Thailand's lunar New Year celebration is being overshadowed by tragic holiday road accidents. Since the festival began Saturday, nearly 600 people have been killed and tens of thousands injured in traffic incidents. Thailand's lunar New Year holidays, known locally as Songkran, have been marked by tragedy and death on the nation's highways, despite safety efforts by authorities.
During the five days since the festival began, millions of people have hit the roads to visit family within the country. Official figures say 570 people died and more than 37,000 were hurt in car and motorcycle accidents. Children under 15 years of age account for a quarter of the fatalities and injured.
Deputy Prime Minister Jaturon Chaisaeng says a major road safety campaign, which authorities had hoped would reduce holiday accidents by 20 percent, failed, mainly because the message did not make an impression on younger people.
Many of the young victims were riding motorcycles and ignored laws mandating the use of protective safety helmets.
Public Health Ministry spokesman, Nitaya Mahaphol, says future campaigns will have a clear message warning of the dangers of underage driving and alcohol consumption.
"For the underage, there will be more stringent measures upon taking the driving license, not only during the holiday but [also] all through the year," said Mrs. Nitaya. "And also secondly there will be strict implementation of wearing safety helmets and safety belts. Lastly alcoholic drink measurement and blood alcohol levels should be strictly followed."
Mrs. Nitaya said alcohol is a more recent problem. The younger generation accepts casual drinking as a means of celebration, which is new to the largely conservative and traditional Thai Buddhist culture.
"I have to consider the generation gap, mostly in the old days drinking alcohol is not considered as a social status," she said. "But at the moment we have noticed an increasing trend of drinking alcohol with the increasing availability of alcoholic drinks."
Mrs. Nitaya says the Health Ministry will look to coordinate with other agencies on measures that include better highway safety and tougher police enforcement on the legal driving age.