Spiralling traffic deaths force Cambodia to tame wild roads
by Sue Se
Sun Jan 7, 5:04 PM ET
PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Another weekend night falls over Phnom Penh and the capital's streets are awash in red tail lights as hundreds of drivers clog the main boulevards or dart down side roads to avoid the bumper-to-bumper crush.
Whole families cling to the seats of small motorbikes, the youngest often perched over the handlebars like hood ornaments, while young turks on neon scooters dip dangerously in and out of traffic and expensive SUVs cruise the pavement like asphalt sharks.
Later in the evening, the inevitable crowds gather over crumpled vehicles. Arguments, or even gunshots will erupt across shattered windscreens.
The maimed and broken bodies will be carted off to hospitals as police bend over lines of white spraypaint on the road marking where vehicles cartwheeled or skidded to an abrupt and often fatal halt.
Traffic fatalities have more than doubled in the last five years, becoming Cambodia's second deadliest killer behind HIV/AIDS and resulting in mounting costs for the government.
Some 1,070 people were killed in the first 10 months of last year, compared with only 400 deaths reported in 2000, and experts fear many more deaths might go unrecorded.
An average of three people are killed and more than 100 hurt each day on Cambodia's roads, putting the country's fatality rate at nearly double the regional average, according to Sann Socheata, a road safety program manager with Handicap International Belgium.
"More than 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error," she said.
The cost to impoverished Cambodia's economy is some 130 million US dollars a year in healthcare and lost productivity, or roughly 3.0 percent of the gross domestic product -- again, a regional high.
"It is really a big concern, as road traffic accidents have a huge negative impact on the country's development," she told AFP.
In a bid to put an end to the carnage the government has pushed through drastic new traffic laws, previously unheard of in Cambodia's free-wheeling road culture.
Drivers' licenses will now be mandatory, as will helmets for those on motorbikes and seatbelts for vehicle drivers. Speeding and drunk driving - both common on Cambodia's roads - will for the first time be illegal.
"This law is needed now ... because traffic accident are on the rise," said Heng Samrin, president of Cambodia's parliament which passed the new measures last month.
One of the most visible signs of Cambodia's modernisation is its roads - city streets have been repaired and rural highways blacktopped as the government prioritises transport as a key to developing the war-scarred nation.
With Cambodia's new-found stability has come an unprecedented surge in personal wealth that has sparked a massive buying spree by Cambodians eager to own vehicles, without necessarily knowing how to operate them.
There are no learner's permits nor driving tests. Anyone with money can, literally, drive their new car off the lot and immediately into the chaos of Cambodia's roads.
"With the economy improving, many more people have the money to buy a motorscooter or car, and they want to drive ... so there is a kind of freedom," said Jean Van Wetter, former operations coordinator with Handicap International Belgium, which issues monthly reports on traffic accidents.
"But (drivers) don't know the rules, and when they know the rules, they don't respect them - there is a lack of respect in general due to a lack of law enforcement," Van Wetter added.
Negligent policing is widely seen as the biggest obstacle to bringing order to the country's clogged roads.
As good as the new laws might be, implementation will at best be spotty and at worst, encourage even more corruption among Cambodian traffic police.
"The police are motivated by money, not the law," Van Wetter said.
Police, in turn, blame drivers' lack of respect for any sort of authority.
Motorists routinely ignore police trying to wave them over for minor offenses, leading to frequent scenes of officers trying to manhandle often bemused drivers to the roadside.
"Some drivers drive so nasty. It is hard for us, we don't know when they will respect the law," complained traffic police chief Tin Prasoer.
But with Cambodia at the bottom of the so-called "motorisation curve", and road safety largely unknown to most drivers, respect for the law is a long way off.
"The traffic system reflects the mindset of the people - everybody wants to be a part of this growth, but at the same time people like to be free to do what they want," Van Wetter said.
- A fair reflection? Are economic boom times to blame for the increase in traffic accidents? Well, just look at the title of the article : Spiraling traffic deaths force Cambodia's to tame wild roads. Does this imply some moral superiority? The 'wild' roads refer to the users, Crossing Cambodia supposes; certainly the condition of the roads can not be described as wild (anymore). When most people get behind a steering wheel they tend to transform and in Cambodia that is the same. What's more, due to the lack of rules and enforcement, traffic users have devised their own culture and though not always safe or efficient, the end result is that the road users get to their destination.
- The article stresses the rise in deaths, but from other data previously reported it is the fact that the rest of the country is playing catch up that is the driving force behind the dramatic increases, in Phnom Penh the rate is decreasing despite 'neon-scooters' (?), 'SUV sharks' and 'bumper to bumper crushes'.
- And the regional average what is that? One obvious perception Crossing Cambodia has, is that data collection on traffic and traffic related deaths in Cambodia is superior to that in neighbouring countries.
'"This law is needed now ... because traffic accident are on the rise," said Heng Samrin'
Traffic accidents have been on the rise since ages, why is the law needed now?