Swede On the Road to a Safer Thailand

Swedish pensioner Kurt Blomqvist retired here five years ago, but he wasn’t content to rest, setting up an organisation to promote traffic safety among the Kingdom’s children.

‘‘A holiday is no good for me,’’ said Kurt Blomqvist. ‘‘I must be active, and I’m happy when I have something to do.’’

“A holiday is no good for me,” he said of his retirement after being a graphic designer, a teacher and a journalist. “I must be active, and I’m happy when I have something to do.”

Over the past five years, the spirited senior has penned 10 books about Thailand but writing is just a hobby. His focus is more on Pro Thai, a non-profit and voluntary organisation working for Thai children’s rights.

Kurt and his friends founded Pro Thai in 2008. The first project on promoting road safety had the kind-hearted Swedes providing schoolchildren with reflectors, or taa fai, meaning “lighted eyes” in Thai. This is an ongoing project and he hopes that eventually all young pedestrians nationwide will have reflectors to help protect them from road accidents.

Visiting rural schools in many provinces, he found places where students were sitting on the floor trying to write and read. That led to the ergonomic furniture project, which had Kurt designing desks and chairs with vertically adjustable feet for children aged six to 16.

Kurt has visited many rural schools to give reflectors and road safety manuals to children. PHOTOS: ANUSORN SAKSEREE

“The furniture grows up with the students,” he said.

Last week, the first 100 sets of desks and chairs were given to a small school in Ban Kruat in Buri Ram. Pro Thai wants to expand this project to other schools but they have reached a financial limit.

“It’s a very small organisation _ no employees; about 30 volunteers, mainly from Scandinavia, no administrative expenses,” said Kurt.

“And we need support from individuals, companies and other organisations. Together, I am sure we can work miracles and do wonderful things together in helping Thai children.”

What made you establish Pro Thai?

When I first came to this country, I was shocked to see how dangerous the traffic situation was here and I heard that three people die in traffic accidents every hour, many of them children.

Three years back, I witnessed a tragic road accident in a village in Buri Ram. A seven-year-old girl was hit in the back by a car. She walked on the wrong side of the road and did not know that she had to walk on the right side so that she could see the cars and motorbikes coming against her. She died because of lack of knowledge.

That accident made me decide to try to do something about promoting road safety and to start with the children as we do in my own country and in many other countries in the world.

How would you compare the situation here and Sweden?

Sweden has about nine million inhabitants and last year 355 people died in traffic accidents. That means about one person every day. Compare this to Thailand, where between 70 and 80 people die in traffic accidents every day.

Some years back, the number of fatal accidents in Sweden was about 500 every year, but the authorities had a goal to reduce it to 270 by promoting road safety campaigns and other activities, and it is possible we will reach this goal this year.

About 80 percent of all road accidents in Thailand involve motorbikes and about 40 percent of the accidents happen when it is dark. Many of them would not have happened if the pedestrians had carried reflectors.

Sometimes phenomena become a daily occurrence over time. Traffic accidents are such an example. Many people think it is inevitable that people will die in traffic, but it is possible to do something about this, like we did in Sweden.

The ergonomic desk and chair sets that grow with the student.

Why start with reflectors?

In Western countries, most pedestrians have carried reflectors for more than 50 years. It’s an effective way to reduce accidents, especially when it is dark or during bad weather.

I worked in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after they were liberated from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. I was there for more than 10 years and worked with developing programmes, and one of the projects was road safety for children. In Estonia today it is a law to carry reflectors when it is dark, the same, just as it is a law to use helmets when driving motorbikes.

A pilot project in Buri Ram had us providing schoolchildren and teachers with 1,000 reflectors and information material costing 20,000 baht _ a small sum for saving lives.

We then introduced reflectors to other schools in Thailand. Thanks to Swedish tourists, Swedes living in Thailand and some Norwegians, 25,000 Thai schoolchildren today have received reflectors and a manual on road safety.

The ultimate goal is that Thai authorities will take over and that reflectors in a couple of years shall be available for all people in Thailand to buy for a small sum of money at pharmacies, health centres, hospitals and other appropriate places.

So everyone should have reflectors?

It is almost impossible to describe the traffic situation in Thailand in words. There are traffic rules but it seems that nobody follows them. An unbelievable number of cars are on the streets, plus thousands of motorbikes swarming like bees. And in this terrible chaos, pedestrians are walking around without reflectors.

If I were Thailand’s Minister of Transport, I would see to it that all of Thailand’s 5 million schoolchildren got reflectors and manuals on road safety, and I would also commission television programmes to promote this issue.

There’s also a need for a law stipulating that all cars have their lights on even during the day. According to experiences from other countries this will also save many lives.

What if kids don’t use the reflectors?

Young people have so much to think of that they can sometimes forget, or they may think that an accident will not happen to them even though they know accidents can happen to anybody. It’s important that adults, parents and teachers remind them of the risks they face every day.

Schoolchildren will get a small book with easily understandable pictures that put the focus on dangerous road situations while teachers receive a booklet called Guidance Road Safety at School. That means, for the first time, road safety will become a subject in Thai schools.

How did you design the ergonomic furniture?

I’m not exactly a designer but I have a background in graphic design. I designed the desk and chair based on research that looked at how the classroom environment means so much for children’s capacity and ability to learn. Also children who sit in an incorrect position get tired and sitting like this for many years can cause problems later in life.

Teachers will follow what happens with the children after receiving the ergonomic furniture and in a way this will be a small research project.

Costing 900 baht per set, the ergonomic desks and chairs are produced by a small factory located in a village outside Ban Kruat, Buri Ram. The factory gives villagers an opportunity to earn money and thus improve their livelihood.

What’s the reward for helping children?

It’s rewarding to see Thai children smiling and laughing when I visit them to give out the reflectors and other stuff. I was a teacher myself, teaching primary school students when I lived in Spain, and so I get along very well with children.

I’m also supporting the education of two Buri Ram boys, now aged seven and 12, who lost their father in a motorbike accident. They are waiting for their Swedish Santa Claus to visit them in December.


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