BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's prime minister vowed Wednesday to crack down on the country's private van transportation industry after a fiery crash that killed 25 people.
Thailand has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world, and vans — especially used for commuting, but also for inter-provincial travel — have been involved in a number of accidents involving multiple deaths.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he will tighten regulations on van transport in response to revelations that the 64-year-old driver responsible for the crash may have skirted regulations and not gotten enough sleep, causing him to doze off while driving. Experts say private van drivers push themselves to the limit, often driving overtime and going over the speed limit in order to earn as much money as possible.
"Why have past governments allowed illegal vans to operate? Nobody's been following regulations from the start," Prayuth said at a news conference, addressing the general problem. "From now on, I will be strict. If anyone cannot drive, then don't drive."
He also said he will set up more checkpoints to enforce the law. As head of a military government, he can shortcut normal legal and legislative requirements.
The van with 15 people had been on its way to Bangkok from eastern Thailand on Monday when it swerved over the median into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with a pickup truck carrying 12 people, causing both vehicles to catch fire. One person from each vehicle survived.
Officials said the crash occurred during the fifth time in 31 hours that the van driver was making the five-hour, 250-kilometer (155-mile) journey, suggesting exhaustion was a key factor in the crash, along with the vehicle's high speed.
"The accident happened on a straight road and the van crossed the median without stopping or slowing down," said Wittaya Prayongpan, assistant national police chief. "It's clear the van was the reckless offender."
Jittichai Rudjanakanoknad, a professor of transportation studies at Chukalongkorn University, said private van operators are not controlled well by the government.
"They try to speed as much as they can so that they can return and pick up more passengers... their working hours aren't controlled, there's a lack of sleep among drivers, and the vehicles are not inspected well by the government because they're registered as private vehicles," he said.
Driving passengers in vans between provinces for profit was illegal ten years ago, but public pressure mounted on the government to legalize the vans again. The vans are more popular than buses because they're significantly faster, pick up passengers at more convenient stops, and are just as cheap.
The Transport Ministry says it is discussing measures to improve traffic safety, including vehicle GPS tracking systems, tighter driving regulations and a shift from vans to buses for long-distance trips by 2019.
"There will be stricter speed limits," said Somsak Hommaung, the ministry's deputy permanent secretary, in a phone interview. "There should also be measures to deal with medians that are too narrow. Drivers' physical conditions will be looked at."
Thailand has one of the highest vehicle fatality rates in the world at 36.2 deaths per 100,000 people, according to a 2015 World Health Organization report.