A new community-based road safety program aims to ensure that smoother roads don’t create more traffic hazards in rural Cambodia.

Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia – It’s only a short bike ride from Tha Kunthea’s home to her school in the central Cambodian countryside. But it’s a trip she plans carefully every morning.

“Before I start my ride I tell myself to remember the road rules,” she explains, like riding on the right-hand side and staying well clear of trucks so she doesn’t get sucked into their path.

Not so long ago the road was unpaved and dangerous. Motorbikes dodged huge potholes and trucks rumbled by in thick clouds of dust. Kunthea, 11, and her friends never bothered which side of the road they cycled on, nor how close the trucks came.

The road to Trapaing Thmor Primary School in Kampong Chhnang province was recently paved as part of a program of road improvements designed to provide reliable all-year access to markets, jobs, and services for residents of provincial towns and farming areas. Rural roads in Cambodia are typically narrow and unpaved, exposing them to flood damage in the rainy season. Journeys can be time-consuming and hazardous.

Growing economy, worsening roads

As the economy grows, these roads further deteriorate. Road traffic around the Tonle Sap lake in central Cambodia has been forecast to grow by up to 12% annually as more people buy cars and motorbikes. Overloaded trucks cause further damage and pose hazards not just to drivers but pedestrians and cyclists.

A new national traffic law was introduced last year, but many people are unaware of road rules and don’t understand road signs.

Paving rural roads leads to vast improvements in people’s livelihoods. It makes it easier to travel to cities to sell goods, find jobs, and seek medical care. Eventually, it means safer travel.

But initially, the sudden availability of a smooth surface presents a different kind of road hazard by tempting drivers to speed, sometimes after drinking alcohol. This poses huge risks in rural communities, especially at crowded areas like schools and markets.

“The situation was getting worse and I knew that something had to be done,” says Shihiru Date, a senior transport specialist who for nine years led two phases of the Asian Development Bank-supported Cambodia Rural Roads Improvement Project. “These people had never had paved roads before, and we were worried they’d speed once they got them. We didn’t want to create another hazardous environment for residents, pedestrians, and cyclists.”

Developing a community-based road safety program

Between 2004 and 2014 annual road deaths in Cambodia doubled to 14 per 100,000 inhabitants as the number of registered motor vehicles increased five-fold. Though the road toll dropped marginally in 2016, road crashes remain a leading cause of death in the country.

Motorbikes constitute 80% of traffic and are involved in most crashes on project roads. Date was determined to maximize the benefits of the project by minimizing safety risks on the upgraded roads, which run for more than 540 kilometers (km) across seven provinces.

For four years, he worked closely with the Ministry of Rural Development to establish a community-based road safety program to provide a safe environment for road users and residents over the long term. The program focused on changing road user behavior—the major cause of crashes even in developed countries.

A model for future safety programs

“To deliver lasting benefits, we needed to engage local communities.” 

Shihiru Date

The program had a three-stream approach: data collection and analysis, safe school zones, and social enforcement. The overall aim was to ensure better roads did not necessarily mean faster speeds and more accidents. It ended up providing a model on road safety for other rural areas of the country.

“To deliver lasting benefits, we needed to engage local communities,” says Date. “And that process had to start before roadworks began, so locals had time to absorb what they learned before traffic and speeds increased.”

Safety-themed drama shows, concerts, and radio programs were staged to get the message out in communities where as many as 80% of people are illiterate. Nearly 100,000 villagers have been trained on road safety awareness under action plans at local village communes. Videos were produced to explain clearly how speeding, drunk-driving, and not wearing helmets could cost lives. Adults taught children how to walk safely to and from schools, always facing traffic.

Safe school zones were identified and provided with equipment such as retractable speed humps, which are rolled out at the start and end of the school day to slow vehicles to 30 km per hour and stop them at zebra crossings.

So far around 26,000 students have been trained on the do’s and don’ts of road safety. At awareness-raising events, they have received free helmets and reflective bracelets, as well as prizes for participating in activities such as safety quizzes.

“When the road was bad people drove slowly, but now they can drive fast,” says Uch Kosal, 25, a teacher at Trapaing Thmor Primary School. “We tell the children to walk single-file on the left-hand side of the road facing traffic and to stay far away from trucks.”

But it’s easy—especially for the young—to slip into bad old habits. So, respected community figures like village elders, police officers, and commune leaders, encourage village road users to obey road rules, stop speeding, wear helmets, and not drive after drinking alcohol.

Monks reinforce these concepts at pagodas, especially during religious festivals like Pchum Benh when Cambodians travel to their hometowns to pay respects to ancestors.

Messages are getting through

It will take time and more effort to significantly reduce road crashes. But the messages are getting through, says Song Sophal, who manages the rural roads improvement project at the Ministry of Rural Development.

Safer roads mean people like shopkeeper Kang Ron, 63, can fully enjoy the benefits provided by better transport links.

“I obey the rules now, and I make sure that my four brothers and sisters do as well.” 

Tha Kunthea

Her business at Tom Nup township selling fermented fish and other condiments and spices has tripled. A once-dusty market is now a bustling commercial hub. “When the roads are good people travel, and everyone comes through here now,” she says.

The benefits will gradually spread through the wider community, especially when obeying road safety rules has become second nature for the people of rural Cambodia.

Tha Kunthea is doing her bit to make sure that happens soon. “I obey the rules now, and I make sure that my four brothers and sisters do as well.”

John Larkin is a Senior External Relations Specialist in ADB’s Department of Communications. Learn more about ADB’s work in Cambodia.