Cambodia’s Roads Just Got More Dangerous

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An intoxicated motorbike driver in Cambodia drives head on into a slow moving truck.

Ranked 79th in the world for road deaths per 100,000 vehicles and 81st in the world for road deaths per 100,000 population, Cambodia’s roads are already dangerous to drive on. One person is killed on average every four hours on Cambodia’s roads and amendments to the recently introduced Land Traffic Law allowing first time drunk driving offenders to avoid jail is set to make driving on Cambodia’s roads even more dangerous.

In January Cambodia began enforcing a new Land Traffic Law described at the time as being one introduced to “reduce road deaths and injuries”. Among the changes were a five-fold increases in fines for minor offences, while the penalty for drunk driving saw the maximum fine raised from KHR800,000 to KHR4 million ((US$196- $981), and / or a prison sentence of between one and six months.

The new law also required all drivers of motorbikes to be licenced and limited the number of people on one motorbike to one driver, one adult passenger, and one child. All were required to wear crash helmets.

At the time Transport Minister Tram Iv Tek said that through the new laws ‘we will try our best to reduce the number of deaths by 10 per cent per year in order to reach (a reduction) of 50 per cent by 2020’ in alignment with the goals of the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety (RS10).

Some of the amendments quickly grew an angry response from Cambodians, many of who posted complaints about long delays at getting appointments for driving tests on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page. Regulations on the number of people allowed to be carried on a motorbike were also lambasted.

Social Media Drives Cambodia Road Safety Policy

Cambodia road deaths 2005-2014. Source: WHOSupplied
Cambodia road deaths 2005-2014. Source: WHO

Sensing rising public unhappiness the social media savvy prime minister quickly denounced eight of the amendments that the public were angered by.

Last week Cambodia’s Council of Ministers reviewed and passed the Facebook-decreed amendments, which included softer penalties for drunk driving; waiving the need for a driver’s license for those using a motorbike with a 125 cc engine or below;  unlimited time for transferring vehicle ownership; and grandfathering of existing, registered right-hand drive vehicles (vehicles in Cambodia travel on the right-side of the road so therefore the steering wheel is ordinarily on the left side of the vehicle).

While tens of thousands of motorbike riders with no knowledge of any form of traffic law should be cause for concern, the easing of penalties for drunk driving is equally so. The government it seems believes fining offenders is more of a deterrent  than jail time. Traffic police, we are told, will impose a fine at the spot where an offence is detected, a reversal of changes implemented in January which sought to impose greater transparency by forcing offenders to pay at one of 116 offices across the country.

“This will facilitate the implementation of the Law on Road Traffic Safety more effectively and avoid the growth of traffic offences in court cases” Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, wrote on his Facebook’s page. “In the case that offenders have already been fined, a jail sentence and a fine would be issued”

However, Kevin R. Nauen, a professor at Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC) and a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) says that a more effective approach would be increasing awareness of the danger of drunk driving and the responsibility of individual drivers.

“Despite the overwhelming number of court cases on a daily basis, drunk driving should be treated as a criminal offence because it puts people lives at risk.” he added.

Cambodia Going in The Wrong Direction on Road Laws

As can be seen from this video, Cambodia road rules such as driving on the right-side of the road and mandatory motorbike helmet requirements are really nothing more than a suggestion.
Video uploaded to YouTube by AEC News Today

Also critical of the amended Land Traffic Law is Cambodian social affairs commentator and academic Dr Mengly J. Quach who says taking away jail time for first offenders will not help reduce the numbers of traffic accidents. “The new law will put Cambodia in big trouble,” he told AEC News Today in a phone interview. “It’s like giving an opportunity for drunk drivers to kill people.”

Most other countries are increasing the penalties for drunk driving with many sentencing offenders to lengthy prison sentences. Harsh penalties and strong enforcement and education programmes have helped reduce road deaths due to drunk driving considerable; Cambodia is going in the wrong direction Dr Menly added.

In neighbouring Thailand where drunk drivers account for about 26 per cent of all Thailand road crash deaths (See: Playboy Bunny Fearz Poonnada Killed Drunk Driving in Thailand) offenders can be fined  up to Bt200,000 ($5,596) and/ or ten years in jail, plus suspension or revocation of their driving licence.

Drunk driving in Vietnam, which accounts for about 40 per cent of Vietnam road crash deaths will earn the offender a fine of up to VND18 million ($807) for driving with a blood alcohol level of 80mg per 100 millilitres of blood, or a breath alcohol level of 0.4mg per litre. Drivers who refuse to take an alcohol test will face the same penalty (SeeTougher Penalties Coming For Drunk Driving in Vietnam).

Ear Chakriya, founder of the non-profit Institute for Road Safety (IRS) and a leading expert on road safety issues in Cambodia, said more than 80 per cent of vehicles on Cambodia’s roads are motorbikes, with motorbikes involved in more than 70 per cent of Cambodia road crashes.

Mr Ear said that the amendments, particularly the dispensing of road safety and competency tests for riders of motorbikes under 125cc, which account for the majority on Cambodia’s roads, along with the removal of the risk of jail time for first time drunk driving in Cambodia will increase the numbers of accidents.

“Taking away the need for a driver’s license is a big mistake. Cambodia will not meet its target of a 10 per cent a year reduction in road deaths annually if key risk factors such as speeding and drunk driving are also not targeted”, Mr Ear said.

Road Crashes Strip 2.1% From Cambodia GDP

According to the Institute for Road Safety Cambodia (IRSC) at least six people are killed and 40 more injured everyday on Cambodia’s roads. In its Global Status Report on Road Safety 2015 the World Bank says 2,635 people were killed on Cambodia’s roads in 2013, of which about 15 per cent involved drunk drivers.

The report claims deaths, injuries and disablement as a result of road crashes strips about 2.1 per cent from Cambodia’s GDP, a similar figure to that calculated by the World Health Organization (WHO) which puts the loss at some $300 million annually. Equivalent to about 1.66 per cent of Cambodia’s 2015 GDP of $18.05 billion.

In 2010 a United Nations General Assembly resolution proclaimed a Decade of Action for Road Safety (2011–2020) (RS10) with the aim of saving millions of lives by improving the safety of roads and vehicles; enhancing the behaviour of road users; and improving emergency services.

The lead agency (in collaboration with the UNs regional commissions) for road safety within the UN system and chairing the UN Road Safety Collaboration committee the WHO’s Phnom Penh, Cambodia office was remarkably silent on the backpedaling of stricter road traffic laws in Cambodia when contacted by AEC News Today.

Stating that the policy changes were to recent to have had any affect on figures, WHO Cambodia declined to make any further comment, instead providing a data sheet showing among other things, that motorbike riders account for 73 per cent of road deaths in Cambodia, with 69 per cent suffering serious head trauma. Only 12 per cent of dead motorbike riders in Cambodia wore a crash helmet.

The undated report predicts the number of road deaths on Cambodia’s roads to top 3,200 in 2020 if no effective measures are taken. It made no projection on what the number of road deaths on Cambodia’s roads will be if traffic laws, enforcement, and education are eased.


Feature video uploaded to YouTube by Cambodia Expats Online




Additional reporting by John Le Fevre

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Leakhena Khat

Leakhena Khat

Leakhena is a junior journalist at AEC News Today who is also currently studying International Relations, which she finds adds perspective to her work reporting on the Asean Community.

“I love what I am doing so much as it gives me a lot of great experience and provides challenges to my mind set.

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