Traffic in Phnom Penh may look like an accident waiting to happen, but step outside the law and it will cost you a lot of time and money.
Anyone who has been on Cambodian streets on two, three or four wheels knows it's a free-for-all affair. There are city ordinances that seem only to be enforced when the boys in blue are near enough to evaluate the worth of stopping a violator. And like it or not, the foreigner is viewed through lenses embossed with a dollar sign and he/she will often be stopped for what seems to be the most mundane of reasons.
Just the other week my wife was stopped car for having "a dirty vehicle". Technically there is no law against having a dirty vehicle, as you can probably gather from some trucks that are so covered in provincial red dirt or general grime that it is impossible to identify the original colour. Needless to say she handed over the demanded $5 fine, largely because our daughter was in the vehicle and it wasn't worth fighting it out in the midday heat.
En passant so to speak. Drivers who are stopped by the police and want to persuade them to obey Cambodian law, point out that no traffic fine for a car or pickup truck can exceed 10,000 riel, which is about $2.50. As for motorcycles, it is a manageable 5,000 riel for major violations and 2,000 riel for crimes such as running a red light. If more than those sums are demanded, it's up to you to argue or pay up.
Despite the current chaos and horror stories, though, there are traffic laws here. A full set of rules was passed by parliament in December 2006 and they are very slowly being enforced.
Strangely for Cambodia, unnecessary noise is included in the ordinances as the use of your horn is allowed only at daytime in order to inform road users of a traffic accident.
Vehicles 49cc and up need proof of a licenced driver, registration and inspection. There are five licence grades: A1 for motorcycles 49cc-125cc, A2 for motorcycles over 125cc and vehicles with trailers, B for vehicles transporting less than 10 passengers, hauling goods less than 3.5 tons and/or towing less than .75 tons. B licence holders can also drive the same vehicles as A1 holders but not the same as A2 holders. Nobody can answer, however, how to get a licence that allows you to drive cars and big bikes.
Motorcycles must have rear-view mirrors and drivers must wear a safety helmet.
When a traffic light is yellow it is a sign to prepare to stop or go forward. Driving is prohibited if the driver has from .5mg of alcohol per litre of gas or from .25mg per litre of blood. Hence, the reason to drive a big SUV? Maximum speeds for vehicles in town are 30kph for all motorcycles and tricycles, 40kph for all cars. Outside town the top speed for all vehicles is 90kph. On motorways (national roads), in town the max is 60kph, 100kph out of town.
If you open a car door and cause an accident, you are to blame and all traffic accidents are "under the competency of the traffic police". After an accident, everyone involved must stop and report it to the traffic police.
If there are no injuries, the parties involved can settle or ask for intervention from the police. If there are injuries or deaths you must help get the victims to a nearby hospital, not tamper with evidence and wait until the police arrive. Police officers are authorised to impound your vehicle as well as impose fines or confiscate your licence for petty offences. If you find yourself in such a situation, stay calm and resign yourself to the fact it will take time to resolve. Bringing in copies of the legal code, along with as many people as you can muster, to the police station will help. Cash is, of course, faster.