Cambodia is at risk of failing to reach its road safety goals unless it steps up its funding, experts and NGO representatives say, undermining efforts in recent years to regulate the country’s chaotic traffic.

From 2012 to 2017, civil society organisations received grant funding from the Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP) to carry out road safety advocacy work in 10 countries, including Cambodia. That funding has now come to an end, and to date no government contribution has replaced it – putting in question a commitment to halve annual traffic fatalities by 2020.

“Cambodia made significant progress in reducing road crash deaths and injuries up until 2017,” said expert Dave Elseroad, manager of the Global Advocacy and Grants Programme with the GRSP. “But, since 2017, worrying developments have taken place and GRSP is concerned that the government is not devoting adequate attention or resources to road safety.”

In January 2016, the government passed a far-reaching Traffic Law to try to regulate the country’s roads – an “important step”, Elseroad said, along with efforts from 2010 to 2013 to reduce drunk driving in Phnom Penh. The efficacy of the law, however, was quickly eroded by snap pronouncements from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who called for an amendment, later approved by the National Assembly, to do away with a driver’s licence for motorbikes 125cc and under and to lower the driving age from 16 to 15.

That same year, Hun Sen also proposed to reduce the severity of punishments for people driving a vehicle without a licence and those caught driving under the influence of alcohol, with the premier suggesting drivers should only be fined, rather than face jail, for the first offence.

While the government’s quixotic approach to enforcing the Traffic Law has irked road safety experts, funding is their biggest concern.

While the National Road Safety Committee – developed by a group of experts and NGOs, such as Handicap International, now known as Humanity and Inclusion – is functioning well, funding for its work by the government is simply insufficient, Elseroad said.

Ear Chariya, founding director of the Institute for Road Safety, said an estimated $10 million per year is required to implement the 2011-2020 Road Safety Action Plan, but the National Road Safety Committee receives less than $2 million per year.

“It’s not a quarter of what is required,” he said.

According to a survey from the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation in 2017, the government only put $1.2 million toward the implementation of the action plan in 2016 – an amount confirmed by Men Chansokal, chief of public relations for the National Road Safety Committee.

While the number of road traffic fatalities saw significant increases in 2014 and in 2015, it decreased in 2016, before going up again slightly in 2017 to 1,780 – well off the target of under 1,000 by 2020.

“The government is running out of effort to achieve this goal,” Chariya said.

Chansokal said the road safety committee prioritises “important work” with its limited budget.

Police prepare to haul away motorbikes confiscated in a Traffic Law crackdown at the Independence Monument roundabout in January.Heng Chivoan

That includes carrying out public awareness campaigns about safe driving during major national holidays, such as the upcoming Khmer New Year, she said. “But I’m sure other ministries also spend money, like the Ministry of Information for creating videos for traffic accident prevention, [and] the Ministry of Education to educate students,” she said.

When it comes to funding, the situation is even grimmer at the lower levels, and “very problematic”, Elseroad said.

Sinthay Neb, technical senior advisor of the Advocacy & Policy Institute, said his organisation received funding through the GRSP to work with a group of districts to help local authorities develop an action plan on road safety. But most of those districts don’t have funding to implement the plans as very little reaches the grassroots level.

When asking district officials how much funding is set aside for road safety, Neb said, “they don’t have that [answer]”. “We always advocate district authorities to allocate funding to this area,” he said.

Local authorities are not the only ones who can’t specify the amount of funding going toward road safety.

Va Sim Soriya, spokesman for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, also couldn’t provide the budget his ministry allocates toward road safety. “It’s not so big,” he said.

What is provided is used to organise two road safety observation days and for awareness materials, such as stickers and pamphlets. NGOs have said such education and awareness needs be ongoing throughout the year.

The fact that several NGOs working to tackle road safety problems saw funding dry up last year makes matters all the more urgent.

Jean Weinberg, with Bloomberg Philanthropies – which funded the road safety partnership – said the organisation didn’t stop supporting Cambodia due to a lack of progress, but rather because it had changed to a focus on a selection of major cities.

According to Chariya, the end of the programs concludes much of NGO activities on road safety, including “helmet awareness”. In Vietnam, 95 percent of motorbike passengers and drivers have been found to use helmets, while fewer than 40 percent do in Cambodia, he said.

Edith Van Wijngaarden, country director for Humanity and Inclusion, said her organisation began work in this area in the early 2000s but no longer has funding to continue, though one of its staff members will still provide support for free and the organisation is hoping to secure funds from elsewhere. She cited achievements like the creation of a database of all traffic accidents and the implementation of the Traffic Law as steps in the right direction.

“We all have difficulties to get funding in road safety since we started in 2003,” she said. “It’s clear that we really struggle in this area.”

She criticised selective enforcement of the law, including in areas specifically designated by the prime minister. In January, he called motorists “shameful” for not respecting traffic laws at the Independence Monument roundabout, which is located in front of his house.

“There is no control because police always stay in the same place,” she said. “There is no control and it means that people are still doing what they want.”

Another concern among road safety experts is delays in approving a draft law on alcohol control, which Mom Kong, executive director of the Movement for Health Cambodia, said could help reduce traffic fatalities. Among the main changes the law calls for is establishing an age limit for consuming alcohol and prohibiting driving under the influence.

“More than 200 [people] die every year because of traffic road accidents because of alcohol,” he said.

Dr Yel Daravuth, technical officer with the World Health Organization, told The Post in late 2016 “a lot of strong lobbying with high-level policy-makers” from the alcohol industry may have delayed the law, “despite public support”. He declined to comment on the issue on Monday.

“How much influence has that had, we really don’t know,” Kong said.

Ray Rany, director of tobacco and health at the Ministry of Health, declined to comment on why the government has delayed law’s approval since 2015.

Regardless, for Cambodia’s roads to become safer, drivers need to understand the rules of the road, experts say.

In late 2016, the Advocacy & Policy Institute found that among more than 1,400 participants, just 0.4 percent knew the correct meaning of all traffic signs presented to them.

Just under 15 percent got all the answers wrong, while the largest group – 19 percent of respondents – got the meaning of only three of six signs correct. “Understanding [of traffic rules] is very low,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kong Meta