault.
However, I don't think this is written in stone. I have heard stories of the police backing farang when the Thai driver has been clearly in the wrong. Anyway, the police reaction at the scene does not need to be the end of the story. If you are involved in a significant accident in Thailand, you should immediately phone your insurance company. They will send an agent to the scene who will act on your behalf.
It is also useful if you have a camera. Take some photos of the accident scene and the damage to the vehicles. The police will be more even-handed when they know they may have to deal with evidence rather than just hearsay.
There is one other factor at work here. The accident culture in Thailand is not all about blame as it is in the west. Here, the issue is much more about compensation. The old 'face' issue means that unless it is a serious accident, the police will not actually spend that much time worrying about who was in the wrong. They are more interested in working out an amicable compensation agreement. And the person who receives compensation is usually the one who has lost the most, regardless of who is to blame.
Therefore, if a motorbike hits a car, the car driver will often make a payment to the motorbike driver. The car is probably insured while the motorbike almost certainly isn't. Also, the motorbike driver is probably the one injured.
This compensation culture again works against the farang. The common belief that farang are all wealthy means that they are seen as the ones who should pay compensation. It is not that they are blaming the farang for the accident. Just that they see him as more able to pay. This is also how it works if two Thais have an accident. It is a matter of a practical solution rather than who is in the right.
Of course, to us westerners with our strong sense of right and wrong, it feels like they are picking on us. To the Thais, it just seems like the sensible solution.
When it comes to motoring offences, I really don't see much evidence that farang are picked on. Certainly it happens but not on a great scale.
I think there is more of a problem with farang who think they should be able to break the law because this is only Thailand. They would not expect to get away with driving without a license in their home country but somehow the attitude is that in Thailand anything goes.
Well the times are a changing. Laws are being enforced more rigorously across all of Thailand and that is the way it will keep going. It is part of the slow process of modernising (westernising) Thai attitudes. It will take a long time but in a couple of generations, motoring offences will be taken as seriously as they are in the west.
When it comes to the old adage about if there is an accident, it is always the farang's fault. Unfortunately, I think there is a lot of truth behind this one. If you replace the always with mostly then it is about right.
However, I don't think we should actually feel picked on over this. There are other factors at work here. The police are not necessarily saying the accident was the farang's fault. What they are really saying is that in the case of minor accidents, they don't care whose fault it was. They think the farang should pay because he is more able to pay. This may not be justice to our minds but to the Thai mindset, it makes perfect sense.