Nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population (over 14 million people) now live in urban areas. The country’s economic growth and increasing urbanization bring benefits for people who migrate to the towns and cities, including easier access to services and health care. However, in Phnom Penh, residents face increasing danger from the overcrowded streets and surfeit of cars and bikes. Problems on the capital’s streets have been exacerbated by the influx of migrants who have little understanding of road safety and traffic laws. On average, the capital now sees 4.7 people dying from traffic accidents every day.
In a report released last month by the Cambodian government, in conjunction with the non-governmental organisation Handicap International, it was revealed that the number of accidents in Phnom Penh has risen over 200 per cent in the last five years, with fatalities reaching over 1,700 in 2009. Children in particular are at increasing risk, with road accidents now the most common cause of injury-related mortality among young people aged between 5-14 years.
In 2009, over double the number of cars were registered in Cambodia compared to five years earlier, with 1.4 million vehicles on the road. Speeding in particular is becoming a huge problem, particularly in outlying areas of the city. But in the main, it isn’t the wealthier citizens in cars who are being affected. As the recent report points out, it is mostly the poor who are vulnerable to the increasing trend of traffic-related deaths. Around 90 per cent of accident victims are motorbike riders, cyclists or pedestrians.
Those killed in accidents peak in the 20-29 age group and are often young men. The loss of a male breadwinner can tip a family into poverty. Even where accidents do not cause fatalities, the costs of medical care and the loss of income can cause extreme hardship, since most poor families have no savings to provide a safety net. When Cheng Heng was injured on his motorbike, the 31-year old factory employee was out of work for nearly a month, causing a loss in earnings of 250 dollars. With a family of 10 to support, this gap in his wages pushed him into debt. Mr Cheng anticipated it would take him at least three months to repay his loans.
Over the coming decade, the Cambodian government hopes to reduce the number of road fatalities by better enforcement of traffic laws. Since 2006, motorcycle drivers (though not passengers) have been required to wear helmets, but many avoid wearing them at night or where they feel traffic police are unlikely to catch them. But any change in habits which would reduce the number of injuries and fatalities may not come quickly. As one expert concedes, “it takes a generation to change peoples’ perceptions”.