Source: Khmer Times – Every day Dr. Chhor Nareth treats injuries caused by the anarchy on Cambodia’s roads, where few drivers wear helmets, traffic lights are routinely ignored, and driving on the wrong side of the road is common. He has worked in the emergency Intensive Care Unit at Calmette Hospital since 1991. On an average day, 91 percent of his patients are victims of traffic accidents.
Not all of these patients survive. Approximately six people are killed by traffic accidents in Cambodia every day, according to the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIP). Traffic accidents cost the country an estimated $337 million in 2014, but the toll in injuries and lives lost is far greater. The Cambodian government is attempting to lower the death toll with a new Land Traffic Law and subdecree that will raise the fines for traffic crimes. But a lack of funding and personnel may prevent the government from enforcing the new laws.
Two-thirds of motorcycle crash victims in Cambodia suffer head trauma, but despite the risks, many motorcycle riders don’t wear helmets. Roughly 60 percent of motorbike drivers wear helmets, while only nine percent of passengers do. This is caused partly by a loophole in the traffic law, which requires drivers to wear a helmet, but doesn’t mention passengers or children.
Cambodia’s new Land Traffic Law, adopted in January, will require passengers to wear helmets, but will not be enforced until January. Along with the new law, a sub-decree drafted by the government on July 7 will increase the penalties for driving without a helmet as part of a national effort to reduce the number of road fatalities.
Drivers and passengers will be required to pay a 15,000 riel ($3.75) fine for failing to wear a helmet, up from the current fine of 3,000 riel ($0.75). The law also imposes fines for other road safety violations, including speeding and talking on the phone.
Analysts caution that the law will only work if police enforce it. With proper enforcement, the Asian Injury Prevention Foundation estimates that the new law could increase passenger helmet use to 80 percent and save as many as 561 lives by 2020. But Cambodia’s traffic police have to contend with low funds, inadequate equipment, and uncooperative drivers.
The light turns red on Monivong Road, but a group of motorbike drivers accelerate through the intersection. Police standing by the side of the intersection blow their whistles and attempt to wave the motorbikes to the side of the road, but none of them stop. Scenes like this are common on Phnom Penh’s streets, leading Interior Minister Sar Kheng to call the situation on Cambodia’s roads “anarchic” in December 2014.
Even if drivers are pulled over, the current fines are just a slap on the wrist. The fine for driving without a helmet is the cost of just half a liter of gas – hardly a strong deterrent to drivers who ignore the traffic rules.
The new sub-decree will increase the fine, but analysts question whether the underfunded traffic police will be able to enforce it. The National Road Safety Committee is responsible for training and paying police to enforce the road traffic laws, but it is constrained by a small budget. In 2013, the budget was just $300,000, according to senior representative Men Chan Sokol. The government plans to increase the budget to $550,000 in 2016 – still just .02 percent of the national budget. The small budget means NRSC has little money to train officers and purchase expensive equipment like breathalysers.
“The budget for road safety is very limited,” said Pagna Kim, AIP’s country director. “We need more traffic police.”
A larger operating budget, combined with stricter laws enforcing helmet wearing, might help persuade drivers to begin following traffic laws. Ms. Sokol said Cambodia’s police will stop tolerating illegal driving. “We will do stronger enforcement starting in 2016,” she said.
The Next Generation
Murals depicting children putting on helmets can be seen on the walls of schools around Phnom Penh. They are painted as part of a campaign by the AIP to educate schoolchildren about traffic safety, called “Helmets for Kids.”
Sarim Cheang, road safety program manager for Handicap International’s regional program, said that education and enforcement together can help make Cambodia’s roads safer:
“The helmet wearing rate of drivers and passengers will be increased but the enforcement should be conducted regularly and across the country,” she said. “Moreover, education and enforcement should be come together.”
As part of the Helmets for Kids program, AIP workers train teachers, parents, and students in road safety, as well as bringing in traffic police officers to educate the students. All the the students in participating schools receive a free helmet.
Mirjam Sidik, the CEO of the AIP, said she hopes that education and enforcement will get Cambodians to clip on helmets when they get on the back of a motorcycle.
“I look forward to arriving in Phnom Penh at the airport next year, catching my taxi, and seeing children wearing helmets,” she said.