Crossing Cambodia

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Traffic Police Flee Mob Revisited

From the Khmer440 site, yesterday's monthly Stan Kahn contribution entitled 'Cambodian Traffic Police Flee Mob'. The inspiration for this article stems from an incident back in February, reported in two articles in Crossing Cambodia, here and here. The full contribution can be had on the Khmer 440 site, but here are some sound bytes:
' .... For the police, they must feel overwhelmed by a situation in which obeying traffic rules is voluntary and where they feel so little respect that drivers routinely snub their noses at them. ... In this case I feel police ineptitude is preferable to police abuse, which is common in many places today, including the US. I’ve seen Khmers react with local police in a way that would’ve gotten them busted skulls in a second in America. However, lack of traffic enforcement still leads to frequent traffic jams and the region’s worst traffic accident rate'.

Worst traffic accident rate? Hmmm, the jury is still deliberating on this.

'... But do they [Cambodian road users] also understand that it’s not okay for a dozen vehicles to go through the intersection after the light has turned red? This practice [ignoring traffic lights] is becoming a recipe for gridlock since they will often go through the light even when the way ahead is blocked and then get stuck in the middle of the intersection; sometimes totally blocking traffic in the other direction for the entire time of the green light....

Nevertheless, education and enforcement would definitely reduce the numbers of speeders.

Cambodia has its own rules of right-of-way, actually it’s only one rule: whoever gets there first has priority, and it helps to have a hefty vehicle. This worked well enough in the past when vehicle counts were low, but progressively is breaking down as vehicle density rises.

The problem here is that lack of clear rules of right-of-way result in accidents in the middle of the night as well as rush hour. Let’s say two vehicles are going in opposite directions, with one wanting to make a left turn. If the left turner doesn’t understand that he or she is supposed to yield the right-of-way to the other driver, confusion results. Just that situation happened to a friend, and a crash and a broken arm was the outcome; and that was at 4 am. The first priority is established rules that are widely taught, including public service campaigns in the media and especially in the schools. These kinds of social changes don’t happen overnight.

A few years back in Thailand, I think it was Chaing Mai, I saw large signboards placed at crosswalks warning drivers they were supposed to stop for pedestrians. Crosswalks mean nothing if the rules are not explicit and consistently enforced.

While in Vietnam in 1994, I saw police standing at the curb turning back drivers going against the flow of traffic. Needless to say, Vietnamese police get a lot more respect from their citizenry than their Cambodian counterparts'. ...

So, the lack of law enforcement on Cambodian roads and/or the lack of respect for traffic police are quintessential Cambodian traits? At least that's the conclusion; the richer Thai have learnt more about being courteous in traffic, the Vietnamese have more respect for authoritarianism.
What about the assumption that ineptitude shown by officials in ensuring continuum on Phnom Penh's roads and simultaneously protecting their own from themselves is also a pure Cambodian trait? In the numerous blogs on Crossing Cambodian much reference has been made to how neighbouring national and local authorities cope with the same issues: increasing traffic, safety and enforcement. Is it too soon (nine months after Crossing Cambodia's inception) to start drawing (these) conclusions?

'This [drivers would get the message that there actually was a rule and it was being applied to everyone] would also result in increased respect for the police, the lack of which is a large part of the problem today; scoffing at the rules goes hand to hand with disrespect for the police. The Prime Minister has recently placed the high rate of traffic accidents as one of Cambodia’s biggest challenges. We’ll have to wait and see if that translates into real action to tackle the problem'.
The fact of the matter is that law enforcement needs more than a willing PM. The current PM 'cult' simply implies that if the PM does not take action personally then the situation has the official PM seal. Sound bytes? These are for election purposes or for craving goodwill with financial donors. If the PM really cared, measures would have been enacted long ago. But making sure that the complete law enforcement apparatus works only for him, means simultaneously that they do not work for the common good. Not working for the common good means little or no respect.

On the respect issue, Crossing Cambodia thinks fondly of it's sojourn in Nepal. Respect for police? No worries, just in front of every stop line at the traffic lights was a khaki klad policeman with a big stick, say 1,5m long. This was of course used heavily as a contraption to assist the law officer in standing asleep, but it was also to ensure everybody stopped behind the white line; those ignorant of real intention of the stick soon got the idea if they just inched over the line: the result was no light dodging.

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