As Cambodia’s Traffic Levels Increase, So Too Does the Road Death Toll

In a country still plagued by poverty, official corruption, political violence, mob killings and land mines, it is easy to understand why traffic safety isn’t viewed by government and NGO officials as one of the pressing issues facing Cambodia today. “Both international organizations and locals, nobody takes this issue very seriously,” said Reuben McCarthy, coordinator of Handicap International’s mines and disability prevention department.

But that could soon change. An ever-increasing number of cars and motorcycles, the construction of smoother, faster roads, lax enforcement of traffic laws, and bold but often uneducated drivers will likely become a deadly mix in coming years.

While no one doubts that better roads are necessary for Cambodia’s progress, people should also view traffic safety as a major development issue, according to McCarthy.

“This is already a terrible problem in Vietnam and China,” said David Salter, chief technical adviser at the International Labor Organization’s Phnom Penh office. “For developing countries, it could mean a drop of one or two percent in annual gross national product.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen has said one of his government’s top priorities is to build new roads. Both in the city and the countryside, better roads will bring an improved standard of living as it becomes cheaper and quicker to move goods between Phnom Penh, Battambang, Kompong Cham, Koh Kong and Siem Reap, as well as across borders to Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok.

But the downside is the number of people who will inevitably be maimed or killed, which in addition to the sorrow is also a drain on the economy due to increased health care costs and reduced worker productivity.

Traffic casualties will likely take a large jump in the next year or two as a government and international donor-sponsored road construction campaign continues in Phnom Penh and on the national highways, according to Salter.

A 1999 report on rural roads in Cambodia, funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, said poor road conditions have been keeping the number of traffic deaths down.

“When these roads are rehabilitated…high speeding traffic will create a much greater danger,” the report said. “If the speeds can be reduced by warning signs and different kinds of traffic calming measures, the risk for fatal accidents decreases dramatically.”

Developing countries in Asia and Africa have witnessed a huge increase in traffic fatalities as new roads are built. Salter cites the case of one modern highway built in China. Within months of its opening, thousands of people were dead from traffic accidents, he said.

About 700,000 people are killed and 10 million are injured every year worldwide in traffic accidents. Deaths from traffic accidents could be the third leading cause of death and disability in the world by 2020 if current trends remain unchanged, according to a 1999 study by the World Health Organization, World Bank and Harvard University.

Fatality rates are 20 to 30 times higher in developing countries than in industrialized countries, the study found.

“It is the poor people who are at the greatest exposure. They are usually in rickety transport and have the least amount of steel around them. They usually have the least amount of knowledge about traffic laws,” Salter said.

At the busy Phnom Penh intersection of Norodom, Mao Tse Tung and Sothearos boulevards, 10 municipal military and traffic police officers work as a team to try to tame the hectic morning and late afternoon traffic.

After one recent morning on the job, tired traffic police official Mardy Duch described how police try to keep vehicles from blocking the intersection, driving in the wrong lane or charging into oncoming traffic after a stoplight has turned red.

Car and motorcycle drivers regularly ignored traffic lights when 36 signals were installed throughout the city by the municipality in 1998. While drivers are now more likely to respect traffic laws, traffic signals and traffic police, Mardy Duch said he is also seeing more and more accidents at his intersection.

“There are a lot more cars and motorcycles,” he said. “In the future, I believe there will be even more accidents.”

A 2001 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency estimated there were approximately 300,000 motorized vehicles in Phnom Penh, a “remarkable increase” from 1991. A decade ago, as the country prepared for the arrival of Untac and its fleet of Toyota Land Cruisers, there were only a handful of automobiles on the city’s streets. Even motorcycles were a rare site.

There were 76 people killed and almost 800 people were hurt in automobile and motorcycle accidents in Phnom Penh in 2001, according to municipal traffic police official Chev Hak. The great majority of those accidents happened on the city’s main boulevards and at busy intersections, with teenagers and young adults the majority of the fatalities.

Those figures which include only those reported to police show a small improvement from 1999 and 2000. In 1999, 133 died in traffic accidents in the city. In 2000, the number of fatalities dropped to about 95. But officials expect these numbers to spike upward.

Because provincial officials do not usually keep data on traffic accidents, no nationwide statistics are available. But tragic stories regularly make their way back to the capital:

  • Aug 2001: A National Election Committee-owned Land Cruiser slammed into a group of people at a local market in Kompong Thom province, killing 15 and injuring 39.
  • July 2001: Eleven died and 12 more were injured as an alleged drunk driver lost control of a taxi full of garment workers and careened off a bridge into a river outside Phnom Penh.
  • Feb 2001: Five died and 57 were hurt along Route 4 in Kompong Speu province when a driver lost control of his truck.
  • Jan 2001: Seven killed and 18 injured along Route 5 in Pursat province when a taxi blew a tire, struck a pedestrian and flipped over.
  • April/May 1999: Seven were killed and 20 were injured in a rash of accidents along Route 4 in Kompong Speu province. The accidents prompted officials to call for improved ambulance service.

In Phnom Penh last year, almost every accident was caused by a driver who had been driving too fast, had been drinking alcohol or abused some other traffic law, said Chev Hak. Salter estimates that 80 percent of all traffic accidents can be blamed on driver error.

Government officials have said road deaths will rise because many vehicles are driven by people who do not understand the traffic laws.

There are eight driving schools in Phnom Penh and several more in Sihanoukville and Battambang and Kompong Cham provinces. But driver’s education is not required by the government.

In order to obtain a driver’s license, a person is required to fill out a form, take a verbal and driving test and pay a $20 fee, said Ministry of Public Works and Transportation undersecretary of state Tan Sintho.

“The majority of drivers don’t spend time learning. They just go straight to buy a driver’s license,” said Mardy Duch.

The government has introduced some measures to address Cambodia’s worsening traffic situation.

In Feb 2001, the city assigned municipal military police to work alongside traffic police to enforce traffic laws and general security on the streets.

Last December, the Council of Ministers passed a draft law that would require virtually all motorcycle drivers and passengers to wear helmets. Front-seat car passengers would have to wear seatbelts, and all drivers would have to remain sober and refrain from honking their horns wildly.

In recent months, the government has also sponsored television and radio announcements on traffic safety.

Future publicity campaigns should look to the Cambodian Mine Action Center’s awareness efforts as an example “because there are obvious similarities in both costs and teaching methods,” the 1999 Sida report stated.

Although land mines get more attention from the media, government and international donors, traffic accidents may already be a larger problem for Cambodians.

In 2001, there were 797 reported land mine casualties, according to the Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System. That’s close to the same number of people police said were hurt in traffic accidents in Phnom Penh last year.

“Traffic is anywhere and everywhere. It can’t be fenced off, like land mines,” said Salter.

Last August, Handicap International expanded the focus of its land mines department to include traffic accidents after surveys done in Cambodia and around the world found a large percentage of disabilities caused by traffic accidents, McCarthy said.

Later this month, Handicap International and the government will train 140 motorcycle taxi drivers in a pilot program aimed at promoting road safety. The taxi drivers will be registered with the municipality and commune officials and will wear uniformed beige vests and blue helmets.

The NGO is now working to set up a nationwide monitoring system to count the number of traffic accident victims. The system will use the same staff and methods that Handicap International uses to count land mine victims, said McCarthy.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s traffic continues to move, turn and flow in its wild and frightening way. During January, seven more people died in Phnom Penh traffic accidents. In February, police said there were 16 fatalities.

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