News / Asia

Cambodia's Traffic Casualties Expected to Climb

HI-B's regional road safety officer Sann Socheata says the law that compelled motorbike drivers - but not passengers - to wear a helmet has saved lives
HI-B's regional road safety officer Sann Socheata says the law that compelled motorbike drivers - but not passengers - to wear a helmet has saved lives
Robert Carmichael

Almost two years ago Cambodia's government introduced laws to improve road safety. But the numbers dying and being injured on the country's roads have kept increasing. Like many developing nations, Cambodia is struggling to match the rise in traffic with a rise in safety.

Ten years of re-building to replace infrastructure lost in decades of war have given Cambodia long stretches of smooth roads.

But those roads have done little to improve safety in a country with thousands of new, poorly trained drivers. Cars and motorbikes that once crawled along bumpy, pitted roads now move at high speed.

Six years ago the Department of Transportation registered 38,000 new vehicles. By last year the number had surged to 307,000.

Combine that with the fact that there are just 51 registered driving teachers, and the result is that more Cambodians are dying on the country's roads than ever before.

Last year more than 1,700 were killed, nearly twice the number of deaths in 2005.

Preap Chanvibol heads the government's land transportation department, and is involved with the safety education program at the National Road Safety Committee.

He says Cambodia has the worst fatality rate in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"If we compare with ASEAN, the fatality rate per 10,000 vehicles, the rate in Cambodia is higher than the other ASEAN countries. Up to 2009, the fatality rate is around 12 per 10,000 vehicles," he said.

Preap Chanvibol says more than half the deaths are caused by speeding and alcohol.

And in a country where 90 percent of new registered vehicles are motorbikes, head injuries are also a major killer.

The government's approach has been to tackle those key issues.

"We focus on the three cases - these are speed limit, drink driving and the one more is helmet wearing, because more than 70 percent of motorcycle (fatalities) have head injury. So we focus on helmet wearing also," he said.

As in many developing nations, most Cambodians cannot afford cars so they use motorbikes instead.

But until two years ago, very few Cambodians owned a motorbike helmet, and fewer than 10 percent anyone wore them.

Sann Socheata is the regional road safety officer for Handicap International-Belgium, or HI-B, an aid group that has been promoting road safety in Cambodia since 2004.

HI-B supports the traffic police in enforcing the law, since enforcement is vital. And it works with the Ministry of Education in teaching road safety to children.

"We started since 2004, so, so far now all primary schools in Cambodia already have been introduced to the road safety curriculum. And we also plan to continue up to high school curriculum within the National Road Safety Committee and the Ministry of Education," said Sann Socheata.

She says the most important step in recent years was the 2009 law requiring motorbike drivers to wear a helmet, or face a fine. Now more than 80 percent of motorbike drivers wear helmets, at least in the day.

As a consequence, fewer people have died from head injuries suffered in motorbike crashes.

But there are significant obstacles.

Preap Chanvibol at the land transportation department says few wear helmets at night because the traffic police only work during the day.

That will change next year when traffic police start working night shifts, which should also reduce the number of people driving drunk.

The government also plans to amend the law to require motorbike passengers, not just drivers, to wear helmets.

Police also have gotten new tools to catch speeders and drunk drivers - speed guns and breathalyzers.

HI-B's Sann Socheata says, however, that the number of people dying on Cambodia's roads will continue to climb for the next decade as the roads get both busier and better.

The best the government and road safety groups can hope for is that the National Road Safety Action Plan slows that rate of increase.

"But through the national action plan implementation with sufficient resources, then we expect that the fatalities can be reduced by 30 percent. So it means through the proper implementation and sufficient resources Cambodia can save 4,700 lives in the 10 years," said Sann Socheata.

If the plan is properly funded and implemented, HI-B predicts that 2,240 people will die on Cambodia's roads in 2020. That is around 500 more than died last year, but given the expected increase in traffic, it will be far fewer than without the plan.

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