Saturday, September 13, 2008

CAMBODIA: Traffic deaths soar on rapid urbanisation


Photo: Geoffrey Cain/IRIN
During rush hour, cars and motorbikes cram the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh

PHNOM PENH, 8 September 2008 (IRIN) - Rapid development and booming urbanisation have led to a doubling in traffic fatalities in the past five years, to 4.2 deaths per day in 2007, according to a government report.

(See also: THAILAND: Medical emergency teams thwarted by dense Bangkok traffic)

That number spiked even higher to 4.8 fatalities per day in the first two months of 2008.

Among countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodia has one of the highest rates of traffic-related deaths - the second-biggest killer after HIV/AIDS.

Traffic accidents claimed 1,545 lives in 2007, compared with about 6,900 AIDS-related deaths the same year, according to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics.

The country has enjoyed an average growth rate of 11 percent since 2005, according to the World Bank, encouraging a surge in migration to the capital, Phnom Penh. However, rural residents have little knowledge of road safety.

“Phnom Penh now has high traffic diversity, meaning there are more pedestrians, cars, motorbikes, trucks, cars, you name it, on the street,” Ryan Duly, road safety adviser for Handicap International Belgium, an NGO that educates the public and police on road safety, said. “It makes the streets much more dangerous.”

Most deadly accidents occur when motorbikes and trucks collide.

According to the report, farmers and labourers account for nearly half of all traffic fatalities.

“Most of the people affected are younger, economically active people who need to drive for work,” Duly said.

The Ministry of Transport and Public Works could not be reached for comment.

Transport development


Photo: Geoffrey Cain/IRIN
The Cambodian government has been upgrading many of its overcrowded roads
Cambodia's construction boom has not completely outpaced the capacity of its roads. Some aid organisations, such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), have been funding much-needed upgrades of road networks.

But even better roads create other problems, Duly contends. “Now people have wider, paved roads right outside the city, and they go even faster,” he told IRIN. “Speeding accounts for half of all fatalities.”

About three-quarters of traffic victims are injured on paved roads, and 60 percent on wider national and provincial motorways, according to the WHO.

Alleviating the number of fatalities, said Duly, means educating the population about road safety and encouraging police to enforce traffic laws.

Another priority is making sure the Ministry of Public Works and Transport has the capacity to gather and analyse traffic data. Handicap International gave more than 100 GPS detectors and data-gathering tools to the police to improve the mapping of accident trends.

“It's very important they have these tools to look at accidents,” said Sem Panhavuth, who manages road safety data for Handicap International. “So far they haven't been able to analyse much where accidents are happening or where they might occur.”

Lack of enforcement

Cambodian police officers regularly abuse traffic laws in favour of government and business elites, drivers claim.

“Any time there's a motorbike or car accident, the more powerful person gets his way,” said Sok Chesda, a motorbike taxi driver in Phnom Penh. “Usually we don't even call the police, but just leave the scene if a rich person hits us, even if they are at fault.”

When a traffic accident means injury or damage to a vehicle, the two sides negotiate a price and settle on who should pay — usually the party with fewer government connections, a group of taxi drivers said.

Police in Phnom Penh are, nonetheless, minimally involved in traffic enforcement. Instead of enforcing crucial laws against speeding, drunk driving, or wearing helmets, they focus on “easier” regulations like rear-view mirrors and licence plates, Duly said.

“It's good they're enforcing those types of laws too, but we're really urging them to recognise the importance of stopping speeders and drunk drivers.”

However, according to Sok: “If the police stop me for speeding or anything, I'll just give them 2,000 riels [US$0.50] and continue driving,” he said.

gc/ds/mw 

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