Bangkok's legendary traffic jams may be getting a bit lighter. Or at least less of a joke.
A handbook distributed to police and other authorities Friday updates the guidelines for motorcades and other public appearances by Thailand's royal family. It overturns practices that quietly irritated the public in a country where open criticism of the royal family is illegal, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The palace hopes the changes will end a long-running joke about notorious traffic congestion in the capital of more than 12 million people.
"Every time there's a traffic jam, everyone wonders if there's a royal motorcade passing by," palace official Chantanee Thanarak told a police training session at national police headquarters in Bangkok. "The royal family never meant to bother the public."
About a dozen members of Thailand's extended royal family travel by motorcade, including 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the queen, their children and grandchildren. The palace said Bhumibol initiated the changes himself, though he has rarely traveled outside the hospital where he has stayed more than two years.
Until now, police halted traffic in both directions and for many blocks far in advance of a royal motorcade. Traffic was also halted on highway overpasses, for security but also to observe protocol that no head should be higher than a royal's. The measures snarl traffic, require extensive police presence and have been quietly criticized as excessive.
The new guidelines permit traffic on overpasses and oncoming traffic on the road opposite a royal motorcade. The stoppages will be briefer and fewer police will be used for royal road closures.
Another new rule: Shopping malls do not have to turn away shoppers if a royal family member appears. "But be careful not to let people get close to royal family members," the manual says.
The new procedures take effect now, and police are being trained on them. The 48-page handbook has photographs of how to close roads and manage crowds and includes palace phone numbers that authorities can call if questions arise.