Brandon Bates insisted that he couldn’t veer his rented green Sanyang around the police officer who pulled him over on Norodom Boulevard last week.
“I was in the middle of the road, and [the police officer] darted in front of my bike and then grabbed my hand,” said Bates, standing with his girlfriend after paying the cop $5.
“We just got in town yesterday. Apparently it’s illegal to drive a bike down this road, even though all these other people are,” he said, pointing to the steady flow of motorcycles driving past the officers.
The police officer who pulled Bates over, Mak Phalla—a 10-year veteran of the police force—said he makes a base salary of just $20 per month. Not only is being a police officer unrewarding financially, he said, his boss also tells him not to make trouble with gangs, the children of high-ranking officials and other “untouchables.”
“We mostly compromise with the drivers,” he said, standing in the shade on Norodom. Under the law, driving a motorcycle on Norodom Boulevard is a fine of 2,000 riel (about $0.50).
“If they agree to pay the bribe, we let them go,” Mak Phalla said. “Without the fees, I cannot support my children.”
These informal payments to traffic police are just one of the problems with driving here. Others include a high road fatality rate, lack of quality roads and inefficient, inadequate legislation.
Now the government has a plan to outlaw drunken driving, force motorcycle drivers to wear a helmet and end petty corruption from roadside police. It’s called the Road Safety Action Plan, prepared by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, and it’s scheduled to be unveiled at a massive five-day seminar beginning Jan 26 at the Sunway Hotel.
With about 22 percent more vehicles crawling the streets than last year, the report says, the country’s traffic accident fatality rate has become the highest among Asean countries, and is continuing to grow.
In 2001, all Asean member countries agreed to set a target traffic fatality rate at not more than 10 per 10,000 vehicles by 2004. Back then, the fatality rate here was about 12.
That rate, according to new statistics from the Public Works Ministry, climbed to almost 17 last year. The percentage of traffic accident victims that die, which lingered around 8 percent in 2000, rose to about 11.5 percent.
“It’s an alarming emergency,” said Ung Chun Hour, director of the Public Works Ministry’s land transport department.
“The injuries and deaths sustained by road accidents is one of the key causes of poverty,” he said. “If a moto taxi driver dies in a traffic accident, he leaves five children hanging. This leads to poverty.”
The road safety plan has 15 action points, including the adoption of a new traffic law. A 1991 traffic law is on the books, but lacks detailed provisions and the fines are not high enough to deter potential offenders.
For instance, violating the blood alcohol concentration limit, which isn’t even defined in the law, has a fine that ranges from 1,500 riel (about $0.40) to a maximum of 16,000 riel (about $4).
Also under the 1991 law, those who drive motorcycles with power less than 100 cc are not required to get a license. In 2001, though almost 300,000 motorcycles were registered, just under 2,000 motorcycle drivers had a license.
The new law, waiting to be considered by the National Assembly, makes it illegal to not wear a helmet on a motorcycle or a seat belt in a car. Drivers of motorcycles that are more powerful than 49 cc must get a license. And the blood alcohol concentration limit is clearly stated, with fines high enough to deter abuse.
“I believe that any driver who does not learn about the traffic law has no morality in driving,” said Kong Sophon, manager of Dai Thom II Driving School on Sihanouk Boulevard, one of more than 10 driving schools in Phnom Penh. Students at the schools spend between $60 and $70 to learn how to drive according to the traffic laws.
Traffic accidents are on the rise, Kong Sophon said, because thousands drive without a license and they do not understand traffic signs. Drivers have been unresponsive to her road safety message.
“I even offer a free VCD to teach about traffic signs and laws,” she said. “They don’t even care.”
Other driving school teachers put the blame on the police.
“The traffic police should force drivers to pay a fine,” said Suk Sovan, a driving trainer at Mittapheap Driving School. “Otherwise, drivers won’t obey the traffic laws.”
As the road safety plan shows, however, enforcing the traffic laws is not easy.
“The traffic police have no efficient [or] sufficient materials and equipment for carrying out the law enforcement,” the report says. “They cannot stop and fine the improper and undisciplined road users who drive at a high speed in zigzag movement along the street and other law breakers.”
A low salary for traffic police and lack of a good communications system also leads to slack enforcement, the report says. To perform their duties correctly, police should be retrained and given the proper equipment, such as radar, which can monitor the speed of vehicles, and better motorcycles.
The plan also recommends that lawbreakers “should pay the fines at [the] traffic police department, not pay directly to the police.”
On Norodom Boulevard, policeman Mak Phalla said that enforcing the traffic laws may run deeper than simply pulling over more drunks or writing more tickets. It may also involve taking on the powerful political elite.
“Enforcing the traffic law is too difficult,” Mak Phalla said. “I can’t ask everyone to pay fees; I will let them go if they are a relative of high ranking officials. How do I enforce the law when my boss advises me not to fine a gang member or untouchable person?”