Road Safety Funds Low Despite High Fatality Rates

As more and more vehicles crowd Cambodia’s roads each year, attention is being drawn to a highway system some say is among the deadliest in Asia.

The Ministry of Public Works and Transportation recently re­vealed that more than 200,000 vehicles—including more than 26,000 cars—were registered nationwide in 2008 alone.

And through No­vember last year, there were 7,937 traffic accidents nationwide, resulting in 22,401 in­juries and 1,410 deaths, according to statistics from Handicap Inter­na­tional Belgium.

But amid the carnage on the roads, funding for traffic safety education, including training of traffic police and public awareness campaigns, remains miniscule.

According to statistics provided by Handicap International, about $870,000 was provided by the government, organizations and private sources to spend nationwide on road signs, safety classes and advertising to promote safer driving in 2008.

By comparison, last year the Cambodian Mine Action Commit­tee spent between $10 million and $12 million to clear mines and unexploded ordnance from about 30 square km of land around the country, according to CMAC Director-General Heng Ratana. The 266 landmine-related deaths and injuries Heng Ratana said his organization recorded in 2008 means between $37,600 and $45,100 was spent per landmine casualty.

Reverse the comparison, and it would mean that each of the almost 24,000 traffic casualties in Cam­bodia last year had a paltry $36.50 spent in their name on improving traffic safety.

“We get such small amounts of money to run the traffic program; we need more than this,” said Ung Chhun Hor, deputy director of the transportation department and the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation.

Ung Chhun Hor offered Malaysia as an example of a regional neighbor that is serious about reducing traffic accidents, saying Kuala Lumpur spends about $55 million of government money annually on traffic safety programs.

But, according to a report by the UN’s Economic and Social Com­mis­sion for Asia and the Pacific, more than 6,200 people were killed on Malaysia’s roads in 2004 (the most recent figures available), almost twice as many road deaths per million population (243.5) than Handicap Inter­national’s figures for Cambodia in 2007 (116.2).

But this doesn’t mean that Cam­bodians are better drivers than Malay­sians, according to Handicap Inter­national’s Road Safety Program Man­ager Sann So­cheata, who said the dif­fer­ence is that Malaysia, a country of about 27 million people, has more cars.

Most of Cambodia’s 13 million people are currently rural farmers who rarely drive cars or motorbikes, but that will change and so will the number of road accidents, Sann Socheata said.

“As the number of cars on the road increases, so will the number of accidents and fatalities,” she said.

Because more than two-thirds of motorized vehicles in Cambodia are two- or three-wheelers, Sann Socheata said, neighboring Laos provides a better comparison—and Cambodia scores higher on the fatalities list.

In its 2007 annual road safety report, Handicap International said Cambodia had suffered more traffic fatalities than Laos both in terms of deaths per 100,000 people (10.8 for Cambodia compared with 9.5 for Laos) and deaths per 10,000 registered vehicles (17.8 in Cambodia to 10.8 in Laos). The 2007 report also compared Cambodia with China, which registered a far lower 5.1 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants and 6.2 deaths per 10,000 registered vehicles.

“There are 17.8 fatalities per 10,000 registered vehicles, a decrease of 2 percent compared to 2006 but an increase of 13 percent compared to 2005,” the 2007 handicap International Belgium report states.

“Cambodia has one of the highest fatality rates in the region.”

CMAC’s Heng Ratana said the country has made great strides in reducing mine and UXO casualties, and the 266 casualties recorded in 2008 was a decrease of 81 from 2007 figures, an improvement Heng Ratana attributed to more than just his organization’s work, but a mix of “demining work as well as a strong effort from law enforcement,” to prevent people from becoming victims of deadly explosives.

“About 90 percent” of CMAC’s annual $12 million-plus budget comes from donors and other private sources, with the rest being provided via government funds, which would mean approximately $1 million in state money.

Keo Savin, director of the Public Works and Transportation Ministry’s transportation department, said his department has been budgeted just $62,500 in government money for 2009 to publish traffic safety books to be distributed to the public. The government provided no funds, he said, for television or radio announcements or other means to educate drivers. All such work is done with NGO support, a total of less than $1 million, he said.

Cheam Yeap, a lawmaker from the ruling CPP and chairman of the Na­tional Assembly’s finance and audit commission, said he could not re­member the amount of money budgeted to CMAC and the transportation ministry.

CMAC warranted its annual budget because mines and unexploded ordnance “killed many people” in the past, and clearing mines and educating the public was necessary to avoid accidents.

Cheam Yeap added that it was the transportation department’s responsibility to do its job with the money it is given.

“It is up to the ministry itself to set priorities for the traffic program” and allocate its budget accordingly, he said.

When asked if he expected traffic safety spending to be increased in the future, Cheam Yeap said he could not provide a definitive answer.

“If next year the government in­creases the budget, we will check and consider giving the approval,” he said.

Though funneling more money into the area that sees the greatest number of Cambodians killed accidentally each year appears to be a long way off, the new traffic law will have to suffice for now.

Ryan Duly, a road safety adviser for Handicap International, said the law enacted this year requiring all motorbikes to be equipped with mirrors and their drivers to wear helmets is a step in the right direction toward making the roads safer.

He said that, while the group does not yet have figures available for January or February, it has been ob­served that more drivers are wearing helmets. And that can only have a positive impact, he said.

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