When Neak Chandara was 22 years old, he came so close to death that the paramedics were ready to send him to the mortuary. Like many Cambodian men in their early twenties, he’d been spending the night drinking with friends in Phnom Penh.
Unfortunately, he decided to drive his motorbike and collided into a car. He and his two friends flew off the motorbike, and he hit his head. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Tracing the scar on his head, Chandara, who is better known as Dara, said: “The doctor said I was dying because I stopped breathing and my heart stopped beating. I had blood inside my head so they had to perform surgery.”
Dara’s near-fatal crash happened 10 years ago, but stories like his are still commonplace in Cambodia. Two weeks ago, he was injured in another crash. The same thing happened to his friend, now lying in a Battambang hospital, two days later.
A report published two weeks ago in Taylor & Francis’s International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion and using data from the country’s Road Crash and Victim Information System (RCVIS) – the surveillance system used to collect data on injuries and deaths caused by road crashes in Cambodia – found that between 2007 and 2011, motorcycle fatalities in the Kingdom increased by 30 per cent. Increased motorisation of Cambodia’s population and speeding were highlighted as reasons for the rise.
The report said that Southeast Asian countries have experienced a rapid rise in motorisation in recent years, as growing economic growth has led to an expanded middle class which has more disposable income to spend on road vehicles.
The research found that Cambodia suffers the highest motorcycle fatality rate in Southeast Asia.
Ear Chariya, road safety program manager at Handicap International, and who co-authoured the report, added in an email: “It’s linked to the economic growth and a growing middle class, as well as the improvement and extension of road networks, especially from dirt or unpaved roads to paved roads, which result in an increase of travelling speed and longer travelling journey of Cambodians.”
However, while Cambodian motorcyclists may be at greatest danger of dying in an accident, the figures don’t necessarily mean that more Cambodian motorcyclists are dying than Thais. According to the WHO statement, when it comes to measuring motorcycle fatality rate per population, Thailand’s rate is 71 per cent higher than Cambodia’s.
Of all Cambodia’s motorcycle fatalities between 2007 and 2011, 46 per cent had speed as a contributing factor, the study revealed. Men Chansokal, a spokesperson from the National Road Safety Committee, said that a new law attempting to lower the rural speed limit to 80 kilometres per hour is currently being discussed by the government. She said: “We’re still discussing about the penalty, whether Cambodians would accept it or not, due to their financial situation.”
Enforcement of the law remains a concern, however. Dr Sao Sovanratanak, Cambodia’s national professional officer for violence, injury prevention and road safety at the World Health Organization (WHO), conceded that in order for the proposed law to improve the situation, it was crucial that legislation and enforcement worked together. He said: “We should have strong legislation that is backed up by enforcement. Enforcement has to be stringent, constant and visible, with punitive fines and severe penalties.”
Putting this into practice remains difficult. Levels of fines and penalties are currently very low: 75 cents for speeding anywhere between one and 19 kilometres over the legal limit or for not wearing a helmet; $1.50 for having a breath-alcohol concentration of between 0.25 and 0.39 milligrammes per litre of air. The maximum sentence for those found driving without a licence is one month in prison. They could even be fined as little as $6.25, according to the WHO. It has even been reported that some drivers can pay an extra $100 to skip the tests required for a licence, though Sovanratanak said there was no evidence to support this.
Cambodia is 166th out of 177 countries on the worldwide corruption index, according to last year’s Transparency International figures, and traffic police are not exempt. Sovanratanak referred to traffic offenders bribing police as “a hot issue”. However, he maintained that there are attempts within the police to rectify this, citing a recent internal rule stating that any officer found guilty of extortion will be dismissed from their unit. He added: “Hopefully something will come of it.”
The report’s figures are not all doom and gloom. One of its findings was that from 2009 onwards, the motorcyclist death rate “seemed to stabilise”. The study linked this to the action taken by international organisations in projects such as the Bloomberg Philanthropies Global Road Safety Programme. This program has specifically targeted two areas of traffic abuse: helmet wearing and drink-driving, both of which accounted for Dara’s grave injuries, and both of which, according to the report, have improved among motorcyclists.
Sovanratanak, who is working on this project on behalf of the WHO, said that initiatives include advocacy, social marketing to raise awareness of safety, and law enforcement.
Chariya added: “I think the success (of the scheme) includes the capacity building of traffic police on law enforcement and the promotion of civil society actors in the field of road safety for the advocacy on the improvement and revision of traffic legislation.”
Nevertheless, for young men like Dara and his friends, road deaths remain a real danger. According to Chariya, they are the leading cause of death for Cambodian men aged between 15 and 45. When it comes to motorcycle fatalities alone, men aged between 25 and 29 years old account for 40 per cent.
This is partly because men are more likely to drive motorbikes, according to a joint statement from Sovanratanak and his WHO colleague Jonathon Passmore, technical officer of violence and injury prevention at the organisation’s Western Pacific Regional Office. They said: “Males can be at greater risk due to greater exposure, and because they exhibit greater risk taking behaviour, such as speeding, drink-driving and not wearing helmets, compared to females.”
As well as efforts to improve traffic law enforcement and reduce speeding, Cambodia is taking small steps to encourage its citizens to give up their motorbikes for public transport. In Phnom Penh, a public bus trial began on February 5. While its main goals are to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality, Chansokal believes a public bus service could reduce motorcycle deaths too. She said: “It’s much safer than motorbikes.”
Sovanratanak feels that the government isn’t making the most of the scheme. He said: “The government should make people aware of the benefits of a public bus, because now people are so used to private vehicles, they think they’re convenient.”
And what do the people think? Dara praised the public bus scheme, but said that benefits would only be noticeable if a large number of people used the bus. For now, he said, the majority of Phnom Penh residents aren’t convinced: “Now, we have the bus, but the traffic is still jammed, so people might not want to stay on the bus. But if the traffic is good, maybe people will decide to use it. Compared to a motorbike, it’s safer.”
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.