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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - In the driver’s seat: the road to certification

Roads cause an average of six deaths per day
Roads cause an average of six deaths per day. Vireak Mai

In the driver’s seat: the road to certification

As few as 10 per cent of Cambodians behind the wheel possess a licence. Of those who do, many have paid a bribe for it. The exam is corruption at its most laughable

When I moved to Phnom Penh almost three years ago, I followed the traditional steps taken by foreigners new to the city. First, I rented an apartment. After that, I bought a motorbike.

My purchase, a Daelim that can’t have been more than 75cc, was an unwieldy, sputtering vehicle that set me back $250. Seeing the bike for the first time, my landlord remarked that I’d made a wise decision, as no one would ever want to steal it.

Though I’m a licensed driver in the United States and have been behind the wheel of cars for years, until that moment I’d never driven a motorbike or motorcycle. I practised by taking a test drive in the parking lot at work, doing a few laps, fiddling with the gears, tapping the brake, slowing down, speeding up, coming to a complete stop. So far, so good.

The former owner dropped the bike off at my apartment a few days later. I was too scared to bring it out for the first week, but I eventually worked up the nerve one morning and, hands gripping the steering wheel, heart beating with terror, merged into rush-hour traffic.

Had I known then that this informal experience – buy vehicle, hop on vehicle, drive – is more the rule than the exception, I might have left the Daelim at home.

There are 2.7 million registered vehicles in Cambodia.
There are 2.7 million registered vehicles in Cambodia. Charlotte Pert

According to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, there are 2.7 million registered vehicles in Cambodia, including cars, motorbikes and larger trucks, but only 860,000 driving licences have been issued, and many of them have been bought with bribes. That last clause is not according to the ministry, though it does admit that the practice occurs.

However, Chan Sokol, a senior official with the government’s National Road Safety Committee, told me last year that the figures are much lower, with only about 10 to 15 per cent of drivers possessing a licence. “We have a problem with that,” she said.

With the average death toll on the roads now at six people a day, I began to wonder if any of us knew how to drive, and seeing as it couldn’t hurt to learn a thing or two about the rules of the road, I decided to play ball and get my Cambodian driver’s licence.

In 2007, the government reformed its licensing procedures by requiring would-be drivers to attend schools before taking the test through the Transportation Ministry. Around the same time, it also applied a 10-year expiry date to most types of licences and passed a law that made driving without the card punishable by six days to one month in prison, with fines from $6.25 to $50 (the updated version of the law approved by the King in January upped the fine range from $25 to $200).

When I asked a friend what happened before the expiry rule was put into effect, she said the licences were marked “permanent” and lasted until you died.

After the education push, the number of driving centres in Phnom Penh quickly proliferated, but it wasn’t until a 2009-10 crackdown on driving without a licence that much changed.

Before the stepped-up enforcement, Preap Chanvibol, director of the ministry’s land transport department, said there were a mere 3,000 issued licences in Cambodia. Afterwards, it exploded. Some days saw as many as 1,000 people flocking to get their documents in order. That means that in the space of roughly six years, 857,000 new licenses were printed.

But the new rule, intended for good, only created more opportunities for corruption and, besides, those who wanted a licence typically skirted the schools and paid the government directly, or paid the school to act as
a middleman.

The same year as the rule went into effect, an official at the transport ministry who dealt with licensing issues told the Post that paying $220 or $250 would get the job done.

The practice continues today, though Chanvibol said the government has had trouble cracking down on something that isn’t exactly generating outrage.

“We have heard of unofficial payments to get driving licences, but there has been no official complaint to us,” he said this week. “It’s hard to take action against someone without a complaint.”

A larger question for road safety experts is the utility of driving education as currently practised.

A 2001 monograph from the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria in Australia said long hours of driving experience with an instructor and graduated licensing schemes are better than quick and easy education courses, which have little effect on lowering the risk of a crash.

Different types of licences qualify drivers to get behind the wheel of different vehicles. An A1 allows them to operate any bike under 123cc.
Different types of licences qualify drivers to get behind the wheel of different vehicles. An A1 allows them to operate any bike under 123cc. Charlotte Pert

Research showed learners who have about 118 hours of supervised driving experience have 35 per cent fewer crashes than those who’ve received 41 to 47 hours.

But who has 118 hours? And how do you learn how to drive with an instructor on a motorbike? Does he sit on the seat behind you, whispering pearls of wisdom about stop signs and pedestrian right of way into your ear?

Hoping to solve those mysteries, I went to one of Phnom Penh’s many driving schools in November, paid a $90 application fee, plus $2 for an English-language study booklet, and scheduled a date for the test. Two other schools quoted prices in the $130 range, so this must vary.

I was going for an A1 motorbike licence, which would qualify me to drive any bike under 125cc. The A2 version is for faster bikes and the B covers cars and bikes of all speeds. Other grades pertain to commercial trucking.

I could have avoided all the rigmarole by simply presenting my US licence, paying a similar fee, and receiving a Cambodian licence in return, but I couldn’t find the damn thing, and even if it was lying around somewhere, I wanted to see what the exam was like. Booklet in hand, I went home and began boning up on how to drive in Cambodia.

On the first page, under the heading “Driving in Good Manners,” it says: “We must respect and love the lives of others as we love ours.”

For example: “Unless we are under legal situation, we should also respect others that are in violation of traffic rules to avoid losses to both sides.”

After the high-minded beginning, I turned to the practice tests.

What do you do, if you see a pedestrian who is crossing or about to crass [sic] on the pedestrian crossing?
a) I must knob a horn
b) I must slow down or stop the vehicle to let pedestrian to go first
c) I must increase the speed

What do you inspect at the windshield wiper?
a) Leaking of the windshield wiper
b) Operating and cleaning pretty
c) Good color of windshield wiper

When the victim is unconscious, what do you do?
a) Lying and tilting head of the victim back ward to ease breathing
b) Sitting down the victim to ease a breathing
c) Bite a heel of the victim

The testing centre was a depressing place in Russey Keo district located about 30 minutes from central Phnom Penh. In America, the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) is shorthand for bureaucratic hell, and this seemed to be no different in Cambodia.

Only 10 to 15 per cent of drivers have a licence.
Only 10 to 15 per cent of drivers have a licence. Charlotte Pert

Bored clerks sat behind glass partitions. Men slept on benches. Saleswomen in short skirts approached test-takers with brochures for new cars. One man looked at the brochure for a new truck then used it to slap an insect on his arm.
I went up to the second floor where the test was supposed to take place and sat down. Soon, more and more people filed in, mostly from China and Japan. I was led into a room with five computers. I looked out the window. Cows grazed in an open field. The test started.

I quickly grasped that most of the questions in the booklet were not on the exam. I nailed the part on intersections and traffic signs, but this was not going as planned. Where was the bite the heel question?

The test-taking atmosphere was another problem. Three proctors lingered in the room, brusquely announcing the failures of everyone around me and ushering them out of the room to make way for the next person.

Throughout the test, I kept hearing: “Failed;” “Failed;” “You failed, try next time.” When my results loaded, “Failed!” appeared next to a tally of my answers on the computer screen. A proctor marked up my test booklet. I asked what answers I’d missed. He wouldn’t tell me. “Come back next week.” What day next week? I asked. “Ask your driving school.”

Everyone who had taken the exam stood in the hallway, shell-shocked. One woman looked like she was about to cry.

A few weeks after failing, an employee of the testing centre called and asked if I wanted to schedule a retest. I said sure, thinking that the retest was free. As we were talking, there was an awkward moment on the phone when she asked me if I really wanted to pass. The tone was unmistakable.

“You can pay,” she said. “This is the Khmer doing.”

“You pay to ministry $60 and making you pass, no need to pay and fail and fail again.”

I went to the centre in person to clarify and the same offer was repeated. I asked if a lot of people took this route and was told yes. While I was intrigued to see how badly you could bomb a test and still succeed, I declined. I never did get my Cambodian driver’s licence.

Additional reporting by Chhay Channyda



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