Cambodia: more deaths on the roads than in minefields

Published: 20 September 2007 0:00 CET

Kanyasorn Tansubhapol, Regional Information Officer in Sihanoukville, Cambodia

In Cambodia, more people are killed by not wearing crash helmets than by unexploded remnants of war. Thanks to demining and education programmes, the numbers being killed by the millions of mines that still lie buried in the country has been reduced to about one a day. However, the increasingly busy roads claim four lives a day – three of them motorcyclists without helmets.

Sihanoukville resident Sok Heang is one of the hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists that the Cambodian Red Cross Society, the government, the Global Road Safety Partnership and Handicap International are trying to reach through information and education campaigns.

Having spent four years saving the US$ 300 she needed to buy her first motorbike Heang never wears a helmet. “I need to save another US$ 15 for a good quality one,” she says.

Pea Kimvong, 29, however, thinks differently. He decided to buy a helmet soon after having purchased a motorbike three years ago. “I always wear a helmet because I often ride to the countryside to visit my mother.

Her house is about 100 kilometres away from Phnom Penh,” he explains.

“I’m concerned for my own safety because I drive fast when out of town.”

Promotion of helmet wearing was one of the key issues debated at the recent Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP)’s workshop held in Cambodia recently. The meeting attracted 60 participants from government, private and non-government organisations dealing with transport, public health, education, and road safety.

Jean-Francois Michel, of Handicap International Belgium (HIB) noted that helmet wearing – and road safety in general - is only now becoming a central focus of the Cambodian Government. Up until recently, landmines were the priority.

But casualties from landmines, he continued, have declined in recent years. “This is significant, and this is why the government has now set a deadline to focus on landmine reduction by 2015 and shift their priority to other issues such as road safety,” he said.

A recent study by the National Road Safety Centre (NRSC) and HIB shows that Cambodia has faced a 20-per cent increase of road traffic and 46 per cent increase in motorbikes between 2001 and 2006.

Some 70 per cent of road traffic casualties in the country are motorcyclists and 95 per cent of head injury casualties and fatalities do not wear helmets. About 40 per cent of these are youth aged 15-24.

Cambodia Red Cross Youth runs a traffic programme at ten pedestrian crossings in downtown Phnom Penh from 7-10 each Sunday morning.

“There’s an increase in helmet usage and the number of traffic signs known by students and motorcyclists. They are more aware, but traffic law remains rather complicated for them,” said Hul Kolap, the Red Cross human resource deputy director.

In 2004, government agencies and NGOs dealing with road safety issues joined forces to focus advocacy programmes and campaigns in schools to promote public awareness and education on helmet wearing. The NRSC was established in June 2005 and the new Land Traffic Law was ratified by the National Assembly in December 2006, which includes regulations on helmet wearing which come into effect this December.

“With action plans, motorcyclists will certainly opt for helmet wearing, but first we need to educate them, not just to give them a helmet,” says Chom Iek, deputy secretary of state for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

GRSP helmet action plan activities have been going on for two years now. The past four workshops clearly show that each country in the region differs in implementing helmet use.

“Thailand, for example, has the largest implementation but must focus more on law enforcement. Laos still lacks resources, despite an improved system whereas Vietnam has the highest number of motorcyclists, but still lacks strong actions on helmet usage,” said Robert Klein, the GRSP regional programme director in Asia.

“However, there is an increased level of efforts in jurisdiction, voluntary compliance and education promotion. We need better plans for greater cooperation and initiatives,” he said.

The helmet action plan workshop is based on the WHO produced: “Helmets: A Road Safety Manual for Decision-makers and Practitioners”. This manual is a result of the UN Road Safety Collaboration, chaired by WHO with GRSP, the FIA Foundation for the Automobile and Society and the World Bank.