I see dead people

I see dead people

By Karin Schelzig

I see dead people. No, I don’t mean ghosts like the ones a young Haley Joel Osment could see in the 1999 hit film The Sixth Sense. I mean actual dead bodies. I see them all the time, victims of the seemingly lawless and definitely dangerous free-for-all that is driving on Cambodia’s national roads.

Written by Karin Schelzig

I see dead people. No, I don’t mean ghosts like the ones a young Haley Joel Osment could see in the 1999 hit film The Sixth Sense.  I mean actual dead bodies.  I see them all the time, victims of the seemingly lawless and definitely dangerous free-for-all that is driving on Cambodia’s national roads.

I can barely remember a trip to the provinces that did not involve witnessing the aftermath of a horrific road accident.  Blood on the road, a motorbike tipped over, feet or an arm sticking out from under a makeshift shroud.  There is always a crowd gathered around. 

Take any longer road trip in the Kingdom of Wonder and you are very likely to see dead people too.  An average of 5 to 6 people are killed every day on Cambodia’s roads, with another 40 suffering non-fatal injuries.   In this small country of fewer than 15 million, mostly rural people, the number of traffic fatalities doubled from 2005 to 2011. According to the World Health Organization’s Country Representative, traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in Cambodia. 

There is a staggering gender disparity to road deaths too. Four out of 5 fatalities are male.  These are fathers, sons, husbands and partners whose death or injury is very likely to have long-lasting adverse economic consequences for entire households. When men die, or are injured in traffic accidents, women are typically left to support the household and to take care of those left severely injured or permanently disabled.  This additional burden of unpaid care work for injured family members can be significant, and can plunge a family into poverty. 

Death and injury of men, often in the prime of their working lives, leads not only to a loss of household income, but can add to a family’s debt burden as remaining family members take out loans to cover medical or funeral costs.  Borrowing from informal moneylenders has become a primary coping mechanism in Cambodia in the face of shocks, leaving households even more vulnerable.    While the entire household suffers, the hardship is largely borne by women as the primary caregivers.  Along with the economic and emotional costs, women left to support their families may have to give up work or school to care for an injured family member.  If a child is injured and permanently disabled, the mother or sister may have to spend the rest of her life caring for them, limiting her own chances of leading a productive and fulfilling life. 

But women aren’t immune from road crashes.  I see dead women too, and the loss of a mother, sister, or daughter is no less devastating.  Women and children may be particularly vulnerable since they are more likely to be on foot or on bicycles, sharing the road space with larger, faster vehicles.  And with more and more young women leaving rural areas for jobs in Phnom Penh’s garment factories, the risks are growing. 

Last month I was returning from Kampong Thom to Phnom Penh when I noticed the tell-tale crowd gathering by the side of the road up ahead.  Sure enough, when our vehicle rolled by, the body of a woman was lying face-down in the dirt, her hat knocked off and her clothes dusty, with blood pooling around her head, and her bicycle nearby in a tangled mess.  She had clearly been clipped by a car – a car that was nowhere to be seen.   Hit and run accidents are all too common.  The ADB Cambodia Resident Mission’s gender specialist lost her cousin this way earlier this year.  He was buying food from a roadside vendor on National Road 1 which links to Viet Nam when a reckless driver tried to pass a slow moving tuk-tuk on the right, hit him, and then sped away.  He died in a Vietnamese hospital two days later. 

The incident was all the more tragic because our colleague lost her youngest brother to a motorbike accident on the same stretch of road almost 10 years ago to the day.  He was just 23 years old and on his way to the last of his law school exams, when he was hit by a truck full of soldiers overtaking another military truck.  He was killed instantly. There were eye witnesses, but nobody was ever prosecuted.

Speeding and drunk driving, coupled with a lack of respect for traffic laws, are the most common culprits when it comes to road deaths in Cambodia.  A 2012 survey by Handicap International Belgium found that fewer than 3 out of 10 Cambodian drivers understood traffic signs and the concept of speed limits.  According to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, 80% of motorcycle drivers do not have a driver’s license and 7 out of 10 fatalities are the result of motorcycle crashes. More than half of those killed in motorcycle crashes are aged 15 to 29, in the prime of their productive years.   It's also pertinent to note that more than 9 out of 10 road deaths are due to head injuries.  Despite existing helmet laws and road safety campaigns, the message simply doesn’t seem to be getting through, and enforcement is weak.  I can’t count the number of times I have seen a motorbike driver pull on a helmet when crossing a major intersection, only to take it off a few seconds later when safely past the police.  Passengers aren’t required to wear helmets at all. 

On the 170 km drive back from Kep a few weeks ago I saw not one but two separate road fatalities within 30 minutes of each other. One of them happened right before my eyes when a motorbike hit a bump and flipped forward, throwing two young women over the front of the handlebars. One of the women got up and teetered over to the bike, its wheels still spinning.  She was crying, and had a deep gash visible in her forehead, as she and bystanders pulled her bloodied and lifeless companion from underneath the bike. Neither of the women had been wearing helmets.   Enforcing speeding and helmet laws is surely important, but the physical design of roads also needs to emphasize road safety, especially as paved roads mean faster traffic.  We need pedestrian sidewalks, fenced bike and motorcycle lanes, road humps, slow zones in built-up areas near schools, roundabouts, and safer pedestrian road crossings, including over- and under-passes. Road safety awareness programs should go beyond billboards and adopt innovative behavior change communication approaches.  Road safety awareness should target both drivers and vulnerable groups.

I don’t want to see dead people.  I don’t want my Cambodian colleagues to lose more brothers, sisters, cousins, or friends.  It is all the more awful because it is such an avoidable tragedy.  Many government agencies, NGOs and development partners—including ADB—are involved in promoting road safety in Cambodia, but from a look at the statistics, and from my travels around the country over nearly 6 years, it doesn’t seem to be going very well at all.  What is it going to take to end the bloody toll?