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A matter of life and death

A matter of life and death

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A truck involved in an accident in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district earlier in 2012. Photograph: Meng Kimlong/Phnom Penh Post

Last month, a sand truck swerved to avoid a car and crashed into wedding tent erected beside National Road 1. More than 20 wedding participants were seriously injured. Who should be held responsible? The wedding party? A court has yet to address this issue.

In the past, people always complained that traffic accidents were caused by bad roads. Now the roads are better, but the accident rate is still climbing.

This year, road accidents in Cambodia have caused nearly 2,000 deaths and more than 4,000 serious injuries.

Fatalities in road crashes outnumber deaths from HIV and AIDS.

The number of deaths in traffic accidents is also 10 times higher than those caused by land mines and unexploded ordnance.

Fighting on the border of Thailand left 10 Cambodian soldiers dead, causing serious concern and sparking a strong reaction by the Royal Government. Yet the carnage on our roads seems to be accepted as inevitable.

Handicap International calculates that in 2011, traffic accidents cost the nation $310 million. This year, the figure will be higher.

If a road-accident victim dies or becomes permanently handicapped, the loss is even greater when the impact on their livelihood, and that of their family, is taken into account.

This leads to increased poverty, which in turn imposes a bigger burden on the government.

Another factor is the loss of our human resources.

The increased risk of road accidents affects the number of people that could potentially become our leaders of tomorrow.

Last May, Kratie provincial governor Kham Poeun died in a traffic accident. He had worked hard to reach that position, only to be killed in a crash.

During the Khmer Rouge regime, innocent Cambodian families were slaughtered. Today, why do innocent families continue to lose their lives in traffic accidents that can be prevented?

The consequences of this, the human and financial costs, are obvious, so why do so few drivers care about them?

Air passengers automatically buckle their seat belts without needing to be reminded. They take their lives seriously and secure themselves from departure until landing.

Aircraft accidents are very rare, with a one-in-eight-million chance of crashing. Yet air travellers are much more careful than when they travel in cars or buses, which have a much higher accident rate.

Many bus drivers seem not care about their passengers’ lives or the lives of those around them in other vehicles. When a bus crash occurs, the driver often flees the scene, leaving the bus company to deal with the aftermath.

Some truck drivers look too young, and I often see them consuming alcohol while they wait for passengers or goods to be loaded on their vehicles.

Do we know whether they are good drivers or whether they even have official driver’s licences?

Truck drivers often seem to drive very aggressively and carelessly, despite having many passengers aboard. Many trucks are also old and in poor condition, which also must affect the safety of passengers.

Crashes involving local and foreign tourist buses cost insurance companies a lot of money, leading to some insurers refusing to cover bus companies because of their poor driving record.

Traffic problems also have an impact on tourism and investment. As publicity about deaths and serious injuries increases, more and more foreign tourists and businesspeople will shy away from taking to the road in Cambodia.  

Preventable deaths on Cambodia’s roads are becoming more and more like hidden murders.

Last year, the relevant ministries agreed to increase fivefold the fine for motorbike riders and passengers who don’t wear helmets. But the draft amendment has not yet been approved by the Council of Ministers. Why is it taking so long?

The government should also increase fivefold the jail sentence for drivers who are found to have caused injury and death to others on the road through carelessness and negligence. This sentence should be in addition to compensation for the accident damage.

Police cite speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol as the main causes of road accidents, but there are a few other contributing factors.

Many vendors sell goods or food on the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to walk on the street.

Similarly, many drivers park on the sidewalk or on the street, sometimes four cars deep. This causes accidents when pedestrians have to walk in the street and when drivers are forced to drive in the opposite lane because there’s no more space on the road.

Many houses are built right up to the street, leaving no sidewalk, and people are taking up half the street for events such as weddings, birthday parties or traditional ceremonies. No article of the traffic law allows them to do this.

The Royal Government must prioritise the issue of road safety. It should begin by analysing the root of the problem and setting up camera systems on streets and national roads to catch people who break the law.

The state should buy modern patrol cars so the police can arrest speeding or drunk drivers rather than paying a vast amount for more than 200 military tanks.

Otherwise, the health ministry’s aim of reducing the proportion of deaths caused by road  accidents to 2.8 per cent by 2015 will be in vain. 



Tong Soprach is a social-affairs columnist for the Post’s Khmer edition. 


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