Now that Cambodia’s long-awaited Traffic Law has made it out of the Council of Ministers and is expected to arrive in the National Assembly later this month, the conversation is once again turning to the poorly paid officers who will ultimately be responsible for enforcing it.
Dressed in light blue uniforms and white helmets, the traffic police – known more for their efforts to solicit bribes from motorists than their efforts to issue tickets – have long been singled out for their ineffectiveness in combating widespread reckless driving that causes an average of five deaths a day.
But government officials, traffic personnel and independent observers say the behaviour of the criticised cops underlies a problem that is rarely discussed: No one really wants the job.
Every year, the government issues calls for recruitment in local newspapers and on television, and every year, few answer. Rapid urban and rural development has brought with it increased motor vehicle registration. While more drivers are on the road, more police are not.
According to the National Road Safety Committee (NRSC), in 2013, the government attempted to hire 1,000 new traffic officers to adequately patrol street corners and busy intersections all over the country. It was an ambitious number, as the applications soon proved.
“They only got 100 or 200 [people],” said Chan Sokol, chief of the national and international relationships division at the NRSC. “No more people applied for that. It’s like 10 to 20 per cent [of the goal].”
“I think it’s very hard because the traffic police have to work harder than the normal city officer. They have to stand sometimes under the sun. They have to do more traffic, more enforcement at the roadside,” she said, offering an explanation for the woeful recruitment last year.
As for the prospects of carrying out the new measures introduced in the legislation, which calls for passengers on motorbikes to wear helmets, and for higher fines for drunken driving – a major factor in crashes – Sokol had reservations.
“It may be hard if we don’t have enough traffic police to do the enforcement,” she said, adding that education is also needed.
Ear Chariya, a road safety consultant who monitors the problem of enforcement closely, says that with their numbers, traffic police only make up around 5 to 10 per cent of overall police forces.
For the scale of the problem, “It’s not enough,” he said.
Approved by the Council of Ministers on Friday, the new law, which Chariya predicts will pass the assembly and go into effect in about two months’ time, does not address problems of low staffing or, almost as important, nonsensical shifts. Most accidents occur between 6pm and 9pm. Traffic police officers get off at 6pm, he said.
Staffing is so insufficient that other branches of the police force are sometimes called in to fill the gap.
Him Yan, director of the Public Order Department at the Ministry of Interior, said that traffic forces are normally concentrated in “important locations”, suggesting that all the backstreets and less-busy intersections are left unguarded.
Chev Hak, chief of the Phnom Penh traffic police, declined to comment. His men on the streets, however, were eager to speak – anonymously – about the problem.
A traffic police officer stationed on a busy Norodom Boulevard intersection said that, normally, three people guard the position, but it is not unusual for one to be called away to cover a different post.
Asked about the work itself, he spoke disparagingly about a job devoid of advancement.
“I’ve worked as a traffic police official for years, but there is no promotion; I just stand and wait for time [to pass],” he said. “I want to retire soon since I will be able to look after the children, but right now, I have no day off while the salary is only 300,000 riel [$75] per month,” he said.
Another officer elsewhere suggested that a salary of $200 a month would make the job more attractive. With a financial bump, officers “will not be so worried”.
“But it is only 300,000 riel and we have to stand and breathe in the smoke.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KIM SAROM