First time visitors to Phnom Penh have various reactions to its traffic. Astonishment.
Fear. Anger. Bewilderment. Most agree on one thing. Anarchy reigns on the streets
of Phnom Penh. Foreign eyes see confusion and disorder, the absence of control.
There is no concept of yielding. Drivers never look where they are going. Cars and
motor-bikes enter traffic with little regard for the density, speed or proximity
of the flow. Little anyone does gives evidence of a conception of right-of-way, or
of a sense of priority. Medians have no meaning, the entire road seems available
to anyone who can stake a claim to it.
Cars and trucks have one speed, fast. With horns connected to their accelerators,
the faster they fly, the more insistently they honk.
Not much evidence here of order, at least not an imposed order. For example, passing
lanes, stop signs and rules for their operation; like speed limits, yield signs,
and commonly agreed upon norms of right-of-way. Like respect for the medians of the
road, and provision for slower and more vulnerable traffic.
Odinarily, traffic laws settle disputes over right-of-way. Traffic is dangerous,
because the interests of all participants are constantly in potential conflict. Danger
is reduced if every one understands and acts according to a common set of rules.
The rules don't have to be to be the same in Phnom Penh as everywhere else, but to
minimize danger the drivers in Phnom Penh have to follow the rules that are Phnom
If there were complete disorder, traffic flow would be impossible. Even in an anarchic
situation, one without imposed constraints or limits on behavior, everyone shares
an interest: to "arrive alive". But they have one interest in conflict
with everyone else: "maintain right-of-way." If we want to understand Phnom
Penh traffic we can't ask about the imposed rule structure - there just isn't one!
Forget questions about why cars don't yield, why motor-bikes drive up the "wrong
side" of the road. These questions only make sense if there is a law that says
that these things are wrong. If there is no law that specifies the wrong side of
the road, then you cannot sensibly ask why cars drive don't drive on the right side
of the road. The most important fact about Phnom Penh traffic is that the entire
road is available to anyone who can take it and keep it. You take it by asserting
possession. You keep it by winning confrontations over its control.
We must look at simplest element of traffic flow, the confrontation, in order to
see how disputes over right of way are resolved. We will conclude that despite appearances
there is an order to Phnom Penh traffic, it can be inferred from how confrontations
The most obvious rule in Phnom Penh traffic is that "might makes right."
It is a simple fact that no one gets in the way of trucks or buses, or over-weight
middle aged men in Mercedez talking on their mobile phones. These are confrontations
that by convention never occur, everyone backs down in advance. But the most interesting
situations occur when two motor-bikes or a cyclo and a moto-dup contest right-of-way.
These are the most common confrontations, they are the central feature of Phnom Penh
If there is no risk of collision, there is no confrontation. If collision can be
avoided by small maneuvers that are not inconvenient, there is no confrontation -
both sides retain "right of way". A confrontation occurs if collision is
likely unless one or the other of the two vehicles (or pedestrians) gives way. If
the situation doesn't sound familiar to you then you ain't been in Phnom Penh.
When a motor-cyclist cuts in front of you from the on-coming lane, you ask yourself,
"is he going to let me by, or will I have to slow to allow him to make his left-hand
turn?" "Who gets right of way?"
In regulated societies this question is answered by traffic signs and laws, or by
conventions that everyone accepts. In an imposed order, with working lights that
were obeyed, signs that mean the same thing to all, with traffic cops that punish
offenders, priority is obvious, confrontations are rare.
In less regulated societies the same end is achieved by convention. You may give
way to little old ladies and children, or simply ignore them. In some places you
are especially careful when you pass bicycles and motor-cycles, or you are allowed
by convention to shoulder your way through.
In Phnom Penh you can find yourself in a confrontation at any moment. It is a moment
of decision and assessment, of danger and frustration. Is the other driver going
to slow down? Should I slow down? Does he driver see me? Will we be involved in an
Because rules are really information (they answer these questions), when there are
no rules you have to answer these questions on a case-by-case basis. The convention
in Phnom Penh seems to be that disputes over right of way are settled continuosly
by those most directly involved.
How the confrontation is decided explains a lot of seemingly irrational behavior
on the road. Ever notice that when a motor-cycle cuts in front of you the driver
never looks directly at you. This is not the Khmer aversion to looking into your
eyes. Ever notice that some of the least risk averse drivers on the road are the
ones carrying children?
This seemingly irrational behavior is actually the way that confrontations are resolved,
and answers the question: how does traffic flow in Phnom Penh if there is no imposed
The Art of Commitment
"Winning" a confrontation depends on ability of one side or the other to
commit themselves irrevocably to a course of action. Traffic in Phnom Penh flows
because drivers here are masters in the "art of commitment."
If one driver can convince another by his actions that though a collision is imminent,
he will or can do nothing about it, he will "win" the confrontation. An
accident will occur unless one driver gives way, as one usually does. If I can convince
you that you must give way in order to avoid an accident, I will "win"
If I don't look at you, you will slow down thinking that perhaps I don't see you.
I will travel on, leaving you frustrated and cursing, having slowed down for me.
Right-of-way is decided and traffic flows. The key is act so as to convince the other
guy that you are not going to stop moving! Don't look him in the eye, pretend he
doen't exist, look the other way! He will slow for you--most of the time!
Resolving a confrontation results in the allocation of responsibility. If I am carrying
children and appear to you to be acting irresponsibly, you (and other drivers) will
most likely assume the responsibility for my children's safety, while I, and my children,
continue on our merry way!
The possibility of using (seemingly) irrational behavior rationally (in a way that
furthers your interests) was first proposed by Thomas Schelling, a Harvard Economics
Professor. Writing in the early years of the nuclear confrontation between the United
States and the Soviet Union, Schelling described how one nation might "win"
a nuclear confrontation by acting irrationally, that is by communicating a irrevocable
commitment to a course of action with catastrophic consequences. The other side would
back down believing itself to have the entire burden of avoiding "mutual destruction."
Similarly, Phnom Penh drivers who get where they are going the most easily are those
drivers who can communicate to all potential claimants to their bit of the road,
an "irrevocable commitment to an accident!!"
By acting irrationally I might "win" many confrontations. But what happens
if neither side backs down? This possibility seems to outweigh all the benefit that
might be gained from winning any number of other confrontations! From this point
of view acting irrationally is irrational, no matter how it comes clothed, or how
times it might be successful, if there is a real chance of accident.
This seemed perfectly clear to many critics of Schelling who argued that playing
this confrontational game over a finite foreign policy gains was completely crazy.
You might win once. You might win many times. But if neither side backs down just
once, world holocaust is the result. The smallest probability of that would outweigh
any number of foreign policy gains that on other occasions might be won. On their
view the tactic of intentional irrationality was not rational, but outrageously and
What happens in Phnom Penh is that drivers approach each other trying to convince
the other of their unwillingness to act to avoid a collision, hoping that the other
will act "rationally" at the end and back down. Though irrevocable commitments
are continuously communicated, they are not necessarily binding. The problem is that
it is impossible to distinguish those who really retain the capacity to back down,
from drivers who are completely stupid and impervious to danger!
Is there a social interpretation? One might argue that in the absence of an imposed
order, the order that arises will be consistent with something that is true about
Khmer society more generally. Some people have noted a similarity in deference on
the road to modes of social deference. Can we explain the interactions between social
equals in the same way? I will avoid that confrontation!!
But when regulation does take hold in Phnom Penh traffic will be less frustrating
and "alien" to foreign eyes, and more predictable, but probably more boring!