El Samneang's second floor office over-looks the intersection of Monivong (formerly
Achar Mean) Blvd. and Pochentong Road. Five hundred and sixty policemen work out
of this building to monitor and control traffic on Phnom Penh's roads and streets.
On any given day you will find policemen preparing to go "to do battle",
traffic accidents being arbitrated between the disputants, or men coming in off duty.
El Samneang is the Traffic Police Chief of Phnom Penh. In his spare office are leather
arm chairs, a Sony calendar, and on the wall behind his wood desk, a UNICEF world
map written in French with Europe in the center.
El spoke to the Phnom Pehn Post recently, his tortoise rimmed glasses perched comfortably
on his nose. He is an articulate and expansive man, using his arms and hands for
emphasis. He talked about, the problems facing his force, the settlement of traffic
accidents and plans for the future.
Problems facing Phnom Penh:
El said that "in a situation where the country is half at peace and half at
war, the implementation of the law is very difficult." There are an average
of 10 serious traffic accidents a month in Phnom Penh, he said, but the numbers of
smaller accidents will probably never be known, as many are settled by those involved,
without police intervention.
But there are serious accidents, hit and run accidents in which those at fault are
never found. But sometimes people turn themselves in voluntarily to a police station
after a serious accident. They are "usually treated more leniently," he
The traffic chief complained that his force suffers from a lack of vehicles to cover
the roads of Phnom Penh, but under the material restraints he faces, he said his
officers were working hard to "protect the vehicle operators on Phnom Penh streets."
His policemen work seven days a week for less than U.S. $10 per month.
The problems facing the police are many. Lack of understanding of the traffic law
has already been noted. In addition, El said that of the 580 kilometers of road in
Phnom Penh, only 300 are serviceable enough to be used. Traffic tends to concentrate
here, increasing frustration and the number of accidents. Over the last year two
factors have made this an even greater problem. The hundreds of UNTAC vehicles have
burdened the streets of Phnom Penh and the increase in Cambodia's prosperity has
brought in many more motor-bikes and cars.
"Even when UNTAC leaves, the number of accidents will not decrease unless roads
are repaired and the number of vehicles on the road is reduced," he said.
Settling traffic disputes:
So far Cambodia does not have an auto insurance company, almost all of the motorists
do not have any insurance protecting them or their vehicles. If an accident occurs,
questions of responsibility and compensation must still be settled.
In minor accidents this usually occurs between those involved in the accident themselves.
The police prefer that the "disputants" decide on settlements between them.
Many small accidents occur without police intervention. But if a disagreement arises
between those involved in an accident, they may decide to call the police in to arbitrate
El said that if the police are called in, the disputants must accept their determination
of fault, and settle on compensation based on it. An investigation is done at the
scene. Witnesses are interviewed, burned-rubber marks on the street may be measured.
Afterwards, everyone goes off to the police station to settle on compensation. The
police are now armed with the "facts" to determine fault. This is done
in light of traffic law, Samneang told us. (He estimates that perhaps 40-60 percent
of Phnom Penh motorists don't know the law.) At the station the police try to persuade
the disputants to settle things between themselves, but the vehicles are impounded
and held hostage to the resolution of the affair. There is a large room in the police
station in which impounded motor-cycles are held. The police chief said that there
are twenty motor-cycles currently being held, waiting for the disputants to settle
Agreements can result in one side paying to repair the other's motor-cycle, or to
pay some portion of the total amount of repair. Both sides might decide to walk away
without either paying compensation. In any case, the police report is signed and
each side uses their thumb-print to signify acceptance of the results. Case closed!
If an injury or death is involved, the police, by law, must be involved. The Phnom
Penh traffic law states that "any driver who causes injury or loss of life in
a traffic accident must be subjected to imprisonment for one to three years."
While it is possible, in the case of a death, for the vehicle operator to settle
the matter financially with the family of the deceased, Police Chief El said a police
report must be filed. The police must make an initial determination that murder was
not involved. Not all "accidents" that result in death, are accidents.
Some are murder. The police must be careful of this possibility, El said.
The Future of City Traffic:
The police chief said that three things need to be done in the future: road repair
and mass transportation, motorist education, and stricter enforcement of traffic
law by the police.
All 580 kilometers of streets must be repaired, and the number of vehicles on the
road needs to be reduced. The latter can be done by investing in a mass transportation
system. In addition, signs and street lights need to be installed.
Education of Phnom Penh's motorists must be increased. El said that even if all the
people know that left turns can be illegal, if there are no signs specifying which
intersections are affected, the laws will not be obeyed.
Finally, he thinks that his police force must enforce the traffic laws more strictly,
they must fine more violators.