Crossing Cambodia

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Interview with Meas Chandy (Handicap International Belgium): ‘Traffic accidents are a sickness without symptoms’

From a recent edition of Mekong Times (no. 48., April 11-17, 2008), an interview with an Road Safety Week Program 'official', Meas Chandy. Where does HIB really stand?
Handicap International Belgium (HIB) is conducting a Road Safety Week campaign in a bid to reduce accidents during Khmer New Year. Meas Chandy, a HIB Road Safety Week program official, granted an interview with Neth Pheaktra, editor-in-chief of The Mekong Times, to explain the causes of traffic accidents and how best to avoid them.

How can we ensure drivers properly respect the traffic law and maintain courtesy while driving during Khmer New Year?

'I would like to stress that at the main national festivals, particularly the Water Festival and Khmer New Year, we always organize road safety awareness campaigns in public places. As part of a non-governmental organization, we cannot arrest or fine anyone [who violates the traffic law]. During Khmer New Year, we will conduct a road safety awareness campaign at taxi terminals, factories and public parks. We have distributed traffic law-related leaflets to drivers and passengers in Phnom Penh and in the provinces, particularly along National Road 5. We had great cooperation from local students and commune council members to help us to distribute the leaflets. We focus on taxi drivers … [advising] them not to drive too fast. We have also conducted many campaigns on TV and radio. If drivers understand [this information] and do not follow it, then it is their problem and we can do nothing more'.
But shouldn't real action be sought? In the long run this strategy may pay off, but in the mean time there are a lot of senseless deaths....
What is the main cause of traffic accidents?

'The main cause of most traffic accidents is the “human factor” because people are the ones in control of vehicles ... According to our research the main cause of road accidents is overwhelmingly human error, which accounts for 90 percent of all crashes'.

How many people do you think are aware of the traffic law?
'I cannot give a precise estimate as I have no figures. One might guess that few people are aware of the traffic law. Why? Even students at some high schools and universities do not clearly understand the traffic law. What about the people who are less educated? They have must really have very little understanding ... [This is the main] obstacle to the implementation of the traffic law'.

Is the current traffic law effective in preventing accidents?

'I think that the traffic law is very good. If the law is widely implemented, it will help reduce many traffic accidents because the law bans drunk-driving, requires drivers to wear helmets and sets out speed limits. The law is very clear but our people do not understand it and continue violate it by driving fast in cities. This causes many accidents. The law will help minimize road accidents if our people understand it more clearly. I think that nothing is better to implement the law well than the … fining of offenders. We know that if there is no strict enforcement, our people will have less respect for the law. If people understand the law, the law is disseminated to them, and the law is enforced, I believe that traffic accidents will decline'.
But anyone who has read the law knows that it's totally out of touch with reality. For instance banning drunk-driving: the law refers to alcohol limits with blood percentages mentioned. But there are no testing equipment, so what's the sense of stating these in the law? And what about dodging red lights?
Are you concerned about the current rate of traffic accidents, with 1,000 fatalities so far this year?

'We are very worried about the high mortality rate caused by traffic accidents because we have more difficulties in disseminating traffic accident information than we do HIV/AIDS and bird flu campaigns. When HIV/ADS and bird flu information is disseminated, they increase their awareness. If they are sick, they will want to prevent these diseases and protect themselves. But traffic accidents are a sickness without symptoms. If we are just a little careless, we will have life threatening accident. [The] World Health Organization estimates that traffic accidents are the eighth most common cause of death and will reach third place by 2030 as disease mortality's decline. In Cambodia, the [traffic accident] mortality's are the second most common cause of death. We don’t know whether the rate will increase or decrease. It depends on all drivers’ will: If they implement the law, it will decrease the mortality rate but if they don’t and don’t maintain courtesy while driving, the mortality rate from avoidable traffic accidents will increase.Traffic accidents always increase during Khmer New Year'.

What advice do you have for drivers and passengers during this dangerous period?

'We observe that national festivals and holidays are characterized by the highest number of road accidents, because many people travel to the provinces. In past accidents we observed that drivers didn’t wear helmets or safety belts, drove very fast – sometimes when drunk – and traveled in overloaded vehicles. During the upcoming New Year, I would like to appeal to all citizens to properly respect the law and keep in mind the things that I described above, which are the causes of traffic accidents. All citizens should properly respect the traffic law to avoid possible accidents, which can cause them to lose their time, money and even their lives'.
So are the pursuits of HIB a worthy cause? I quote the HIB director from Chasing Cars, two weeks back:
'The president of Handicap International Belgium [HIB] stated that the topic of this Week of Land Traffic Safety, held for the second time in Cambodia, was to cooperate to reduce traffic accidents through the respect of the traffic law'.
'Co-operate' versus '
If they [the authorities, the police] implement the law, it will decrease the mortality rate' and 'the law is enforced, I believe that traffic accidents will decline'. Are they the same, if so then why not say so? Why would HIB officially call something that's crooked straight?
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