Liberated by an absence of stop signs, signals or any indication of who has the right of way, vehicles streamed through the unmarked intersection at Hun Sen Park on Sunday and merged seamlessly with the heavy traffic.
But the unchecked flow of vehicles did not last long.
Two converging motorbikes collided, sending the drivers and their passengers spilling across the street. Fortunately, traffic was moving slowly and everyone involved escaped injury and the vehicles incurred only superficial damage.
Without exchanging words the drivers picked themselves up, gathered their scratched motorbikes and passengers and drove off. Such accidents are commonplace and unremarkable on Cambodia’s lawless roads. Countless crashes, scrapes and fender benders occur every day.
But as recent reports and statistics show, such small collisions are symptomatic of a larger epidemic—accidents that take a remarkable toll in human life and cost the country millions of dollars every year.
Road accidents in Cambodia resulted in 824 fatalities, 2,714 serious injuries and thousands more minor injuries in 2003—far surpassing the country’s casualty toll from land mines and unexploded ordnance—according to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
By comparison, approximately 116 people were killed and 656 injured by land mines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia during 2003, according to Handicap International.
And many believe that regional government estimates of road casualties to be too low.
“Official statistics grossly underestimate the actual numbers of persons killed or injured in road accidents,” Charles Melhuish, lead transport sector specialist for the Asian Development Bank, said Monday in a news release about the regional road death toll.
Jean Van Wetter, road safety project coordinator for Handicap International in Cambodia, agreed with the ADB assessment. A Handicap International survey of nine Phnom Penh hospitals identified 499 traffic casualties, 28 of which were fatalities, in September alone.
The newest Handicap International report, to be released this week, shows a sharp increase over those numbers in October, Van Wetter said. He added the rise in casualties was likely due to accidents around the Pchum Ben festivities. The loss in human life and injury is only one facet of the problem. Traffic accidents also exact an enormous cost on the country’s economy.
The ADB estimates that Cambodia loses $116 million to road accidents annually, or 3.21 percent of the country’s gross domestic product—a greater percentage than any other country in the region.
While the government plays host this week to the 18th Asean Senior Transport Officials Meeting, where issues of regional road safety are on the agenda, the problem persists.
As the rate of infrastructure and economic development outpaces the rate at which drivers are trained and traffic laws are passed in Cambodia, more vehicles are on the road and are operated by the uninformed, Van Wetter said.
“Traffic is increasing as the roads are improving and people can drive faster and faster,” he said.
He added that a law requiring licenses, seat belts and helmets for motorbike riders will help curb the trend.
The law, part of a government reform package, is still in the works, and could be passed within the next year or two, he said.
In addition, a Regional Road Safety Strategy and Action Plan, co-drafted with Asean members and the ADB, is due for consideration today at the Asean transport meeting. The Asean region contributes 44 percent of all global road deaths, despite the fact it has only 14 percent of the world’s motorized vehicles on its roads, the ADB reported.
The current trends cannot continue unabated, Melhuish warned in the bank’s statement.
“Such huge recurring losses are not sustainable and action has to be taken to implement a regional strategy and action plan to improve road safety in the region,” he said.