Traffic accidents persist on Cambodian roads, driven by factors like non-compliance with traffic laws and driving under the influence, officials said. And despite a reported reduction in road fatalities to 1,148 in the first eight months of 2023, a 14 per cent decrease over the same period last year, the issue remains concerning, impacting both families and society at large.

In light of this statistic, a survivor of a traffic accident shares his hope that all drivers will exercise caution. His reflection on his personal experience, being permanently paralysed due to a collision, underscores the importance of increased awareness and careful driving on the Kingdom’s roads.

Meang Sopheak, 37, opens up to The Post about his life in Thmor Poun commune’s Thmor Poun village in Kampong Cham province’s Prey Chhor district. His family is sustained by his wife’s dedication to selling vegetables, and together, they raise three young children.

He shares the story of the accident that occurred while he was working at a rubber factory in Ponhea Krek district of neighbouring Tbong Khmum province. Despite the substantial distance between the factory and his home, he made a point to return home every night to be with his wife and children. Unfortunately, at around 7 pm, while riding his motorcycle alone, two trucks chased each other, weaving erratically across the road. In an attempt to evade these trucks, he wound up colliding with a truck parked on the roadside.

“Immediately after the collision, I stayed seated without losing consciousness, but about 90 per cent of my body was numb. In that moment, I only knew I was sitting, unable to recognise anyone or anything else before passing out. When I later woke up, I found myself in the hospital,” he recalls.

Sopheak shares that he was first taken by his relatives to hospital in nearby Suong, Tbong Khmum provincial town, but was refused admission. Then he was transported to Kampong Cham Provincial Referral Hospital, where he temporarily regained consciousness. However, the hospital declided to provide treatment, explaining that the severity of his injuries posed a potential threat to his life. The medics there recommended transferring him to Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh.

Life-altering consequences

When arriving at Calmette Hospital, Sopheak lost consciousness again. Doctors initially believed he was dead and advised his family to take him home for a funeral. 

But, he recalls, while his family was moving him on a stretcher to the ambulance, he regained consciousness. Doctors quickly took him to the operating room and started surgery on his hip bone, which had fractured in two places. His right leg was also severed from the hip down, and he lost his genitals. To manage bodily functions, doctors created an opening near his navel, a situation that persists until now.

Having experienced the life-altering consequences of a traffic accident himself, Sopheak urges drivers to be courteous and avoid dangerous overtaking when vehicles move at high speeds. Overtaking can limit motorcyclists’ escape options, so he advises staying within designated lanes and avoiding excessive speed. He says that in cases of accidents leading to disability, the greatest burden falls on family members.

Soeng Chamroeun, a truck driver, shares with The Post that, in his experience covering multiple provinces, road accidents are a common sight in the capital and across the country. These incidents often involve clashes between cars and motorcycles attempting risky overtakes, especially on curved roads.

He notes an issue with tuk-tuks and other three wheelers, saying that some drivers lack respect for others on the road. They overtake without signalling, drift across lanes and signal left but turn in the opposite direction. Drawing from his own experiences and attendance at traffic law classes, he says that he remains consistently cautious while driving.

“With my understanding of traffic laws, I drive my truck safely, avoiding overtaking on risky roads. I know these manoeuvres don’t just jeopardise me but also create issues for fellow road users,” he says.

In this situation, he suggests that drivers, whether in cars or on motorcycles, adopt a culture of mutual tolerance by avoiding overtaking and excessive speeding. Cultivating this attitude could markedly reduce traffic accidents, potentially safeguarding personal property and saving lives.

Call for continued vigilance

Kim Pagna, country director of the Asia Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation, says that fair, transparent and correct enforcement of traffic laws by the police encourages respect among road users. This, in turn, has the potential to decrease casualties.

He notes that the death toll from traffic accidents has decreased, although there are occasional days with two to three fatalities. This marks a notable contrast to the past, when he witnessed daily death tolls ranging between six to 10 people.

“I believe this is a result of rigorous law enforcement, coupled with other initiatives. I encourage both governmental and non-governmental institutions, especially our traffic police officers, to further improve the implementation of the law,” he says.

Pagna says that more than 50 per cent of traffic accidents occur at night, often due to reduced enforcement of traffic laws during those hours. 

He says that challenges faced by traffic police officers, such as rest periods or difficulties setting target directions at night, may also contribute to this pattern. 

While there have been positive changes, such as increased helmet usage in Phnom Penh, challenges persist, especially in provinces where primary school students often neglect helmet use, exposing them to risks while commuting to school. Pagna stresses the need for specific legislation addressing cases where children do not wear helmets.

“I’ve noticed a positive change in driver behaviour with fewer cases of alcohol influence, based on reports from health institutions. There’s also an increased awareness of the dangers associated with speeding,” he says.

He also notes a disregard for traffic lights, especially delivery drivers who are eager to move swiftly, creating a significant challenge. Both cars and motorcycles show a lack of adherence to traffic laws at night, underscoring the need for reinforced respect and law enforcement.

Pagna says he has seen a concerning trend among individuals aged 15 to 29, who are at risk due to a lack of understanding of traffic laws. He notes that the AIP has a pilot programme scheduled for February 2024 to train core group of instructors for teaching motorcycle techniques to high school students and workers nationwide.

Grim impact numbers

Boran Satya, deputy chief of the road safety department, tells The Post that data from the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Traffic Police and Public Order reveals 2,427 traffic accidents recorded from January to August 2023. These incidents led to 1,148 fatalities and 3,269 injuries, 2,033 of them serious.

In comparison to the same eight months of 2022, the number of accidents increased by 79, but fatalities decreased by 167, or 14 per cent, serious injuries decreased by 2 per cent and minor injuries down by 1 per cent.

Satya attributed the incidents to factors such as speeding, failure to yield and reckless driving.

Looking ahead, he points to the National Road Safety Committee’s (NRSC) recent unveiling of a 10-year plan, presenting a roadmap to address the challenge of accidents, even as the most recent months have seen a decline in their numbers. This issue continues to be a priority for the government.

“Our primary goal is to reduce road deaths and injuries by at least 50 per cent by 2030,” he says.

Satya outlines six pillars for preventing traffic accident-related casualties. The first focuses on traffic safety management, while the second emphasises the enforcement of traffic laws. The third pillar involves education and training, including law dissemination in schools and accident-prone areas. The fourth centres on road safety, ensuring roads that have been constructed are safe for travel. The fifth addresses efficient rescue operations in case of emergencies while the sixth pillar underscores vehicle safety through enhanced technical inspections.