New, higher fines for traffic violations and stricter enforcement by authorities will place undue strain on motorists who are already losing income due to the pandemic-related economic downturn, civil society members and other observers said this week.
New traffic fines went into effect on Friday, along with heightened enforcement by police, after the government passed a sub-decree in March that increased fines by up to five times their previous rates in what officials say is an effort to reduce rising roadway casualties.
Under the new laws, drivers also need to carry their driver’s license, vehicle registration card and annual vehicle inspection document any time they are operating their vehicle, or face a fine.
Mao Chhorn, a taxi driver in Phnom Penh, said the new regulation requiring documents would be a problem for some of his peers who rent their vehicles because they generally don’t carry the paperwork for the car they rent.
“If the company’s owner does not trust the drivers, they could stop or suspend their employment for a while,” Chhorn said.
Many observers supported the stricter traffic regulations in principle, but they thought the timing was bad for the average driver.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Center for Development and Peace, said the enforcement of high traffic fines and vehicle registration requirements was problematic while “people cannot do their business as usual” due to economic disruptions resulting from the global Covid-19 pandemic.
“Before people didn’t go to process [vehicle documents] because they were scared of Covid, but now in order to avoid the fine, they have to go and when they go, there are a lot of people at the places that process documents,” he added.
Him Yan, deputy National Police chief in charge of traffic and public order, could not be reached for comment. However, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said on Thursday that the new traffic laws are meant to decrease the number of deaths on the road, which increased by 12 percent last year compared to 2018.
According to the new sub-decree, motorbike drivers who violate traffic laws can be fined anywhere between 60,000 riel to 800,000 riel (about $15 to $200), while vehicle drivers will be fined between 75,000 riel and 2.4 million riel ($18.75 to $600).
When higher fines were first floated in March, Kong Ratanak, director of the Institute for Road Safety, warned that the fines might encourage some drivers to change their behavior, and lower the frequency of accidents, but wealthy and powerful drivers may not be moved, while low-income drivers would be disproportionately impacted.
“What has been done to reduce traffic accidents is a good thing, but I am worried about the reaction from [poor] people in relation to the size of the high fine, which is hard for them to accept,” he said at the time.
In recent months, throughout key industries, workers are losing their livelihoods as Cambodia’s globally-connected economy slows with the rest of the world amid the pandemic.
The Health Ministry reported on Monday that almost 90,000 migrant workers had yet to go back to Thailand after returning to Cambodia this year. The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia also on Monday said that 180 factories had suspended operations, with more than 150,000 workers suspended, and 50,000 more jobs expected to be impacted soon.
Moeun Tola, executive director of labor rights group Central, said the government should not push the enforcement of the law over the livelihood of its citizens.
“A strategy that can win the war against Covid-19 would be to encourage people to keep social distance,” Tola added.
Social analyst Meas Nee said that other countries have similar fine regimes and that they were worth establishing, but because many people are facing economic hardship, Nee said it appeared that the government was walking back on some of its previous political vows about supporting the people.
“The government always says that the people’s concern is the government’s concern,” Nee said. “But then it turns around and implements the traffic law while millions of people have no jobs to do.”