Traffic accidents take humanitarian toll

Cheng Heng’s wound was minor, but the impact on his family severe. The 31-year-old garment factory worker was riding his motorbike to work, when he collided with a bicycle 30km west of the capital, Phnom Penh.

His broken clavicle required surgery, costing US$250, leaving him out of work for almost a month and forcing him into debt.

As the primary breadwinner for his family of 10, contributing half the total income of $300 a month, it will take at least three months to pay off his debts.

Cheng hopes they will manage by working at nearby factories. “I didn't get any help either from NGOs or my factory,” he said.

Traffic crash “crisis”

In Cambodia, economic growth and urbanization have prompted people to migrate to the crowded capital, where a surfeit of automobiles, lax enforcement of traffic laws, and scant understanding of road safety take their toll. On average, 4.7 people die in accidents each day, according to a report by the Cambodian government and Handicap International Belgium, an NGO in Phnom Penh.

Over the past five years, the number of accidents increased by more than 200 percent, and the number of fatalities nearly doubled to 1,717 last year.

“We’re seeing more road crashes in outskirt areas, where there’s more speeding,” Socheata Sann, road safety programme manager at Handicap International Belgium, said.

The numbers are part of a troubling trend in Southeast Asia countries. In Vietnam, more than 11,000 people die in traffic accidents each year, 2,100 died in Myanmar last year.

In 2009, 1.4 million motor vehicles were registered in Cambodia, more than double the half million registered five years earlier.

Traffic accidents tend to affect vulnerable Cambodians, many of whom are poor. About 90 percent of crash victims ride vehicles motorbikes and bicycles, or are pedestrians, according to the report.

Last year, road accidents cost Cambodia $248 million, according to a study by Handicap International Belgium and Hasselt University in Belgium, against $116 million in 2003.

Men who are family breadwinners are often injured or killed, taking a toll on families and communities. About 80 percent of accident casualties are in the “economically active” portion of the population, and the peak age group is 20-29 years old, states a government report.

Families “can be tipped into poverty by costs of medical care, the loss of the family breadwinner’s income, funeral costs”, and can suffer social and psychological problems, Ryan Duly, Mekong regional programme manager at the Global Road Safety Partnership, a Geneva-based network of road safety groups, told IRIN from Bangkok.

“It is often the poorest households that are most affected as they do not have a safety net to absorb this loss of income,” he said.

Children also face high risks; in the 5-14 age group, road accidents are the most common cause of injury-related mortality and morbidity.

Cutting accident rate

In the next 10 years, the Cambodian government hopes to reduce the number of road fatalities by 30 percent to 2,240 deaths from the 3,200 deaths that authorities predict.

The government passed a law in 2006 requiring motorcycle drivers to wear helmets. No legislation, however, requires passengers to wear helmets. Inconsistent enforcement also hampered the law’s effectiveness, Sann told IRIN.

When police began enforcing the law in early 2009, about 90 percent of drivers in Phnom Penh wore helmets, whereas around 12 percent of passengers did so, according to Handicap. Fewer than half of drivers wore helmets at night, when they were not as visible and police officers less likely to be present.

Malaysian model

Some specialists say Cambodian officials should look to Malaysia for its traffic safety model, which combines tough enforcement, education and transport planning.

That country used to have a “serious problem” with motorcycles, Law Teik Hua, a civil engineering lecturer at the Putra University Malaysia in Selangor, Malaysia, told IRIN in Phnom Penh.

In the past three decades, the country has reduced traffic fatalities by about 30 percent, although the number of fatalities last year nudged up by 3.3 percent from 2008.

But he concedes changes in Cambodia, like in any country, will be difficult. “It takes a generation to change peoples’ perceptions.”

According to the World Health Organization, about 1.3 million people die in road accidents each year. More than 90 percent of those deaths are in low- and middle-income countries, taking a particularly high toll on the young and poor.