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Preparing for the worst: Traffic accidents in Cambodia

Published on: 14th April, 2011

Getting into a traffic accident anywhere is serious, but in Cambodia it’s particularly so. In the evenings, many drivers are distracted, intoxicated and not particularly swayed by the few stoplights the town has to offer.

Cambodian roads can vary considerably in quality

Cambodian roads can vary considerably in quality

The only traffic laws that are regularly enforced are ones that involve small fines for improper licenses or lack of rear-view mirrors, rather than more serious moving violations like speeding or drunk driving. And what’s most frightening is that the number of fatalities are growing as Cambodia continues to develop — new sealed roads allow for faster speeds and more traffic deaths. Medical services haven’t kept pace with the road work, though, and going to a hospital here can be just as dangerous as driving.

One only has to spend a few days cruising around Phnom Penh before seeing at least a few traffic accidents, ranging from minor to major.

During my first week in Phnom Penh I saw a group of freshie boy-types drive their car directly into a moto driver. After being thrown to the ground, the man dragged himself up, clearly in pain. The car full of young men began honking and threatened to run the man over again if he didn’t move his now destroyed moto out of their path. I wrote down their license number — thinking, with the naivete of a new expat, that I could report it — only to find out that there’s generally no enforcement and no punishment, especially when the perpetrators are the sort of connected young men that can afford cars.

Looks can be deceiving: Cambodian roads often appear little trafficked

Looks can be deceiving: Cambodian roads often appear little trafficked

I hate that I’ve become the type of person that acts like an adult, but after hearing some of the most recent horror stories of expats or tourists that have been involved in traffic accidents through no fault of their own, and being thrown from a moto myself this week, I’ve vowed to make more of an effort to keep myself safe.

Here are some tips:

Get insured
This may seem obvious. Having insurance is really important, yet a huge percentage of my friends are living in Phnom Penh without insurance of any kind. If you come from a country with national health care, travel insurance may be enough to cover you if you have a serious accident, because they will send you back to your home country. If you’re from a country that doesn’t have health care (I’m looking at you, America) you need to get a real insurance policy.

Driving quickly and carelessly are often the norm

Driving quickly and carelessly are often the norm

For travel insurance I’ve used World Nomads. For an expat policy, I went with Aetna Global Benefits Major Medical Plan purchased through insurance agent AG Cambodia. They recommended Major Medical only because the cost of outpatient care is cheap enough in Cambodia that insurance is really only necessary for major accidents.

Be prepared
Organise your information. If you were hit by a truck, would your friends know where your insurance information is stored, who your emergency contact is and whether or not they should call your mother? Sending a group email to a few people you trust can mean that your tuk tuk driver isn’t the only one there to make life and death decisions for you.

Have these numbers on hand
Police: 117 (from landlines), T: (023) 366 841; (023) 720 235 (from mobiles)
Fire: 118 (from landlines), T: (023) 723 555 (from mobiles)
Ambulance: 119 (from landlines) T: (023) 724 891 (from mobiles)
Tourist police: T: (012) 942 484

Try and remember these numbers because if you’re the victim of a traffic accident, odds are good that your phone will be stolen while you’re bleeding out on the pavement.

Helmets are not worn as often as they should be

Helmets are not worn as often as they should be

Medical
Because most medical treatment is piss-poor in Cambodia, having an idea of where you’d like to get care before you’re in an accident is a good idea. If your accident is serious, you will need to go to Bangkok or Singapore.

Local options include International SOS, the one clinic in town that is to “international standards”, although some reports indicate that they still leave a lot to be desired. (T: (012) 816 911). Royal Rattanak is affiliated with Bangkok Hospital and is said to operate at Thai standards. There are many reports of expats who have been quite happy with the level of care they received there. (T: (023) 99 1000). See other options here.

Vehicle maintenance isn't always what it could be

Vehicle maintenance isn't always what it could be

Embassies in Phnom Penh
Your embassy can advocate for you and help contact your loved ones.

Australia Embassy: T: (023) 213 470
US Embassy: For emergencies during business hours call (023) 728 281; (023) 728 051; (023) 728 234. Outside of normal business hours call (023) 728 000
UK Embassy: T: (023) 427124. Outside of normal business hours call (023) 427 124; (023) 428 153

See a fuller list of embassies on Travelfish.org here.

My final advice is that if you choose to ride motos, even as a passenger, please wear a helmet and don’t be afraid to get off if you realise the driver is intoxicated. None of us want to see your pretty brains splashed all over Sisowath Quay this weekend.

About the author:
Previously, Lina has been based in Oakland, California, New York City, Dublin and London. Lina spends most of her time thinking about food, travel and synthpop. She's currently based in Siem Reap.

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