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Trying to tame traffic tumult

Trying to tame traffic tumult

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A traffic policeman guides motorists at an intersection in Phnom Penh.

People don't really respect the traffic laws. Many don't care to know the rules, and they break them.

Police are battling havoc created by uneducated drivers, youngsters racing each other in the streets, and an increasing number of vehicles on our roads

Student Chhin Sothea found out the hard way that it's not enough just to take care when crossing the street in Phnom Penh - a motorcycle ploughed into him from behind as he strolled down the sidewalk.

"Now I keep an eye on street traffic all the time, and when I get on a fast motorbike, my stomach turns," says the 23-year-old, who spent most of his savings recovering in hospital.

Stories like Chhin Sothea's are common in the Kingdom.

In this rapidly developing country, traffic fatalities have more than doubled over the past five years, becoming the second-biggest killer after AIDS.

"The construction of smoother roads, an ever-increasing number of cars and motorbikes, and bold but often uneducated drivers will become a deadly mix in years to come," says Sem Panhavuth from Handicap International.

A report by his organisation, which monitors Cambodian road safety, found the country had around 4.5 fatalities per day in 2008, and the average rose to five per day in the first two months of 2009.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has recently used speeches to implore drivers to take more care, and the government is making greater efforts to bring order to chaotic roads.

Phnom Penh got its first five speed detectors in March, and traffic police are now frequently seen out in force, cracking down on motorcyclists who drive without helmets or rear-view mirrors.

The then chief of Traffic Police, Tin Prasoeur, who oversaw these new measures, says the compulsory helmet and mirror laws have helped reduce injuries.

"Most of the deadly traffic accidents are usually caused by Cambodian youngsters who race each other through the streets," Tin Prasoeur said.

"No traffic police want their money [fines], but we want to draw attention to dangers from not following the law or respecting their own safety," he added.

However, few are optimistic Cambodia's surging traffic accident toll will soon fall.

"I've seen some improvement on the streets, and little by little we hope to see a new shape in Cambodia," says Pheng Saly, a driving instructor for nearly two decades, who is seeing an increase in clients every month.

"But the issue now is that people don't really respect the traffic laws. Many don't care to know the rules, and they break them," he adds.

Phee Khorn, a motorcycle taxi driver in Phnom Penh for the past five years, says the new road rules are not working and the problem lies with lax law enforcement.

"We see traffic police on the streets daily. They often play cat-and-mouse games by stopping bikes or cars all of a sudden, sometimes for no apparent reason," Phee Khorn says.

"When police fine us for not having a helmet or rear-view mirrors, they just take money and let us go," he adds.
For his part, traffic cop San Sophorng says he is learning how little respect his occupation gets as he tries to bring order to dangerous streets.

"When I stop people without helmets or rear-view mirrors, I always tell them their mistakes and, you know, fine them," he says, adding he gets to keep 20 percent of the money.

As he watches drivers weave, honk and jockey for position around one of Phnom Penh's bulging markets, San Sophorng says accidents are increasing because drivers don't care about the rules.

"A lot of people don't obey the traffic laws, and I can't control them all," he says, taking a break in the shade with a few other blue uniformed policemen.
"I'm becoming more tired every day."

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