Phnom Penh Traffic Safety, Roads on a Collision Course

Kim Socheat spends his workdays driving a motorbike and what he sees as he cruises the streets of Phnom Penh scares him. The roads are busier than ever, people drive crazy and police don’t enforce the law.

Few people obey the limited traffic laws in Phnom Penh. Fewer still hold driver’s licenses or wear helmets when driving motorbikes or motor­­cycles. All but the main roads are strewn with potholes and loose pavement so drivers flock to the smooth boulevards as police try in vain to control the flow or stand back and watch the chaos.

Add these factors together and accidents are guaranteed. Police say at least 50 people are killed or seriously injured in Phnom Penh traffic accidents every month, a figure which has just risen past the 45 reported monthly injuries from land mines strewn across the country.

Better infrastructure, improved drivers’ training and strict law enforcement would keep the streets safe and avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic, officials say.

That is nearly a pipe dream in a city with little money to build and repair roads or pay police to keep them safe.

Many traffic police are officially paid as little as $10 a month—though the meager salary is often supplemented by stopping drivers and levying on-the-spot fines. The fee is negotiable and no receipts are given.

Though small official fines were levied in the past, the municipal traffic department has no official policy to fine those who violate traffic rules, said Ek Rindy, deputy director of traffic. “Now, if anyone breaks the rule in the streets, we only educate them,” he said.

A fine is being discussed by city officials, he said.

Officials are also talking about adding more traffic lights to the city’s busiest intersections and keeping vendors from peddling goods along main roads. But the number of vehicles on the streets is far outpacing the city’s efforts to control them or ease traffic problems.

As vehicles increase, so do the number of accidents. In 1998, municipal traffic police recorded 540 accidents, 100 more than a year earlier. One hundred died in accidents last year, up from 88 in 1997, and 435 were seriously hurt, a 65 percent jump from 1997.

But the real number of accidents is impossible to determine as many drivers do not report minor and even serious crashes.

By official estimates, traffic in and around the city has increased tenfold in six years. But most of the capital’s roads were last repaired in the 1960s.

“Traffic is not the main problem at the moment. Roads are the main problem,” said Chea Sarin, who lectures at the Royal University of Fine Arts in the school of architecture and urban studies.

While there is a need for more public transportation and more stringent traffic regulations, he said, improving the quality of side roads is the best way to alleviate traffic problems, reducing congestion on main streets.

(With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse)


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