Ride around Phnom Penh during the day and you’ll see nearly every motorbike driver wearing a helmet. Ride around the city at night and suddenly it seems like everyone has decided to take them off. This is not coincidence. It is due to the fact that the government employs many more police to work during the day than at night, and therefore the country’s population has more incentive to follow the law during daylight hours.
Cambodia is not unique among developing countries in that a lack of funding leads to a limited budget for enforcement of the country’s laws.
Although many Cambodians understand that helmet and traffic laws are meant to protect them, the lack of regulation – coupled with a lack of education in decades past – has normalised behaviours such as driving helmetless or ignoring street signs.
Chev Hak, who is a deputy chief of the Municipal Traffic Police, said that his officers don’t only have problems with people driving motos – the people driving modern cars make the same illegal moves.
“Traffic laws have become more effective,” he said, but admitted that improvements need to be made, explaining that there is a small group who genuinely know the law but just choose to ignore it.
“It is a concern of the government if people break the law, but it is also the responsibility of the people to obey the law in order to be safe on the road,” said Chev Hak.
“If they smash the law, they will get the punishment or at least face greater dangers while driving.”
The requirement that drivers wear helmets was passed in 2009 “because the increase of deaths on the road”, said Cheam Yeap, a lawmaker with the Cambodian People’s Party.
And their increasingly widespread use has been an obvious example of how greater enforcement is what really causes people to follow the law.
The general population also has to see that the law is being enforced fairly and regularly, said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.
“If the implementation of a law is limited and unbalanced and some offenders are ignored, they can be the model for others to follow. The law should be widely promoted and correctly implemented.”