What happens if you get caught driving without a license in Thailand? As with most aspects of living here in the Land of Smiles, the definitive answer is maybe nothing, maybe a lot. More on that later, but first let’s get an official Thai driving license. The following is my personal experience and some of the details from years ago are now fuzzy.
First, I had to watch a four-hour (?) video (in Thai) about driving on the roads. Then I took the written driving test which I flunked. Yes, it was all in English but in my defense the majority of questions and answers were poorly written along with Thai logic thrown into the mix. For example:
Which vehicle is not allowed on the roads?
A. Private car
B. Car for hire
C. Army tank
D. Farm tractor
Come to find out any Thai would have known it is the tractor as common sense says the army can do whatever they want. On my second attempt, I barely passed. Then I went to wait in line for my driving test. As I got to the drab colored government desk, the official kept saying something in Thai and at that time, I had no idea what was being said. The Thai gentleman in line behind me finally said in English “Pay B500 ($15), no driving test.” So that is what I did.
Recently, I had to renew my driving license and times have changed. Sorta. The written test was now online, but the questions were still suffering from Google Translate.
The driver does not have a driving license What’s wrong?
A. Imprisonment not over 1 year
B. Imprisonment not over 1 month or fined not more than 1,000 baht or both
C. fine not more than 2,000 baht
D. fine not more than 5,000 baht
Luckily, I passed the first go around and headed to the government building for an eye and peripheral test. I had been told to be there at 9am and being ex-military, I arrived fifteen minutes early. The second round of tests soon began. The eye examiner simply used a wooden stick to point to various colors and I responded with the correct answer. The peripheral test was also easy.
The next step was to get my photo taken and then the wait began. Soon, I had my renewed Thai driving license in hand and won’t have to go through this process again until 2027.
About a year or so back, during the peak of Covid, the Thai government had the police block traffic from Bangkokians wanting to travel to other provinces. In less than a week, there had been close to 70,000 drivers found not to have a driving license. Just this past month during the annual Songkran celebration the police also had checkpoints set up to try and stop drunk driving. Once again in about a week, 60,000 drivers were found not to have any driving license.
In the past I have argued with members of my wife’s family concerning this. They may have had new trucks or cars and even vehicle insurance paid for. But what they did not have was a valid Thai driver’s license.
The truth is that a Thai could drive on the roads for years without a license and not have a problem. Forget the police checkpoint, most of the time that is small potatoes. Where they really run into problems is if they have a car wreck and seeing as how Thailand has some of the most dangerous roads to travel on in the world, there is a good chance of this occurring.
Insurance companies generally do not pay diddley squat if the driver does not have a valid driver’s license and I have seen this happen time and time again both with the locals and expats. The insurance rackets are no different here than in the states insomuch as their goal is to turn a profit and avoid paying claims. Many of the shops that rent cars or motorcycles don’t pay particularly close attention to see if the customer’s license is current/valid or not. It’s more about profit.
Let’s say Joe Blow from Alabama is cruising the roads on one of the islands and admiring the beauty. He is not paying attention and bashes his rented motorcycle into a local’s car. Luckily no one is injured and Joe is relieved that he is covered by a third-party insurance policy. Maybe the cops show up, maybe they don’t. Regardless, the insurance guys on their motorcycles soon show up at the accident site and discover that Joe has a valid driving license for a car; not a motorcycle. Or maybe Joe had a couple of beers or they thought he was driving too fast.
Some insurance companies might pay for damages, while most tend to point out the fine print.
The above scenario happens all too often and trust me, the tourist will pay for damages before heading back to their home country. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
So, do most Thais have valid driving licenses? I want to say yes as I have personally seen more and more locals jumping through the hoops. However, on the other hand, there are still a bunch that don’t. Thailand is slowly making headway with traffic safety, albeit at a snail’s pace. Now if only the Thai drivers would slow down…