More than a decade in the making, Cambodia’s new traffic law—which finally came into force in September—appears to be stuck in neutral.
Traffic deaths have not decreased in the nearly one year since the law took effect, and traffic police admit they haven’t been able to fully implement such provisions as making motorists wear safety helmets and stopping drivers from drinking.
According to Handicap International, more than four people die on the roads in Cambodia every day. The majority of deaths are caused by speeding, and 15 to 20 percent of the accidents involve drunken driving, said Sann Socheata, road safety manager at Handicap International Belgium
“Accidents continue to rise from 2007 to 2008,” Sann Socheata said. “Having the new law is a good first step, but one step will not help us reach our goal,” she said, noting that about 90 percent of traffic victims were not wearing safety helmets.
“Wearing helmets should have been implemented first,” she added, citing the fact that more than 40 percent of all road fatalities involve injuries to the head.
The traffic law, which among other things requires drivers of all two-wheel vehicles to wear helmets, has not been easy to implement, Phnom Penh municipal traffic police chief Tin Prasoer admitted. It has long been customary for Cambodian motorists to not wear helmets, and it will take time to change that behavior, Tin Prasoer said. Traffic police have opted to focus first on the article in the law related to making sure motorists have license plates.
“We are doing it step by step,” he said.
“It is their own safety and we educate them, but they say they are too tired to wear helmets,” he said.
Tin Prasoer added that officers also will not be taking any steps to increase enforcement of the traffic law prior to next month’s election.
“It is close to the election. We don’t want any reactions…. If we stop motorbikes, there will be reactions from road users,” he said.
Though the new law penalizes drunk driving with up to six months in prison and up to $250 in fines, police have not been able to enforce anti-drunken driving measures, Siem Reap traffic police chief Thong Sokun said.
“If we implement it, our people will have difficulty,” he said of outlawing the common practice of drinking and driving.
“Instead, we explain to them. If we restrict them, it will be difficult. Our people don’t admit they are wrong and will insist they are right. It is their custom,” he said.
Under the new law, falsifying a driver’s license or license plate is punishable with two to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $2,500. Driving without a valid license or plates is punishable by a fine of up to $50 and/or between six days and one month of jail time.
Unintentionally causing injury to someone while driving can be punishable with up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $500. The punishment is higher if the victim is disabled permanently or killed. In each case, the sentence is one to three years in jail and up to $1,500 in fines.
Fines of between 3,000 and 15,000 riel have also been stipulated for driving without a helmet or mirrors—which is up from the 500 to 2,000 riel required by the old law.
Ung Chun Hour, director general of transport at the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, said consistent implementation is needed to get the new law off to a good start.
“This is a matter of safety. They should not be angry with us,” he said of people’s resistance to the law. “If they implement it for one year, they will all wear helmets. It is like ants following each other.”
Ung Chun Hour noted that automobile companies such as Honda, Toyota and Ford have provided Handicap International with about $90,000 to buy helmets for people, and the Asian Development Bank has promised another $230,000 to help finance road signs.
“My only duty was to draft the law, and I don’t know the reasons why [the Interior Ministry] hasn’t implemented it…. They haven’t done anything, and I don’t know why,” Ung Chun Hour said.
“We are upset, but we don’t know what we can do,” he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak declined to comment.