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Changing the rules of the road


Chhoun Voun and Robyn Seymour discuss newly-installed safety features at a major intersection in Phnom Penh.

Road trauma is now the leading cause of injury and death in Cambodia. The National Road Safety Committee and Australian volunteer Robyn Seymour are looking for ways to make roads safer.

Watching traffic at an intersection in Phnom Penh reminds you of vast shoals of fish trying to funnel into a single stream from all directions. Gleaming Lexus, stuttering tuk-tuks, slender motorcycles nearly toppling beneath the weight of three family members and their shopping, tiny old ladies on bicycles; all moving at different speeds and cross purposes, changing direction on a whim, barely missing each other, defying the odds.

Except they don't, of course. The odds are staggeringly, horrifyingly, against them. In Cambodia you are more likely to die in a road accident than of a disease or landmine injury.

"Our fatalities are around 1905 people each year. Five people are killed per day," says Chhoun Voun, Head of Statistics and Road Safety at the National Road Safety Committee. "Around 4000 have severe injuries each year and about another 5000 have minor injuries."

Road fatalities have increased by 50 per cent in the last seven years. The National Road Safety Committee (NRSC) has the massively complex task of creating a national action plan to reduce fatalities by 50 per cent from the projected number of fatalities by the year 2020, by addressing the key risk factors contributing to the road toll. For the next six months, they will be supported by Australian volunteer Robyn Seymour.

Robyn has well over a decade of experience in road safety policy and project management through VicRoads and RACV. She is in Cambodia under the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, an AusAID initiative. "I've been interested in international volunteering for about 20 years but never thought my skills were right," she says. "But when I became aware of this role, it seemed like a perfect fit so I jumped at the opportunity."

Robyn and the National Road Safety Committee are also supported in their task by the Global Road Safety Partnership, a program of the International Federation of Red Cross.

Mr Voun says: "I would like to thank the Australian Government and Australian Red Cross for sending Robyn to come help us at the right time. She is helping us to produce the annual report, very important for policy makers to understand the road situation in Cambodia."

The level of motorisation in Cambodia has skyrocketed in the last decade. More than 163,000 new motorcycles were registered in 2010 alone. The roads hold more vehicles than ever before. Yet road safety is in its infancy here, with the first traffic laws introduced in 2007. And while road accidents are estimated to have cost the country over $310 million in healthcare, property damage and lost productivity in 2011, the annual budget for road safety programs is just $4.5 million.

The country is making some gains, however. Traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, divided lanes and stop signs are slowly appearing at intersections in Phnom Penh, and a new draft road traffic law is also currently being finalised to strengthen existing laws and increase penalties for traffic infringements. Most impressive is the national road crash information system, a database originally created by Handicap International. Traffic police and health authorities compile detailed information on every person involved, including age, occupation and the GPS coordinates of the incident, all of which are funnelled into a single information system managed by the National Road Safety Committee.

"This is a leading database in the region and something that the Cambodian Government is rightly very proud of," says Robyn. "It's a fantastic resource that allows them to understand the nature of the crashes, to set priorities and be very strategic about their road safety activities."

Through the road crash database, the committee has pinpointed three areas of focus: helmet wearing, drink-driving and speeding. "We are trying to promote helmet wearing for people on motorcycles," Mr Voun says. "In the current law, we focus on the driver only, but we are introducing a new amendment to include the passengers. We are also increasing the number of fines in regard to drink-driving and speeding."

As Mr Voun explains, traffic police now play a vital role. "In Phnom Penh, at the daytime we observe a helmet wearing rate of around 85 per cent for drivers but at the night time it drops to 60 per cent only, because there's no enforcement at night."

Small steps are the only way forward. As Robyn says, "When there's so much to be done, it's easy to become overwhelmed or try to do a bit of everything as opposed to understanding the data and prioritising your activities, given there is a very limited budget."

Changes to attitudes, systems and budgets may be years in the making. But here and now, even the smallest of steps can save many lives.

 

Photo: Tiet Ho/ Australian Red Cross