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An investment in safety

sereymon car accident
The wreckage of an SUV involved in a fatal accident in Preah Sihanouk province this month that killed four people. Photograph: Sam Rith/Phnom Penh Post

EARLY this month, we were gripped with shock when we read in our morning newspapers of a horrific road crash on National Route 4 in Preah Sihanouk province that left four dead, including the sons of two well-known Khmer comedians.

This was certainly a rude wake-up call for all of us.

The harsh reality is this: five or six people die every day on Cambodia’s roads, and traffic injuries are the second-biggest cause of deaths in this country after acute respiratory infections.

In 2010, according to the National Road Safety Committee’s Road Crash and Victim Information System (RCVIS), there were 1,816 road fatalities and 80 per cent of the victims were male.

Data from the RCVIS indicates there were 1,905 road deaths in 2011, and a provisional figure of 1,894 for 2012 suggests the situation isn’t improving.

In 2011, road crashes cost the nation $310 million in property damage, medical costs and related expenses, but the direct cost of traffic casualties can perhaps be best understood in terms of the labour lost to the  economy.

It’s thought that almost all of those injured in road crashes in Cambodia no longer participate in the mainstream economy. This deprives the nation of millions of person-years of labour.

Motorcycle riders are the most vulnerable road users. They account for 67 per cent of traffic fatalities, and 73 per cent of them suffer head injuries.

That number would be greatly reduced if more riders and passengers wore helmets.

Only 15 per cent of motorcycle riders involved in crashes were wearing helmets, and 56 per cent of those killed in motorcycle crashes are aged 15 to 29, depriving families of their next generation.

This premature loss of qualified, able-bodied men and women from the workforce makes a strong case for reducing road fatalities.

But there’s good news as well. In response to this sombre situation, the National Road Safety Committee has developed the second National Plan for Road Safety 2011-2020, based on a plan developed by the UN to support its Decade of Action for Road Safety, which sets a global target of saving five million lives.

Donors have also come on board. Bloomberg Philanthropies is funding a global road-safety project implemented by the World Health Organisation in 10 countries that collectively account for 48 per cent of the world’s traffic fatalities.

Cambodia is included in this RS10 Project, with the focus here on increasing helmet use and reducing drink-driving.

The solution to Cambodia’s road traffic woes is simple: greater investment in road safety, coupled with stronger regulation and enforcement of traffic laws.

Compared with the cost of developing vaccines, for example, the cost of protecting vulnerable road users in the developing world is small.

Other than not wearing helmets, the main risk factors for traffic injuries are drinking and driving; speeding; and failure to use seat belts and child restraints.

In Cambodia, speeding is estim-ated to be responsible for 51 per cent of  road deaths, followed by drink-driving (16 per cent).

The key to reducing road traffic mortality will be ensuring that as many UN member states as possible have in place laws covering all the risk factors.

Nevertheless, a very positive effort is under way in Cambodia.

The Royal Government has proposed numerous changes in the road traffic legislation to address helmet use, driving under the influence of alcohol and other risk factors.

Helmets will become mandatory for both motorcycle riders and passengers, and penalties for offenders will be increased.

To address the issue of low helmet use, the World Health Organisation, with financial support from Bloomberg Philanthropies and in collaboration with the NRSC, have developed and launched a hard-hitting campaign on helmet use aimed at riders and passengers.

The message of the campaign is clear: neglecting to put on a helmet can have dramatic consequences when an accident occurs. The simple, clear message is this: “Wear a helmet, anywhere and any time.”

Cambodia’s blind spot in road-safety enforcement is cracking down on drink-driving, especially on weekend nights, a critical time.

Last October, the NRSC, the Ministry of Information and the World Health Organisation launched a campaign called “If You Drink, Do Not Drive”.

This message aims to increase public awareness, especially among young Cambodians, on the negative consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol — a selfish act that endangers the lives of others.

Breathalysers and other equipment to help traffic police crack down on drinking and driving have been provided by the WHO, and the Global Road Safety Partnership has contributed expert training for police to improve enforcement.

Despite the horror stories about road crashes, there are traffic laws in this country. And a much better traffic law is awaiting approval.

What needs to happen is for that law to be passed and enforced. International support is at hand to develop a traffic-safety model that combines tough enforcement, public education and awareness with transport planning.

Dr Pieter J M Van Maaren is the World Health Organisation’s representative in Cambodia.

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