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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - You're right! Cambodia's roads are death traps

You're right! Cambodia's roads are death traps

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Increasing urban population means more vehicles on the roads and more accidents. In Cambodia motorbikes and three-wheeled vehicles represent 75 percent of the vehicle fleet and are the major contributors to accidents.

Road deaths in Cambodia have almost doubled in the last three years, and it is feared

the problem could soon become an epidemic if no remedial action is taken.

The accident figures, released by the National Police in January, showed that from

the 3,760 reported accidents on Cambodia's roads in 2003, 824 people were killed,

and 6,329 were injured.

Traffic injuries are increasing every year by nearly 30 percent and Ung Chun Hour,

Deputy Director-General of Transport and director of the Land Transport Department

said last year's increase was of particular concern. He described the situation as

"an alarming emergency".

Cambodia now has the highest rate of road and traffic injury of all the ASEAN nations.

(Traffic fatality rates reported in 2002 were: Cambodia 12.08, Vietnam 10.77, Malaysia

5.72, Thailand 5.57, Singapore 2.9, Brunei 1.9. The range for developed countries

was 1.5 to 1.9.)

The problem is becoming an increasing burden on Cambodia's economy. An Asian Development

Bank consultant recently estimated the cost of road traffic accidents to be $66 million

per year and equal to 1.8 percent of the country's GDP.

It is widely acknowledged that statistical data is unreliable and official accident

statistics are under-reported. "The number of road accidents is actually much

more. In some remote provinces people cannot send us road accident data," Chung

Hour said.

Analysts point to recent economic stability to explain the continuing increase. Development

is improving infrastructure, increasing disposable income and causing urban drift.

All these factors translate to more vehicles on the roads and more accidents. The

rapid increase in motorbikes and three-wheeled vehicles is considered a major contributor

to accidents in Southeast Asia. These constitute 75 percent of Cambodia's vehicles.

The Phnom Penh municipal government, in an attempt to ease congestion and accidents,

is moving to exclude from some areas three-wheeled covered motorcycles (tuk-tuks)

and motorcycle-drawn trailers (remorques). The municipality has announced that these

vehicles will be banned from Prampi Makara, Daun Penh, Chamkar Mon and Tuol Kok.

A spokesman said a period of education would precede enforcement by fines.

Bruno Smits, road safety project co-ordinator at Handicap International Belgium (one

of whose goals is accident prevention) said: "Cambodia is at the bottom of the

motorization curve and further exponential growth is expected in the forthcoming

years. Rapid rise in motorization makes traffic become more and more complex and

injury and death are expected to become epidemic unless clear action is taken."

Pamela Messervy, World Health Organisation road safety program management officer,

expressed concern that lack of foresight by the government may restrict improvements

to the problem before it is too late.

"The fact that we cannot categorically say that traffic injuries are a major

health problem at the moment makes it challenging to get a real commitment from the

government," she said. "But traffic injuries will become one of the top

five health concerns in the future if action isn't taken now."

Concerned ministries, organizations and experts met in Phnom Penh in January to address

the issues and create a road safety strategy and action plan. The seminar concluded

with an ambitious plan calling for a coordinated response involving all concerned

Government ministries, NGOs and the private sector.

The plan says all indicators point to deteriorating road safety in Cambodia and large

economic losses and social effects; crashes have a greater adverse effect on the

poor.

The main goals of the action plan are to improve education of all strata of the population,

improve roads, increase traffic police enforcement capability, improve driver training

and testing, increase vehicle safety standards and pass new traffic legislation .

It was considered essential that a new traffic law is passed by the National Assembly

as soon as possible. "The traffic law enacted in1991 is no longer relevant to

the situation," Smits said.

Among other shortcomings, the legislation has no provisions to enforce seat-belt

or helmet wearing and does not place restrictions on blood alcohol concentration.

Penalties for traffic violations under the 1991 legislation are very low and unlikely

to deter infringement. Currently fines range from1500 riel (37c) for minor offences

such as driving on the wrong side of the road to 40,000 riel ($10) for high-level

offences such as driving drunk and causing a fatal road accident.

A revised road and traffic law that was first drafted in 1995 has been stuck in the

National Assembly since the general election in 2003. "When a new assembly forms,

revision of the road and traffic law should be made a priority," Chung Hour

said.

The action plan recognises that the traffic problems are far more complex than can

be resolved by simply addressing the inadequate legislation: a new law cannot be

enforced because police lack resources. Koizumi Yukihiro from the Japan International

Co-operation Agency (JICA), says traffic police often don't know the rules and regulations,

and citizens often do not respect their authority.

It seems that few people know the rules and regulations and even fewer have access

to traffic safety information.

Bruno Smits points to a knowledge gap from the years of unrest and war: "Parents

are unable to train their children in road safety, as they received no education

themselves," he said.

"To address this problem the action plan includes a substantial education component.

Handicap International is administering a 'helmets for schoolchildren' program. The

program not only distributes 1,500 helmets to school children from years 1-6 but

plans to develop a curriculum to deliver road safety education into classrooms."

Pamela Messervy says that although long-term strategies are important, evidence has

shown that the most effective strategy is simply putting helmets on heads [of cyclists

and motorcyclists]. "We know that by putting helmets on heads you can save lives

and by doing this you also raise awareness."

The traffic experts all agree that implementing the action plan will be a significant

challenge. Koizumi Yukihiro is pessimistic: "I think that this action plan could

be very useful but my concern is how to implement the suggestions."

Bruno Smits said: "Current capacities of Cambodian governmental institutions

are far from being able to cope with the situation. In order to be successful, road

safety demands a multi-sector approach with strong government commitment as the key."

According to Chung Hour, success of the plan depends largely on funding. There is

no allocated fund from the National Assembly for traffic accidents and this needs

to be addressed. "The action plan depends on funding; with no funds we cannot

do anything," he said.

It is widely considered that if governments fail to take action, traffic problems

will quickly become a crisis. The World Health Organisation estimates that if nothing

is done about road injuries it will rise to the third biggest cause of premature

deaths by the year 2020. In response, WHO has made road safety the theme of this

year's World Health Day, on April 7.

Dr Alan Ross, ADB-ASEAN Regional Road and Safety advisor, refers to the world's traffic

deaths as "the silent killer". He says the global road toll is comparable

to 2,220 Boeing 747 aircraft full of people crashing every year. "If this was

to actually occur there would be an international outcry but it happens every year

on the roads and no one seems to care."

 

Motorbike helmets prime focus

of

safety campaign

A 2000 study using data from Phnom Penh emergency services, hospitals, traffic police

and municipal authorities disclosed that 76 percent of accidents involved motorcycles,

85 percent of accidents led to injuries that could be disabling, and 58 percent of

these involved serious head trauma.
Only 9 percent of motorcyclists wore a helmet (the observed wearing rate in August

2003 was about 11 percent).

The same year, Handicap International implemented the 'Motodop Helmet Initiative'

to encourage professional drivers to wear helmets and identification jackets and

carry an extra helmet for their passengers.

In 2002, three sessions of basic training in traffic law were conducted for 213 motodop

drivers from the seven city districts (khann). All participants were given a helmet

and jacket.

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