After a tragic crash claimed the lives of nine people in Battambang on Monday, attention has fallen on a recent legal loophole that allows potentially dangerous vehicles with right-hand steering to remain on Cambodian roads.
Nine people were killed in the collision between a Mekong Express minibus and a truck with right-hand steering, which is designed to be driven on the left-hand side of the road.
Battambang traffic police chief San Kimsan said the truck was mostly to blame – explaining that because it was a right-hand-driving vehicle, it had to veer all the way into a lane of oncoming cars in order to be able to see the traffic while overtaking.
However, he added, the Mekong Express bus was driving at a speed of more than 100 kilometres per hour, which also contributed to the deaths.
Although importing new right-hand-steering vehicles is illegal, Prime Minister Hun Sen in January made an exception for any such vehicles that were already in the country, provided they were registered with the Ministry of Transportation and sported a special red number plate.
However, the truck involved in Monday’s smash carried no number plate at all.
Transport Ministry director-general Chan Dara said the issue could become complicated near the border, because Thailand traffic sticks to the left-hand side of the road and so favours right-hand side steering columns. The opposite is the case in Cambodia.
He said only a small amount of right-hand vehicles were being driven, but Ear Chariya, director of the Institute for Road Safety, disputed that. “There are already a large number of right-hand vehicles in Cambodia,” he said.
“There are some safety concerns and we should not encourage the right-hand vehicles on our roads, because it is difficult when it overtakes other vehicles,” he said.
Heang Saman, who runs a used-car dealership in Phnom Penh, said he had only a handful of right-hand steering column vehicles for sale. Though he noted they were not popular purchases, they are still regularly seen on Cambodian roads.
“Right or left, if the driver is careless, there will be an accident,” Saman said.
But the consequence of the exception for grandfathered-in right-hand vehicles could have a human cost, as in the case of Monday’s crash.
Among those killed in the collision was former Pannasastra University law student Heang Solinet, who had recently returned home from a year of study in Estonia.
Raymond Leos, dean of the faculty of communications and media arts, remembered her as an “exceptional” student, adding that Cambodia had lost a brilliant mind and a potential future leader.
“I’m devastated. She’s another victim of the carnage on Cambodia’s highways,” he said. “Cambodia can’t afford to lose young people of that calibre.”