Cambodia’s traffic fatality rate is double the Southeast Asian average and as more vehicles squeeze onto the kingdom’s roads, deaths are expected to soar still further, experts say.
Large numbers of motorcycles jostling with creaking agricultural vehicles, cars smuggled from Thailand with steering wheels on the "wrong side", and huge trucks on a rapidly developing road system are proving a deadly combination.
"In Cambodia you still have this tremendous mix of old, dilapidated, slow and agricultural vehicles. It means you have this tremendous variation in speed," Laos-based regional road safety consultant Mike Goodge told AFP.
The common practice of overloading vehicles and even motorcycles — often with whole families of five clinging on — is another danger, along with the sheer volume of goods and animals transported.
"The slightest thing goes wrong and there’s no safety margin," Goodge said.
Road fatalities over the past three years have more than doubled to 824 in 2003, costing Cambodia’s war-ruined economy 116 million dollars, or 3.2 percent of gross domestic product — the region’s highest rate.
"The road network has improved a lot in the past three years, allowing speed increases, but people are not trained to drive on these roads so accidents are increasing," said Jean Van Wetter from Handicap International, which works on the issue with the Cambodian government.
With an estimated 23 deaths per 10,000 registered vehicles, Cambodia’s fatality rate is double the regional average and second only to military-ruled Myanmar, according to Asia Development Bank figures.
And Cambodia is at the bottom of its so-called motorisation curve, meaning its fatality rate is expected to get far worse before it gets better, said Wetter.
The concept of road safety is foreign to most Cambodians, who can easily purchase licenses, face no enforcement of road rules or pay inconsequential bribes or fines if they do, and rarely wear helmets on motorbikes.
"Road safety in Cambodia is a new issue and everything still has to be done," said Van Wetter, who acknowledges that Cambodia is largely focusing on rebuilding after decades of violent conflict that ended only six years ago.
"Road safety is considered by many as a side issue… as with everything in Cambodia, there’s a lack of funding, and there are other priorities," he said, while adding that politicians had begun to pay attention to the crisis.
A road safety action plan developed with the ADB is now awaiting implementation — but it first has to be ratified by the national assembly, which has not sat for more than a year as political parties wrangle over forming a government after inconclusive elections last July.
"We were late and we were not strong enough in campaigning on this big issue," Phnom Penh vice governor Trac Thai Sieng told AFP.
"Traffic is becoming a big issue and we will use the Cambodian way (to deal with it) which has already been successful in dealing with HIV/AIDS and demining," he said, referring to major campaigns on these other deadly issues.
Efforts so far have focused on helmets. A three-month television campaign launched in April this year has already tripled sales of the life-saving device according to vendor surveys, Wetter said.
Hong Kong action hero Jackie Chan, who is immensely popular in the kingdom, is set to play a starring role in a billboard and television campaign from September aimed at young men, who make up the vast majority of casualties.
The UN’s World Health Organisation, which forecasts that road injuries will be the number-three contributor to global disease and injury by 2020, up from a current number nine, is urging action.
"Cambodia, if it doesn’t act now, will be way up there in 2020 as one of the countries that has a major problem," program officer Pamela Messervy told AFP.
"Cambodia has a lot of health issues and it’s been quite good at identifying priorities… but I think it’s time now that they tackle the issue."