One night in early January, three teens on a motorbike were speeding northbound on Monivong Boulevard when they fast approached an impromptu police checkpoint.
Part of a new government effort to crack down on speeding and drunk driving, the checkpoint had gone up only hours earlier – an attempt to catch lawbreakers by surprise.
Instead, said Steven Iddings, a road safety expert who was on the scene with the World Health Organisation in Cambodia, the teen gunned it – forcing the officer to yank back the barrier at the last moment. He allowed the bike to zoom through, averting what would almost certainly have been a calamitous accident.
“My thought was that the police displayed incredible discipline,” said Iddings, a team leader for the Road Safety in 10 Countries Project, which, with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, aims to reduce fatalities and injuries. “A strong and natural reaction would be to try to stop them, to let them strike the barrier, but the priority for safety was very clear in their training.”
The story is telling. Slightly more than 50 per cent of road fatalities are caused by speeding. But even when the most highly trained police are incapable of slowing motorists, can a sea change ever be expected?
The powers that be A popular and oft-bemoaned explanation for road accidents is that they occur because of some unforeseen force that wrests control of a situation from the driver’s hands. It is an explanation not entirely without merit. These forces, however, are not spiritual or otherworldly, but all too human and, experts say, plentiful.
Setting out to solve one problem reveals another, and so forth and so on, like unwrapping a box to find another wrapped box inside. Take speeding. It’s often caused by drunk driving. But drunk driving happens late at night, which is also the time when fewer people wear helmets. But catching them is difficult, because fewer traffic police are out on the roads to fine motorists for not wearing helmets after a certain hour. Why? Because there is a lack of resources for overtime pay.
The situation does not improve with the daytime shifts, when, motivated by low pay, cops often ask for bribes instead of fining.
Ear Chariya, road safety program manager for Handicap International, said people do not respect the traffic laws, “because they think that if they provide some money to the police, they can violate the traffic law, they can just drive without helmets or drive without seatbelts, and they can just provide a little bit of money to the police and drive on the road.”
Though studies show that an estimated five people die every day throughout the country in road accidents, no one has been able to name the precise antidote for the poisonous trend. From 2005 to 2011, the number of fatalities doubled, according to Cambodia’s Road Crash and Victim Information System. At the same time, though, the population increased, as did the number of registered vehicles.
But a recent spate of grisly and headline-catching crashes, including one in which celebrities were victims, may provide a rare window for change.
Two crashes that occurred within a week of each other have angered the public, enraged human rights activists and provided an opportunity for advocates of a new traffic law to remind the government of its timeliness.
On March 1, police said medical student Keam Piseth Marita drove her car into a crowd of motorbikes, pedestrians and cyclists on Norodom Boulevard in an attempt to evade police after hitting a motorbike on the same street. Three children were killed and six injured.
A week later, on March 7, seven people died along National Road 4 in Preah Sihanouk province. Responders were attending to the first accident involving a toppled truck container when an Ankgor Beer truck slammed into the rescue crew. Among the dead were Chi Vireak, 19, son of famous Cambodian comedian Chuong Chi, also known as Neay Koy, and Each Vannak, 19, son of comedienne Noy Samnang. Popular singer Khemarak Sereymon was also injured.
The deaths have resounded to the very top. Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech at the National Institute of Education yesterday that he shared condolences with the families who lost their loved ones on Norodom Boulevard and National Road 4, and he requested that everyone focus on making yesterday and today accident-free.
He said it was “terrible” to hear about an accident in which children died, but he also offered words for the family of the alleged perpetrators, decrying the end of what looked like a bright future.
Marita was charged with intentional driving causing death and serious injury, which can mean up to three years in jail.
Turning his attention to the Preah Sihanouk tragedy, the prime minister suggested that officials look into traffic accident cases involving container trucks, and create a monitoring system to ensure that the trucks are travelling with their loads securely fastened.
“The more the country develops, the more people die,” he said. “You also have to work more with transport companies to ask container trucks to put signs behind their vehicles or on front to make them more visible.”
Officials scrambled yesterday to act on Hun Sen’s suggestion.
Him Yan, director of public order at the Ministry of Interior, said that relevant ministries will hold a meeting today with transport companies and passenger companies about road safety.
“This is also to follow the order of the prime minister, because there have been problems in previous week with big vehicles,” he said. “Those traffic accidents are a tragedy for us. This is caused by speeding, drunk driving and not respecting each other when driving.”
Advocates are hoping that an updated traffic law – which includes mandatory helmet use for passengers on bikes, increased fines, and more attention paid to texting while driving – will go into effect this year.
In the midst of all the hope for change, however, Cambodia’s road system continues to be a dangerous place.
Yan said that from November to March of this year, there were 1,163 traffic accidents, an increase of 41 cases from the same period a year ago.
The problem was evident in the middle of the day yesterday at an intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk Boulevard, where a traffic cop stood idly by as 10 people driving motorbikes without helmets passed by in a span of 15 minutes.
Each time he saw this happening, he would point to the person’s head – an implicit warning. But he had another warning for those breaking the law. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said that even if motorists fly by police, the perils of the road could catch up with them.