Tuk tuk driver Met Chamroeun said he was never formally taught how to drive on Cambodia’s roads, but can read the basic road signs.
“I just recognize road signs as turn left and right and wrong direction,” the 27-year-old said as lounged in the back of his tuk tuk in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district.
Forty two-year-old motor taxi driver Phy Ran said he practiced learning how to drive on the outskirts of the city, and honed his skills by following what his friends did on their motorbikes.
“I know some traffic rules by following my friends like speeding, drunk driving and some road signs,” he said, sitting on the back of his Honda Daelim.Meanwhile, Sat Susophani, who drove a small Daewoo hatchback said he paid $80 for lessons in 2008 at the Dai Tep School in 2008.
“First when I started to drive I feel afraid but later on there was no problem,” he said.
Despite their difference in vehicles, all agreed to that more people should formally know how to drive and all only had a vague understanding of the Road Traffic law.
“Everyone should attend driving school in order to be better drivers because then we understand the law,” Mr Susophani said.
He added, however: “I do not know very much about new traffic law but I clearly know drunk driving costs a lot of money in fines if you violate the law.”
“I think if we go to driving school we can be better drivers because we know the law but I don’t have the money to attend it,” Mr Chamroeun said.
Even if Mr Chamroeun could afford to take driving lessons, legally he would not be required to, as drivers whose motorbikes are under 125cc do not require a license. However even if it were legally required, none of the driving schools Khmer Times spoke to offered motorbike driving lessons.
Orm Soklin, chief administrator of 23 Tola driving school said there was no need to have formal motorbike training classes, because of the amendment in the Traffic Law made by Prime Minister Hun Sen last year.
“The government has cancelled the need for a motorbike license if its power is under 125cc, so there is no need for driving school,” he said.
Mr Hun Sen made the amendment to the traffic law in reaction to public backlash early last year when the law was introduced.
This was despite the Institute for Road Safety (IFRS) and six other NGOs urging him not to water down the law in a joint statement.
Mr Soklin agreed more people need to know the rules of the road.
“I think all Cambodians should go to driving school because we have seen a lots traffic accident and people die every day because they do not know the law,” Mr Soklin said.
The result of the lack of formal driving education in Cambodia is blatantly clear – 1,576 people died and 5,962 were injured on Cambodian roads in the first 11 months of last year, according to Interior Ministry figures.
A 2013 study by US-based Handicap International noted traffic accidents cost the government $337 million that year.
While the government is taking steps to spread awareness around the new Traffic Law, a survey released in November last year by Stakeholder Engagement and Support showed more than half of the country’s residents have little to no understanding of the law.
The Institute for Road Safety conducted its own survey last year, noting that out of 350 respondents, only 20 percent could understand basic traffic signs.
23 Tola has six branches across the country and teaches around 5,000 people a year how to drive. Students pay $150 for lessons, which includes sitting for a test and acquiring the license at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
According to a teacher at the school, students are asked to answer 300 questions during their lessons on the new traffic law, but did not specify how the questions were forme.
Mr Soklin said that most students take their lessons over the course of two to three months, while others acquire their license in just under a month.
Men Chansokol from the National Road Safety committee said the Ministry of Transport is countering the lack of formal driving schools with public awareness campaigns, as well as integrating lesson on the traffic law into school curriculums.
“We have included the Traffic Law into the National Curriculum from Grade one to nine (for Grade 10 to 12, still in development), that makes it easy for students to study it,” she said via email.
“We also have road safety spots where we broadcast it on the TV, or you can look and download it from the Ministry’s Facebook page.”
However director of the IFRS, Ear Chariya said that while these measures were important, they did not promise that crucial knowledge would be passed on to the public.
“They do not guarantee the necessary knowledge and ability of drivers unless there is a strict exam to test their real knowledge and the driving ability,” he said.
He also noted that traffic law education in classrooms, especially in the provinces, was virtually nonexistent, with local officials only making paltry efforts to inform the public.
“Last year I visited more than 50 schools and all of the school teachers and students there informed me that there was no road safety course or training,” he said.
“At some communities, local authorities distributed road safety leaflets but they were not really useful for the villagers.”
Ms Chansokol said that because the number of cars on Cambodia’s roads will continue to grow – 20 percent per annum on average according to IFRS – the government has rolled out a traffic law education app drivers can download.
She also mentioned the implementation of a new driving program to be launched in July, but stopped short of providing details.
Mr Soklin said the government needed to provide more attractive alternatives for motorists, such as bicycle and pedestrian paths and invest more money in public transportation to avoid exacerbating road fatalities and congestion.
He said while the lack of formal education was a fundamental factor to the country’s traffic woes, poor law enforcement, a shortage of road safety facilities as well as inconsistent vehicle inspections were also at fault.
“There are many people who understand the law and still do not respect the law, but this requires strict and consistent law enforcement,” he said.
Ms Chansokol acknowledged that more needed to be done, but added that it was up to all sectors of society to encourage respect toward road rules.
“We hope that these measures will help them to respect the Traffic Law,” she said.
“And of cause it is not enough, if we have only the education without the enforcement and stronger involvement from the media to publish and broadcast all the activities to reduce road crashes.”