Crossing Cambodia

Friday, March 20, 2009

Well, avid followers of this blog will have noticed how much effort Crossing Cambodia puts on law enforcement and the farcical situation we tend to take as normal here in Phnom Penh and in Cambodia in general.

Head injuries are 1 of the most serious types of injuries and are a major cause of traffic deaths here in Cambodia. Nothing more seems futile then losing life because of driving on a moto without a helmet. There is near universal acceptance of this and such is the case that nearly everywhere in the world wearing helmets on moto's is compulsory. Even in Vietnam. The New Yorker last month reported on Vietnam and helmets:
'hospitals across the country are reporting up to thirty per cent declines in head injuries'.
Despite Cambodia having a law which stipulates this regulation, this was only enforced as of 1 January 2009. Back then, Crossing Cambodia reported that by the end of January 80% were wearing helmets. But in CC's last post, CC estimated that 50-60% were now wearing a helmet and as such the law enforcement was once again a belly-flop.

Confirmation of these figures came from yesterdays ( March 19, 2009) Phnom Penh Post:
'Tin Prasoer [Head of Phnom Penh's Traffic Police] said that roughly 70 percent of motorbike drivers had complied with the law during the first few weeks of the year. He said that number had since fallen to 60 percent'.
Science! But why the drop?

"I have a seen a decrease in drivers wearing helmets because people respect the law only for a short time," he said.

"But that does not mean we will stop enforcing the law. We are still strongly enforcing the law and explaining to drivers the importance of wearing helmets."
Lack of respect for the law? (Cough, cough). But isn't disrespect for the law a quintessential element of Cambodia's society? Everybody, but the very poor, are highly involved in bending the law for their own convenience! So how could the police expect that this would be different in this case?
The second line does show the men in blue up. If helmet wearing is down, then this is due to lax law enforcement; i.e. these guys are not doing their work well.

The article then continues with the customary comment from civil society:
'Though she said she believed traffic police officers were "working very hard", Sam Socheata [of Handicap International Belgium] called on them to "enforce the law on all the roads in Phnom Penh"'.
Talking in a vacuum!

Finally the article states:
'According to a Handicap International survey, the percentage of motorbike drivers wearing helmets increased from 24 percent to 52 percent between July 2008 and February 2009, a jump Sam Socheata said could be largely attributed to the helmet law'.
For a so-called expert this sound byte seems incorrect. There is no such thing as a helmet law. Just a traffic law, two years old, feebly enforced.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Chasing Cars, March 16 2009

Virtually nothing to report, yawn, yawn. I hate this economic turndown! Nobody gets out and about to report on something unbelievable / normal for Cambodia.

Did you notice that somebody has donated paint to the Phnom Penh traffic department. They are painting all kinds of yellow and white lines, thick/thin, single/double. It's confusing all the traffic users! I even saw some new STOP signs! Being totally disregarded! Ha!
  • Officials are now targetting parked cars. The city lacks any parking facilties, such that all sidewalks and even streets themselves are packed with parked cars. The Phnom Penh Post article though is a bit secretive:
    'Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Chreang Sophann said the proposed disciplinary measure, which no officials could elaborate on [because they failed to show up at work?], is designed to curb traffic congestion and would target hotels, restaurants and business centres.
    "I don't know when this would start because we are waiting for a decision from the governor," Chreang Sophann said. "It is a draft proposal and the decision depends on the governor."
    Great, more clamp downs on ghosts. But wait a minute.
    'Chreang Sophann said the decision to draft the proposal was reached during a March 4 meeting at which city officials discussed the problem of traffic congestion on the capital's streets'.
    A draft? Man, even if it were passed the men in blue will not enforce it over and beyond 48 hours. And man, these guys are busy:
    'Tin Prasoer, chief of Phnom Penh's Traffic Police, said about 100 motorists were fined for parking their cars on the street last year'.
    A resepected parking official from where I come from, does this by himself, alone in 1 day and that's his daily average!
    'He [the same githead] said he hoped public enthusiasm for the proposed crackdown on on-street parking would match that shown for the recent law requiring motorbike drivers to wear helmets'.
    I'm falling off my chair here. Enthusiasm? Helmets? Nowadays most (60%, down from 80/90%) drive without! My god, what a country, what a city, what a people! What a news rag to put this on paper ....
  • [after taking medication] Meanwhile in Siem Reap, authorities are more pro-pedestrian. Or for the time-being:
    'a large group of police gave businesses a warning on Monday before enforcing the regulation Tuesday morning. "If anything, it'll make it easier and open up the area more," Alex said [pub owner], "But I dare say it won't take long before people start sneaking their furniture back out again."
  • Instead the other blog mentions that the guys with cash have been financing a training for the guys in blue. What did they learn? How to enforce the learn? Nope! How to operate a speed gun. How to do an alcohol test. What happened to walking the line! Fail proof!
    "Yeah man, what this gun he like. He not shoot. Better give us big real gun. Best way to stop bad driver. White guy give us no good gun. Better him give $20. We poor guy, all day stand in sun. Him have no helmet."
  • Confrontation on the high seas? No, it's just the Tonle Sap and just in Siem Reap.
    'A South-Korean company, which is operating more than 100 boats, seems to be monopolizing the local market, and by doing so, it tries to push aside its competitors, in particular those belonging to the Association of Chong Khneas Tourist Boats'.
    Considering that this association has been ripping off tourists (or overcharging) for years and years calling the other guys black reminds me of an old english proverb ...
  • On a lighter note down under New Zealand's answer to the economic woes is to ... create
    'a 3000km national cycleway
    Mr Key [NZ PM] said the cycleway was "a long-term thing that New Zealanders will look back on and be proud that they've got".
    Great idea. Or you could simply join the other's on the southern hemisphere, joining the other economy, getting on yer bike and outta of those clothes:
    '... the first ever Canberra edition of the World Naked Bike Ride came and went, without quite reaching critical mass, without altering the status quo or ending our reliance of petrochemicals'.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

From A to B in Phnom Penh

Or what's the safest way to get around Phnom Penh. An opinionated piece in today's Phnom Penh Post.
If someone suggested to you that riding on the back of a stranger's motorbike without a helmet was an acceptable form of transportation in London, New York or Sydney, you would think they were crazy. So why is it considered acceptable in Phnom Penh?
Even if Phnom Penh didn't have one of the highest accident rates in the region; even if there were a head-injury unit in the city (the closest is in Bangkok); riding pillion without a helmet would still not be a sensible choice. The human head is simply too fragile to risk impact with the ground.

Firstly, the driver's trustworthiness and blood-alcohol level are unknown. Then, the motorbike itself is generally too underpowered to take a large foreigner at the speed of the traffic.
Foreigners also have an abiding urge to carry bags: handbags of immense size, daypacks, laptop cases, all manner of encumbrances that seem to be part of our lives. To a potential thief, they identify where all your good stuff is, and you've got lots. Did you ever see a Cambodian lady riding with more than a small clutch purse?

Then there is the helmet issue. The new law enforcing helmets is not being applied to pillion passengers on motorbikes. Why? Is it because there is a genuine lack of alternatives?

Tuk-tuks are safer and although they move slower through the traffic, which means that it's unlikely you'll ever be thrown across the ground in an accident.
In most cities in the region, such chariots are not allowed on the major city streets, as they block the flow of traffic. In Manila, you would cross the city in a jeepney or bus, transferring to motorbike-powered vehicle to get from the main road into your suburb or residential area.

There is also a new taxi company offering air-conditioned, metered service that actually works out cheaper than using a (negotiated) tuk-tuk.

If you call the hotline in English, they send a driver who speaks English. The flag-fall is 3,000 riels (US$0.72), the drivers know their way around, the taxis are spotlessly clean and there's no late-night surcharge. Their call centre is not currently up to taking bookings, so you have to call and wait 10 to 15 minutes, but the system is a great development for the city.
The next development has to be some kind of public transportation system, perhaps like Bangkok's system of buses and minivans on the main boulevards fed by subsystems [moto's! But with helmets.] in the residential and commercial areas.

Dismissing Phnom Penh as somehow different and claiming that the motorbike system is somehow fine because it's in place and it works is symptomatic of the thinking of foreign employees of what is loosely (and perhaps ironically) called the development industry.

Meanwhile, tourists and expats alike continue to take their lives in their hands, or rather put their lives in motorbike taxi-drivers' hands, and crossing their fingers while clutching their over-sized fake-Gucci handbags.

So what does Crossing Cambodia believe is the way to go?

Well, from the start I did try moto's out, but not only did I not feel safe, neither do these guys seem to know where you're going. Possibly by now I would be better able to direct the guys, but alas the safety issue. So I get around by tuk-tuk, it's a bit of drag when going far away or need to navigate Monivong, but take a book.

The taxi service is catching on, but it still requires ordering, you just can't flag them down on the street.

Great piece, let's hope it provokes some reaction. Other than 'the poor moto drivers ...'.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Chasing Cars, 1 March 2009

Followers (why has no-one registered Crossing Cambodia as to be followed?) of this blog may have been wondering what's happening. So have I!

To tell you the truth not much at all is happening. Being the first of March, one would have expected that the men in blue would have brought Phnom Penh under helmets by now, but that point is slowly slipping away. Crossing Cambodia estimates that helmet wearing has dropped from 80-90% to just 50-70%. This despite the more than usual coppers on the road trying to stop anyone vaguely offending some kind of rule. That's unless, like last Saturday, the offender was wearing an army cap (and no helmet). We're not going to stop him!
  • But it's good to see something else pop up on the agenda. Once more. Now two years overdue.
    'National Police Chief Neth Savoeun has ordered police across the country to start punishing, as of May, any civilians or low-ranking police or army officers whose vehicles bear police or military licence plates.
    The crackdown would also apply to vehicles with no plates at all, he added'.
    Wish them luck. But as it is 2 weeks later, nothing to be seen! '
    She [Mu Sochua, opposition spokesperson] said an earnest effort to enforce the law, not more stern words about it, was needed. She added that a real crackdown on illegally procured plates was "beyond" the National Police chief, given how pervasive the practice has become'.
    Nearly everything is pervasive in Cambodia.
  • Next up were
    'the motorbikes pulling overloaded trailers'
    The reason:
    '"We do not allow big motorbikes to tow trailers into the city because it causes traffic jams and makes the city look messy and disorderly," said Chav Hak, deputy chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Traffic Police'.
    Subjectivity at it's best. Put more bluntly, these guys are so unpowerful we can easily cash in on them! An offender:
    "We have spent more than 30,000 riels ($7.27) at police checkpoints along the national road from Kampong Speu to Phnom Penh," he said. "Look at the police. They are not skinny. We work hard, but we are still very skinny."
  • Odd for a city where taxi's are nowhere to be found. Phnom Penh is mentioned in a list of cities where to avoid taxi's. That can't be too difficult then!
    'Therefore, we recommend making alternative travel arrangements in the following areas!'
    First in a unlisted list is Phnom Penh:
    'Phnom Penh is a friendly [compared to what?] and laid back tourist destination, but hailing a taxi is an experience you won’t particularly enjoy [because there are none?]. You won’t have as much trouble getting a taxi as you will getting rid of your driver once you reach your destination. Many drivers insist on becoming your personal tour guide, of course collecting fares for each destination they deliver you to along the way. Before you head to Cambodia ask your travel agent to recommend a few good transportation companies or you might want to try a rickshaw. You can easily hire a driver for an entire day for a minimal cost and without the scary stalker experience'.
    Load of ****. My own list would most certainly include Kuala Lumpur where the taxi-folk are 50/50 aforementioned word. Impolite, rude, greedy and simply obnoxious quite a few are the rotten apples there. Elsewhere? Bali, Singapore, Bangkok, Vientiane, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Chiang Mai are all ok, Kathmandu might be slightly iffy.
  • Competition on the horizon? A 27 year old male propably working for Handicap Internbational has set up his own blog. And publishes statistics and the odd (uncited) article from the news concerning traffic safety in Cambodia. Looks pretty boring as there is no personal touch. And plays it safe! Ha! What's wrong with criticizing the Cambo officials?
  • From the SE Globe:
    'Let’s be blunt. Phnom Penh isn't friendly to pedestrians. SUVs roar down potholed streets, horns screaming as pedestrians and motos scurry for cover. These “connected” drivers don’t need licence plates and the police don’t seem to car'.
    A nice readable article, a bit utopian here and there, but if one can't dream, what then?
    'Traffic engineers refer to three “Es”: engineering, education and enforcement. Engineering has been discussed, but education and enforcement remain. That’s why the government works with groups such as HIB. It has given the police 100 global positioning system (GPS) detectors so they can gather data about traffic accident trends. By mapping them, they can see the most dangerous zones for pedestrians and vehicles, said Sem Panhavuth of HIB. It’s a small step in the right direction. Pedestrian safety is paramount in a city that aspires to a higher world ranking than given it by National Geographic magazine and values its tourist industry. One conspicuous sign of prosperity is not traffic density but the recognition that grace and architectural beauty are better seen at walking pace'.
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