Playing in traffic

June 14, 2013

When I first arrived here in Phnom Penh, I was quite impressed with the way the traffic flowed: with basically no rules of the road, traffic was slow and relatively safe. I compared it to the Dutch town where they removed all the traffic lights, bus lanes and white lines, and found it was far safer.

But now I think I was wrong. I think Cambodian drivers are astonishingly awful, selfish and inconsiderate; it’s only because they mainly drive little mopeds that they don’t die in greater numbers.

Some 70 percent of Cambodian drivers simply buy their licenses. Most regard lane markers and traffic lights as nothing more than suggestions. They drive down the pavements, they drive on the wrong side of the road, they drive drunk. According to a study last year, only 30 percent of Cambodian drivers even understand the concept of speed limits.

Nearly 2,000 Cambodians died on the roads last year, the second highest cause of death in the country. And accidents cost the economy $310 million per year, the transportation minister said recently.

I was thinking about this after reading the startling news that 23-year-old Keam Piseth Narita is to be released from prison in a few weeks. In March she was sentenced to three years in prison after driving into and killing three children and injuring 11, and then fleeing the scene. That was March this year. There is video of the aftermath on YouTube, which I was going to link to, but have decided that no one needs to look at dead and mangled children.

“Based on the hearing and the accused person’s confession, the court has found that Keam Piseth Narita has committed the offence as accused,” presiding judge Kor Vandy said. “But because she had meningitis and was on medication that made her drowsy – according to the official letter from the doctors – the court decided to sentence her to three years in prison, but the real implementation of her punishment will only be three months and 15 days. The rest of the sentence was suspended, and a fine of six million riel will be put into the state’s budget.”

Genius medical student

Genius medical student


So she killed two eight-year-olds and a 12-year-old, and only served three-and-a-half months, and was fined $1,500? Only in Cambodia…

But actually, it cost her, and her family, more than that. According to the judge, Narita’s father, the deputy director of Kandal Provincial Hospital – had paid compensation to all the families of the victims, all of whom had since withdrawn their complaints. Reports say $20,000 was handed over.

According to Community Legal Education Centre executive director Yeng Virak, the fact that the driver was even tried and sentenced marks a major improvement on how such cases are usually handled.

“To me, it’s quite, quite fair,” Yeng Virak said. “If she commits the same thing in the future, she should be severely sentenced.”