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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cars, motobikes cruise Phnom Penh with a vengeance

Cars, motobikes cruise Phnom Penh with a vengeance

AP-First banned as a bourgeois luxury under the Marxist Khmer Rouge in 1975 and then

limited by private ownership laws and a shortage of foreign currency, cars and motorcycles

are now cruising the pot-holed streets of Phnom Penh with a vengeance.

Once peaceful tree-lined boulevards are now clogged with luxury and four-wheel vehicles

honking their way past motorcycles packed with five and even six people, horse-drawn

carts laden with airconditioners and refrigerators, bicyclists carrying 30-foot planks

of wood, and cyclos stuffed with squealing pigs, mattresses, and beer.

Traffic officer Sor Sam Ang fears for his life when he has to direct the chaos from

a stand in the middle of the main drag, Achar Mean Boulevard. He says he must bend

this way and that to avoid getting hit when rowdy motorcyclists come rushing past.

"I'm afraid, but what should I do?" he said during a much-needed break

along the side of the road. "It's my job."

Sor Sam Ang said there are not enough police in Phnom Penh to arrest all the people

who break traffic laws. As he speaks, an officer speeds past on a motorcycle with

two passengers-one over the legal limit.

Because there are no regularly enforced traffic laws in Phnom Penh, it's every man,

woman and adolescent driver for his or herself. If they plan to turn in one or two

blocks, drivers often cruise on the wrong side of the road, facing oncoming traffic.

There are only six functioning traffic lights in the city.

Capt. Rajeev Sirohi, staff officer in the U.N. Military Information Center, said

the lights,all of which turn from green to red without a warning yellow light, only

make matters worse.

"Green light is go, just go wherever you want," he said. "There's

total confusion."

The traffic problem dates back to 1987, when the government allowed private vehicles

for the first time since the Khmer Rouge banned them in 1975, said Meas Samith, director

of international relations at the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Posts.

Few bothered to go to driving school or get licensed but simply took to the streets,

he said.

Most Cambodians say, however, that the traffic didn't get really bad until the peace

agreement was signed last year, authorizing the U.N. peacekeeping operation. In addition

to thousands of UNTAC personnel, hundreds of overseas Cambodians are flooding back

in with foreign investors. Both groups are spreading around enough dollars to dramatically

boost the sale of motorcycles and cars among local residents, most of whom hit the

streets without learning the rules of the road.

"If they buy their car today, they drive it today," said Chhuan Sok Chhea,

32, a motorcycle-taxi driver. "I'm afraid they don't know the traffic laws."

Oum Oeun, a 33-year-old bicyclist, said he gets so afraid trying to navigate intersections

that he usually gets off and walks.

"The motorcycle drivers don't pay attention," he said. "They look

right and left and then they hit me."

The United Nations added to the chaos when its 12,000 vehicles started arriving.

The vehicles, painted white and clearly marked "U.N.", are driven by personnel

from about 40 countries, many of whom follow the traffic laws from their home country.

"Driving [here] is a challenge," said Lt. Col. Dick Palk, a U.N. military

spokesman. "The only thing that you can predict is that the unpredictable is

going to happen."

Two members of the U.N. peacekeeping operation have died in traffic accidents in

Cambodia, but only one in Phnom Penh, said U.N. Spokesman Eric Falt. He added that

dozens more U.N. personnel have been involved in traffic accidents in the city alone.

Since June, traffic accidents involving U.N. vehicles have caused eight deaths of

Cambodians, according to U.N. Spokesman Eric Berman.

U.N. doctors say traffic accidents account for the majority of patients at Phnom

Penh hospitals, although statistics are hard to come by because few accidents are

reported to local police.

Drivers rarely even register their vehicles or bother to get licensed, according

to traffic officials, who say nobody knows how many vehicles or drivers cruise the

streets of Phnom Penh.

U.N. civilian police are hoping to bring order to these anarchistic streets by giving

the Cambodian police on-the-spot training in how to direct traffic and enforce their

laws. And U.N. peacekeepers plan to hire a traffic engineer to straighten out the

"topsy turvy" streets of Phnom Penh, said Peter Fitzgerald, the Irish chief

of operations for the U.N. civilian police.

The engineer is expected to redesign the city's traffic plan, perhaps designating

separate lanes for people and motor-powered vehicles, creating a system of one-way

roads or adding more traffic lights and markings to instruct drivers, he said.

The improvements won't come soon enough for those used to charting more civilized

streets.

"The small-town traffic in India, in spite of the cows and buffalo being there,

is better than this," Sirohi said. "Even the buffalos and cows on the road

have more sense than the drivers here."

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