The day a motorcyclist turned in front of his bus without looking is seared into Samnang’s mind.
Samnang, who was driving from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh for a well-known bus company, had no time to avoid slamming into the motorbike; he watched helplessly as its driver catapulted into the air and crashed unconscious onto the road outside a crowded market.
A shocked and distressed Samnang had barely processed what had happened before irate villagers armed with axes and cleavers converged on him.
“I stepped down from the bus to see whether the victim was OK . . . but there were about 10 villagers rushing towards me with sticks, axes and cleavers. They looked furious,” he said.
“My passengers said you have to leave this place – you will be killed if you don’t, because those villagers don’t understand what happened.”
Shaking with fear, Samnang fled his would-be attackers to the safety of a passing bus, whose sympathetic driver shuttled him back to Siem Reap.
This incident, in 2008, wasn’t the first time Samnang, who has been driving buses since 2002, has fled a crash scene.
Two years earlier, a drunken motorcyclist injured himself when he slammed into the bus Samnang was driving.
“Two military police officers were at the scene. Their first reaction was to try to arrest me. I had to run,” he said, adding that a nearby taxi took him back to his office.
Stories of bus drivers fleeing crash scenes are common in Cambodia.
Many drivers are not seen again. Others return to their company’s office in an attempt to immediately clear their names.
In a high-profile case last February, a driver from the Paramount Angkor Bus Company took refuge in the jungle after his bus sustained a punctured tyre and rolled over, killing two people.
The driver thumbed his way back to the company’s office and was later charged with careless driving.
Sam Vichet, a service assistant for the Rith Mony bus company, a sister company of Paramount Angkor, said most bus drivers who flee a crash scene are doing so to avoid mob violence rather than criminal charges.
“Many are afraid,” he said. “They have to escape to avoid being killed or beaten.”
It was common for passers-by to see injured motorbike riders or pedestrians and, in the heat of the moment, assume the bus driver was to blame, he said.
“So they say the bus is bigger; it’s the driver’s fault.”
Drivers at Rith Mony had been told to run if they feared for their safety but were expected to return to the company as soon as possible to deal with the fallout, Vichet said.
“Some of our drivers come back, and others escape forever. When a driver does return, we deal with the issue. If they were at fault, they are dealt with in accordance with the law.”
After a crash involving one of its buses last March, Rith Mony installed cameras to monitor the speed at which drivers travel.
“It’s important to find out the reason for accidents occurring,” Vichet said. “Is it speed or something else? We find out. We also meet with staff two or three times a month to talk about these issues.”
Svay Chanthun, administrative manager for Kampuchea Angkor Express, said he was concerned about drivers fleeing, due to the damage such incidents can have on a company’s reputation.
“But they say that if they don’t run, they will be beaten or killed at the scene,” he said, adding that drivers were also worried about being wrongly arrested and charged.
The company was considering filing a court complaint about one of its drivers who ran from a crash scene in Kampong Thom province last year and had not been seen since, Chanthun said.
“But Kampuchea Angkor Express has never been fined or charged over an accident, because we have never been involved in a serious crash,” he added.
This could be put down to the company regularly educating its drivers about road safety, sending reserve drivers on long trips and following strict precautions, he said.
“We tell all our managers to check with the drivers before they begin a shift to see if they’re tired or drunk.”
Following a spate of accidents involving buses on the Kingdom’s roads last year, the Ministry of Interior called for black boxes to be installed in buses to monitor drivers.
The government has also set its sights on trying to limit the number of bus crashes on Cambodia’s roads through education.
Ear Chariya, road safety program manager for Handicap International, said Prime Minister Hun Sen had requested the Ministry of Public Works and Transport provide training to bus drivers.
“There were a lot of crashes related to buses in 2012,” he said. “The ministry is planning to provide training to 600 bus drivers starting from early this year.”
Chariya said his organisation would work on behalf of the ministry to provide education and deliver programs on seat safety, vehicle maintenance, traffic laws and road safety concepts.
“We encourage [bus companies] to have an internal policy for their staff,” he said, adding separate education would provided directly to drivers.
While preventing crashes is one thing, drivers are left to ponder what they might do in the event of a crash and a confrontation with an unruly mob.
Ouk Kimlek, undersecretary of state in charge of public order at the Ministry of Interior, gave his thoughts on the approach they might take.
“The traffic law is not designed for them to run, but drivers are allowed to escape to a safe place and find police to avoid being victims of violence,” he said.
Meanwhile, Samnang, who was cleared of any wrongdoing in his two accidents, continues to drive popular routes each day.
“I’m not going to do this job forever, because it seems I’m risking my life even if I don’t cause the crash,” he said.
“I want to send a message to villagers not to use violence against drivers whether or not they’re at fault. We have to resolve it through law, not violence.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity