Hit-and-runs are incredibly common in Cambodia. One out of every four traffic collisions in the country is a hit-and-run crash. Of those, 50 per cent result in fatalities. The trend is rising.
Because hit-and-run drivers do not stop to help the injured person, or to call for emergency medical services immediately, the probability of severe injuries and even fatalities is increased. There is a widespread belief in Cambodia that onlookers would resort to a form of “citizen justice” if drivers responsible for an injury stop at the collision site.
The fear of mob violence is not unfounded because in the past a number of people who had caused serious road crashes have been injured or even killed by onlookers. On Friday last week, a mob of more than 50 chased down and beat a Japanese driver who attempted to flee multiple crashes in Phnom Penh that seriously injured two motorcyclists and damaged about a dozen vehicles.
Such mob action is based on the belief that authorities will not deliver justice; unfortunately this belief has some foundation. While the current Traffic Law states that drivers who commit a hit-and-run face a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine of 25 million riel ($6,250) if found guilty, sentencing is rare for drivers who flee the scene of a collision.
In September 2014, an Irishman was killed in a hit-and-run collision on Phnom Penh’s roads but the responsible driver, known to be the daughter of a police official, has never been brought to trial. In March 2013, a medical student, who killed three children in a collision while fleeing two earlier hit-and-run crashes, served just three months in jail (one month for each life).
In November 2013, an SUV transporting a senior parliamentarian fled after colliding with a young couple on a motorcycle, killing the pregnant woman and seriously injuring her husband. The victims were given $1,000 as compensation in lieu of prosecution of the case.
While many drivers fear being attacked by angry witnesses in the wake of a crash, it has been observed that only those who attempt to flee the scene are generally at risk of mob violence. Nonetheless, the government needs to start an awareness campaign, educating people that they cannot take the law into their own hands after witnessing a collision, and that failing to stop after being involved in the collision is breaking the law.
However, this will not have public credibility unless the authorities enforce the law consistently and fairly regardless of the wealth and power of the traffic offenders. The penalties imposed on hit-and-run offenders should be severe, and should be applied to all equally, and a legal action against the mob and those who are inciting the mob violence should apply.
Ear Chariya, founding director
The Institute for Road Safety