The number of deaths on Cambodia's roads is at its highest level yet, having nearly doubled in four years. Yet efforts to improve road safety seem unlikely to lower the death toll.
Motorbike drivers have to wear helmets but passengers do not
Five years ago, around 900 people died on Cambodia's roads annually. By 2009, that number had risen to more than 1,700.
Last year, more than 300,000 vehicles were registered in Cambodia, compared with just 38,000 vehicles in 2004. Most are motorbikes, and they provide none of the protection of a car.
Cyclos are becoming a rarity on the roads of Cambodia
So it is hardly surprising that the number of road deaths has increased. Road safety campaigners fear that if nothing is done, the problem will get much worse.
Some way to go yet
In January 2009, a law making it compulsory for motorbike drivers to wear crash helmets was introduced. Until then less than 20 percent had worn helmets. Now the rate has gone up to over 80 percent – those who do not comply with the law can expect to be fined by the traffic police.
The result so far is that the proportion of fatalities from head injuries has dropped from 86 percent of road deaths to 76 percent.
Sann Socheata, the road safety program manager for Handicap International-Belgium, says this is a start but there is still some way to go.
"It's not really a big drop because it is not yet compulsory for motorbike passengers to wear a helmet. So helmet wearing rate among passengers still very, very low at around 10 percent," she says.
Speeding and drink driving are major factors
Data collected by Handicap International from the police and the Cambodian ministry of health show that speeding accounts for around half of all deaths; and drink driving is also a big factor.
Some prefer to simply avoid the dangers of the roads
Preap Chanvibol, who heads the government’s department of land transport, says the data make it clear which areas policymakers should focus on: "Speed limit, drink driving and helmet wearing. More than 70 percent of motorcycle fatalities are due to head injuries."
Part of the problem is that Cambodia's roads, which for decades were dreadful due to war and neglect, have improved markedly in recent years.
A decade ago, most roads were so pot-holed and rutted that a driver would be lucky to average 20 kilometers an hour. Today, drivers can travel across the country at speeds in excess of 140 kilometers an hour.
Most dangerous roads in ASEAN bloc
Preap Chanvibol says Cambodia now has the unenviable distinction of having the most dangerous roads in the ASEAN regional bloc with more than 12 fatalities per 10,000 vehicles.
However, some improvements are on their way. Next year the government will compel motorbike passengers to also wear helmets and there are also moves to increase fines.
But even with these measures, as well as ongoing education campaigns in schools, Sann Socheata and other activists still expect that an average 2,240 people will be dying on the roads every year by 2020.
Their aim is simply to slow the rate of increase. On Cambodia's dangerous roads, you have to take your victories where you can get them.
Author: Robert Carmichael
Editor: Anne Thomas