Road traffic in Phnom Penh is a bit like a slow boat ride through a haunted tunnel. Most of the time you know that nothing exciting is going to happen because most drivers don’t speed. There’s hardly any room for speeding due to bad road condition, combined with swarms of motorbikes encroaching on narrow lanes, making it impossible to breeze through traffic at more than 60kmph.
At the same time, your heart can’t help but skip a beat or two whenever a motorbike seems to appear out of nowhere and often at high speed. It’s a time when you feel that something could go wrong and it’s beyond your control.
Yes, car drivers hardly speed but some motorbike riders do and they don’t stop at that. Very much like our very own Mat Rempits, these riders try hard to terrorise other road users by weaving along traffic without any concern for their safety or others. The scariest part of all, they often don’t wear helmets.
On 3 January this year, police began enforcement of helmet law in Cambodia. It came at a time when fatal road accidents involving motorcyclists are on a rise due to increasing number of vehicle users with extremely low driving skills and even lower respect for traffic laws.
When you take a tour of the city, it’s easy to sight images such as the one shown below. This picture, taken by Dr. Sok Long, Director of the Health Development Department of the Cambodian Red Cross, is called Motorbus for the obvious reason that a lot of motorbikes are often used to transport a whole family. Sometimes, I cringe when I see a baby cradled between the driver and passenger(s) on a motorbike. Very often, I also see young toddlers being held carelessly by the waist while balancing precariously on two feet. Such images are the ones that make the horror tunnel ride heart-gripping and nerve-wrecking.
It has been 5 months since the start of the helmet law but the way I see it, the law is getting nowhere as I see more motorcyclists without than with helmets on their heads. Many people complain and justify that they can’t afford the helmets, which cost around USD1 each. But how do you explain many motorcyclists who ride around with helmets, not on their heads, but dangling around their shoulders like handbags? Perhaps, the scorching heat is preventing them from wearing them, or perhaps the helmet causes too much discomfort particularly on their vision? Most importantly, perhaps law enforcement officers are just not doing their jobs?
I think the answer lies on the high level of corruption within the law enforcement authorities. What boggles the mind though is how many Cambodians are willing to pay a bribe to escape penalty than buying a helmet.
I often wonder why Cambodians are not able to understand the importance of road safety. Does it not matter to them that lives are being compromised here? When I suggested to my husband, who is assisting the Cambodian Red Cross in its road safety campaign, that public exhibitions of graphic pictures of road fatalities are effective methods to shock and scare people into submission, he thought it might be too traumatizing for people who have lived a violent past. Then, someone who has lived in Cambodia for a long time told me that those pictures will do nothing to change the mindset of the people here. Apparently, they are used to violence and death here.
I remember when I was in primary school, we were forced to attend a road safety exhibition in school. Until today, I am not able to shake off the images of disfigured faces, crushed skulls and severed limps from my mind. Yes, it was traumatizing and perhaps not the best method for a child to witness such graphic images, but I honestly thought that the exhibition has left such a huge impact on my classmates and I that we are very careful when it comes to road safety.
Whether this would have provided the same impact on Cambodians or not, the more pressing issue is for the government to make a conscious effort to study the factors which are preventing the people from observing road safety regulations. As a start, there is a need to find out how to get the people to understand that these are not just rules, but something which is created for their own safety and the protection of their lives and the lives of their families.
I also think that economic conditions play a huge role in deterring people from obsessing about their safety on the road. Not many people can afford to buy a car here and hence, have to rely on a motorbike to transport their whole family. Cambodians are practical people. If the only way for a whole family to get from one point to another is by motorbike, then so be it. As such, I think the government needs to take this into consideration and starts to think of ways to provide safe and affordable public transportation. There are not many buses in the city. Some do resort to tuks-tuks but the same problem presented itself when eight to ten people pile into one.
Road accidents is one of the biggest killer today. If Cambodia wants to develop, it needs to think about the high rate of people that are being killed in the country every single day and this includes their future generation.