Cambodia Traffic Rules the Road
As a recent arrival, you may be shocked to learn that Cambodia does in fact have traffic laws. Now if only the locals could be persuaded to familiarize themselves with them. Ignorance of the road rules results in a high degree of randomness in driving behaviour here that inevitably makes accidents all too common.
There appears to be no protocols for crossing intersections, for example. Cars seldom slow to a stop whether there is a stop sign or not but instead inch out and pretty much play “chicken” with each other until someone gives way. Motorbikes and cars weave between each other at intersections with just millimetres to spare.
Traffic densities are such that this anarchy can’t continue for much longer. Over the last decade, while the number of mine/UXO victims tended to gradually declined, the number of road traffic accidents has increased dramatically. In some hospitals, more than 50% of the patients are now road traffic casualties.
Cambodia purportedly has the highest percentage rate of accidents throughout ASEAN. 5828 accidents were reported in 2009, according to the interior Ministry. While this is almost two hundred less than the previous year, the death rate rose from 1572 to 1654. These figures are problematic however, as police often don’t attend traffic accidents and even if they do, victims have frequently been removed to local hospitals by the time the police arrive.
Foreigners often complain that Cambodians are poor drivers but this misses the point. Driving in Cambodia is a salutary lesson in what happens then there is a combination of ignorance of the Law and too frequently, no effective enforcement. People may fear the Law here but they don’t respect it.
The number of deaths due to traffic accidents ranks second to HIV/AIDS, and traffic accidents cost Cambodia US$248 million dollars in property damage, medical costs and related expenses last year, marking a 114 percent rise since 2003, according to a recent study by Handicap International. This is a huge drain on a country as poor as Cambodia.
Meanwhile, while only $1 million is spent on promoting road safety.
Chev Hak, deputy chief of the Phnom Penh Traffic Police was recently reported in the Phnom Penh Post as noting that one obstacle to making the roads safer is that many drivers were unaware of traffic laws, while others are reluctant to comply with them. “Even if we whistle a hundred times,” he said, “people will not stop.”
According to Jeroen Stol and Socheata Sann, respectively country director and programme manager for road safety at Belgium NGO Handicap International (reported in the Cambodia Daily 4 June 2010), three main factors have contributed to the rapid increase in the number of road accidents and fatalities in Cambodia in the past six years.
1. Increased speed due to improved road infrastructure
2. Rapid increase in number of vehicles on the road (which have doubled in that time) combined with people choosing to travel more frequently
3. Increasing risk factors associated with:
○ Speeding (50% of crash fatalities were speed-related)
○ Drunk driving (with 87% of resulting casualties being male)
○ Lack of adequate precaution (76% of motorcycle fatalities were the result of head injuries with only 8% of those killed wearing helmets. Of those killed in 4-wheel drives, only 30% were wearing seat belts at the time of the accident)
○ Flagrant disregard for the road rules
Motorbike accidents accounted for around 70 percent of traffic fatalities last year, and 80 percent of the dead succumbed to head injuries. This number would be greatly reduced if more drivers and passengers wore helmets.
In 2009, the Interior Ministry launched a nationwide campaign requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets and use rear view mirrors and car passengers to use seatbelts. But road safety advocates say the effectiveness of the law has been hindered by spotty enforcement, a problem that persists in part because Traffic Police rarely work at night.
Phomn Penh Traffic Police fined 14,269 motorbike drivers for not wearing helmets in January 2010 as part of an effort to ramp up enforcement of a regulation mandating the usage of helmets that went into effect more than a year ago, according to a newly released report from the Interior Ministry.
“In Phnom Penh, around 72 percent of people wear helmets, while in the provinces only 46 percent of people comply with the helmet rule,” Preap Chanvibol, director of the Land Transport Department at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport said.
A draft amendment to the Land Traffic Law has been finalised, officials at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport said in June of this year. If the new draft is approved, the fine for not wearing a helmet will be increased to 21,000 riels (about $5), and will also be applied to passengers.
Him Yan, director of the ministry’s Department of Public Order, was recently reported in the Phnom Penh Post saying, “Ninety percent of people use helmets during the day, but only around 40 percent wear helmets at night.”
A new traffic law was approved by the Royal Government of Cambodia in December 2006 and promulgated by the King of Cambodia in February 2007. It went into force in September of the same year.
The main goals of the traffic law are:
● Maintain order and safety on the roads of Cambodia
● Protect human and animal lives
● Minimize the effects on human health and damage to the state and private property
To achieve these goals, the traffic law has 12 chapters with 95 articles covering all legal aspects concerning drivers, vehicles and road environment. The Ministries of Interior and Public Works and Transport are jointly responsible for the enforcement of the traffic law, with coordination provided by the National Road Safety Committee (NRSC).
The following is a summary of this new traffic law.
De minimis non curat lex
The country’s land traffic law governs all road users in Cambodia. First things first, Cambodians drive on the right hand side of the road (usually) and are only permitted by the law to drive on the left hand side when overtaking or stopping. However, it’s very common for drivers to skirt the left hand side of the road prior to turning left or waiting for a gap to join the forward moving traffic on the right hand side.
You will see numerous traffic police whilst driving around Phnom Penh, who look for any excuse to pull you over so that they can supplement their low incomes by fining drivers and pocketing the proceeds. Reasons why they might pull you over include; driving with headlights on during daylight, driving a motorbike without a helmet, not stopping at traffic lights on red, driving with too many passengers, or simply because they want you to prove you have all the necessary paperwork.
Should a traffic policeman wish to stop you, they will raise their right hand up (or sometimes both) in the air with their palm opened straight towards your vehicle. In which case, you should stop unless it would be unsafe to do so. At night the traffic police use red light sticks to wave and point at vehicles they wish to stop.
Car drivers and front seat passengers must wear seat belts and motorbike drivers must wear helmets. Obscurely, it is not currently an offence for backseat passengers to refrain from wearing a seat belt or helmet on a motorbike, although needless to say, it is highly advisable. Children under ten are not allowed to sit in the front seat of vehicles without being accompanied by an adult and children less than four years old must be seated in baby/child seats, secured with seat belts on the back seats.
Drunk driving is major problem in Cambodia and causes thousands of serious accidents a year, especially at night. At present, it is very uncommon for drivers pulled over for traffic offences to have their alcohol levels test unless there has been a serious accident or there is enough motivation for the police to warrant administering the cost of a breath or blood alcohol test. However, Cambodian traffic law does clearly stipulate that drivers are prohibited from driving when their alcohol levels exceed 0.5 mg per litre of gas (for breathalyser tests) or 0.25 mg per litre of blood (for blood tests). These limits are comparable to those of most Western countries.
As is also the case in the West, telephones are banned from being operated whilst driving, unless the driver is using hands-free equipment, although again this law is frequently flouted in Cambodia, especially by young upper class Khmers on flash new motorbikes who are eager to impress their peers.
Traffic lights are a more recent and most welcome addition to Phnom Penh which has seen a huge increase in traffic over the past decade. As is the case in most countries, when the traffic lights show yellow, it is a sign for drivers to prepare to stop (when preceded by a green light) or to go forward (when preceded by a red light). When they show red, drivers must stop in front of the white zebra lines crossing the width of the road which are assigned for pedestrians. When there is no obstacle ahead, the vehicles on the most right hand side can turn right at red lights so long as there are signs showing that this is allowed.
When coming across buses in Phnom Penh (not as common as other South East Asian countries), drivers of other vehicles must slow down and stop if it is necessary to allow the buses to move in and out easily at the bus stops.
When driving within towns, motorcycle drivers and car drivers must limit their speed to 30 kph and 40 kph, and outside towns a speed limit of 90 kph applies for both. On motorways, drivers are not allowed to exceed 60 kph when in towns and 100 kph outside towns.
When overtaking, the drivers must overtake on the left hand side, unless the other driver is giving a diverting sign to turn left. Drivers overtaking must use their left indicators, or hand movements to signal their intentions to other drivers. Drivers who are aware that the driver behind wishes to overtake them are also meant to examine the road in front of them for on coming obstacles and then use their right indicators to signal that the path is clear and it is safe for the other driver to overtake, or left indicators to signal that it is unsafe to pass.
After overtaking, drivers must use their right indicator or hand movements to show that they are coming back into the right hand traffic lane. Overtaking where there are no overtaking signs or using road assigned for pedestrians to overtake is prohibited, as is overtaking another vehicle which is itself overtaking someone else. When an overtaking manoeuvre looks like it could cause danger to road users, smaller vehicles are given priority over larger vehicles meaning that the larger vehicles must slow down or pull over to allow smaller vehicles to move into safety.
Navigating busy crossroads in Phnom Penh can be unnerving for newcomers; especially ones off the main boulevards where there is no priority for a particular road. When approaching crossroads, drivers must slow down and observe the traffic movement over the junction which they are about to pass through. Unless otherwise indicated by road signs or markings, drivers must give way to traffic coming from the right hand side. Drivers are encouraged to make a signal to warn traffic coming from other directions when passing through a cross junction. If before 12 midnight, drivers should do this by sounding their vehicle’s horn and after midnight by flashing between high and low light beams so as to reduce noise pollution affecting local residents.
Drivers approaching a roundabout, no matter which lane they are in, must give priority to other drivers who are already on the one-way road going anticlockwise round the roundabout. As such, drivers should look left and wait for a safe opportunity to join the roundabout.
Regardless of the general laws governing Cambodia’s traffic, drivers must give way to police vehicles, military vehicles, military police vehicles, fire engines, and ambulances which are fulfilling a mission and are alerting other road users with their horns or sirens and special (flashing) lights.
You’ll be pleased to know that clamping or towing away vehicles that are violating parking regulations is not all that common in Phnom Penh (not yet, at least). However, there are some rules which should be adhered to:
○ vehicles should not be parked in way that hinders other road users and disrupts the flow of traffic;
○ vehicles parked along roads should be pointed in the same direction as the flow of traffic and on the right hand side, except on one way roads where they can be parked on both sides;
○ vehicles can not be parked within 5 meters of junctions or intersections on normal roads and within 10 meters of junctions or intersections on main boulevards or any roads outside of town;
○ vehicles can not be parked at the entrances or exits of public buildings and private house unless the driver has permission from the owner;
○ vehicles can not be left on public roads for longer than 72 hours.
Whilst driving in Phnom Penh you should be mindful that people are always walking across the roads here regardless of whether there are assigned pedestrian crossings or how busy they are. Under Cambodian traffic law, pedestrians should use pedestrian crossings where they are available although many do not hesitate to take the most direct route. Drivers are forbidden from hampering or blocking pedestrians from crossing even if there is no pedestrian crossing sign and should slow down or stop if necessary to allow them to cross safely.
Drivers must use their headlights at night or daytime if visibility is impaired by heavy rain or fog. In town where there is sufficient lighting from street lamps, the use of the high beam is prohibited except for temporary use to signal to other road users. Outside of town where there are no street lights, drivers should use the high beam so long as it will not interfere with the vision of other drivers coming in the opposite direction.
Drivers are allowed to sound their vehicle’s horns, to inform other road users of their presence or potential danger, at daytime only. Outside of town, the horn may also be sounded by drivers to indicate that they intend to overtake. Drivers should sound their horns in short bursts to limit noise pollution for local residents and business owners. Sounding horns is prohibited after midnight.
All drivers must obtain a driving license in Cambodia and there are five different types for the country’s various road vehicles, however, you are likely only to require one of the following three types: A1 – for 49 to 125 cc motorbikes; A2 – for motorcycles with engines over 125 cc, or; Type B – for vehicles transporting no more than 9 passengers. You must be at least 16 years old to apply for an A1 license and at least 18 years old for types A2 and B. A Type B license also allows the holder to drive 49 to 125 cc motorbikes up to a speed of 40 kph. Both type A and B licenses are valid until the holder reaches 65 years of age, at which point they must have a medical check-up to extend their license every five years.
Except when there is a bilateral agreement between Cambodia and their own country, visitors to Cambodia can apply for a licence to drive on its roads in two ways: applying for driving license examination like Cambodians, or; exchanging their national driving licenses for a Cambodian one valid for one year by submitting the application form to the Ministry of Public Works & Transportation and providing the following –
a. passport and valid visa
b. valid driving license
c. clear permanent address certified by authority
d. physical certificate showing that the stay in Cambodia has been at least six months
e. translation of the license if not in English or French
It’s highly advisable to take the first option, which with the help of a local speaking Khmer will be much less time consuming and relatively hassle free.
Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. Albert Einstein
Photograph by Paul Carson