Don't be fooled by the cheery wave from driving instructor Lanh Roeun, who has been teaching people how to improve their road skills for 40 years. These days, he says, the streets are more dangerous than ever, thanks to the increased number of drunk drivers and the general decline in driving skills. "If drunk drivers don't crash, the police don't try to stop them," he says gloomily.
I t may come as a surprise to the casual visitor, but there are road rules in Cambodia. For instance, you can't ride your motorbike the wrong way up the street (although everyone does). It is absolutely forbidden to double park (but that is ignored too). And not least, jumping red lights is strictly prohibited.
Most people disregard these and a host of other rules on a regular, and sometimes fatal basis. But how bad is it really? Well, who should know better about low standards among the nation's drivers than those involved in teaching them how to do it properly in the first place.
There are a host of outfits dedicated (apparently) to ridding Cambodia's drivers of a gaggle of atrocious habits. One such place in Phnom Penh is the 23rd October 1991 Driving School. (For those not in the know, says director Seng Bunveng, it marks the date when the Paris Peace Accords were signed, bringing an end to the country's civil war.)
Bunveng says that in the past, many people simply bought their driving licenses. But as the country develops and people become better off, more are coming in to take driving lessons. They hope it will help them pass their driving tests. Bunveng hopes it will make them better drivers.
"But most importantly, those people who don't know how to drive can still pass their examinations, because of under-the-table payments," he says. "Driving as an issue is not about knowing traffic signs-far more importantly, it is about being aware of other people using the streets."
And how do local drivers fare when relating to their fellows?
"I don't mean to boast, but I have traveled in 100 countries," says Bunveng, flashing his Californian driving license. "I have never seen driving as bad as we have in Cambodia."
Bunveng has a point, and skeptics should note that regionally at least, the figures bear him out. Cambodia has the highest road accident rate of any country in the ten member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Keo Savin, the deputy director of the land transport department at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MPWT), says more than 500 people died last year on the country's roads. Another thousand were seriously injured.
Worse still, as the roads get better-travel to the second city of Battambang has gone from 13 hours to just five since the road was upgraded-and busier, people drive faster, and the number dying climbs.
Savin blames low standards. For example, drivers-"especially motorbikes"-don't respect which side of the road to stay on, and the speed limit is regularly flouted. For the record, the limit in cities is 30 km/h for motorbikes and 40 for cars.
The MPWT has been collecting statistics on road accidents since 2000. And last year the ministry, in conjunction with the ministries of health and interior, worked together to assemble accurate figures, and to draw up measures to prevent accidents.
"Traffic accidents have many causes," he says. "It is not just about the drivers or whether they have attended driving school. Those who use the roads-both drivers and pedestrians-have to understand how to use roads properly. That will cut the number of accidents."
There is no doubt the numbers need to come down. In 2000, there were more than 2,900 accidents nationwide with 401 people killed and 4,389 injured. The following year saw fewer accidents but more deaths: 2,699 accidents with 459 killed and 4,184 injured.
And all three figures increased last year, with 3,335 accidents, 535 dead and 5,301 injured. Savin blames much of the problem on the lack of motorbike helmets, and an even broader dearth of drivers' licenses.
"If we can ensure motorcyclists get licenses, they will learn about the road signs. Ensure they wear helmets, and they won't die," he says.
In the cities, you can add buses, trucks, cars, cyclos, bicycles and pedestrians to this scene. In the country, added dangers include ox-carts bumping down roads as taxis fly by at more than 100 km/h.
T he result of ignorance and a general flouting of rules is the highest road death rate in ASEAN: last year saw 12.08 killed per 100,000. At a regional road safety conference in Tokyo, participants asked Cambodia to take steps to reduce the number of accidents.
ASEAN wants the rate to drop to less than 10 per 100,000 by 2004, to below seven by 2010, and to just two people killed per 100,000 by 2020. That is a tall order, but Savin says the country could meet the 2004 standard provided the National Assembly passes a new road safety law later this year. But, he admits, it may not get through in its current shape.
"I am concerned that when the law passes, many people will view it in a bad light because it will compel them to spend money on motorbike helmets and tests. It looks like the law will force them to do this but this is about road safety for the people," Savin says.
Measures that will affect drivers of both cars and motorbikes are that people must be at least 16 years old to qualify for a license. Those older than 60 may not drive unless they take a regular supplementary test every five years.
Motorcyclists will have to wear a helmet, and no more than two people may travel on a bike. Those traveling in cars will all have to wear safety belts; right-hand drive vehicles will (again) be outlawed.
In short, says Savin, the new law will introduce stringent new rules that will bring Cambodia in line with other nations in the region. And provided the National Assembly does not water down the provisions, there will be strict penalties for those who flout the law.
More than having good laws, though, Cambodia needs proper law enforcement. But whether or not that happens, the new legislation could promise better business for driving school operators. Not that times are good at the moment, says Sam Sreyneth of the city's Dai Tumneap (Modern Hand) Driving School.
Sreyneth, who is the owner's daughter, says the family business trains 100 people each month. But as more schools have opened over the years, business has slowed. It seems not everyone wants to pay money to learn how to drive a car. Back in 1995, prospective learners paid $70 for twelve one-hour lessons. Today competition has driven the price down to $55. Profit margins are slim.
Bunveng is less pessimistic about the business environment, adding that there is only so much that operators like himself can do to boost driving skills. And once the students know the rules of the road and are comfortable in a car, there is still the infamous test, which is carried out at the government's center near Phnom Penh International Airport.
The examination is done in two stages-testing the students' knowledge of the ASEAN road signs and rules, followed by the practical road test. The government center seems to mirror much of the rest of the bureaucracy in one key respect.
"I ask my students who take the examination, 'Do you pay bribes to those officials?' They don't answer, just hesitate a little then smile at me," he says. "So I still believe that bribery is going on."
Sreyneth and Bunveng both agree that bribery among government examiners has decreased in recent years after the departmental director cracked down on the problem in a bid to improve driving standards.
However, says Sreyneth, the inspectors still request 10,000 riel 'tips' from students during the examinations. The payment means small errors are overlooked, with students flunked only for serious breaches.
One of the instructors who works at Dai Tumneap is Lanh Roeun, who has been teaching people how to drive for 40 years. In the Sixties it was soldiers in jeeps and tanks, but these days it is mainly students in the ubiquitous Toyota Camry.
In four decades Roeun has not had an accident, but the proliferation of drunk drivers these days scares him. Before the Pol Pot regime, he recalls, people were not allowed to drive drunk, but these days they can get away with it.
"If drunk drivers don't crash, the police don't try to stop them," he says, adding gloomily that driving skills have definitely declined since he was a young man.
He may have a point. The Post decided to take a chance on the skills of Bunveng's newest graduate, who in fairness will remain nameless. It was a slow rumble around the block in the school's minivan, complete with a giant crack in the windscreen (caused by a falling branch in a storm, not in an accident, explains the instructor).
As is common, the priority is to get the car immediately into fourth gear, leaving the engine groaning as we totter along Kampuchea Krom Boulevard at 20 km/h. But we don't crash, there are almost no near misses, and barring a few giant lurches and grinding or sticky gear changes, our driver does a reasonable job-for a complete novice.
Except that he isn't-he learned to drive in 1997 and is simply here to brush up on his skills.
His lack of competence illustrates the problem: with a police force intractably determined to play no part in traffic control other than collect bribes, it seems it will take more than simply another law to stop the anarchy and carnage on the nation's roads.