The number of vehicles on Phnom Penh’s roads are rapidly rising, increasing the need for greater road awareness, quality vehicle inspection standards and improved infrastructure. Words by Jessica Tana; cover photo by Enric Català

Grid-locked junctions, narrow roads dominated by large four-wheel drives, horns incessantly honking and fumes chugging into the air are increasingly becoming part of daily life in the Cambodian capital as the number of vehicles taking to the roads continues to swell.

And it may be about to get much worse as car registration in the country increases, coupled with largely dated infrastructure in the form of a network of pot-hole riddled roads, created for a time that pre-dates today’s modern capital.

“The roads in Phnom Penh are simply not big enough,” says Peter Brongers, president of Cambodia Automotive Industry Federation and BMW CEO, adding when he first came to Cambodia in 1994 the few cars on the road were limited to Land Cruisers mainly left over from the United Nations.

“The traffic is getting worse and worse every week. On a weekly basis, there are 1,200 cars imported into Cambodia. And most of these end up in the greater Phnom Penh area. That’s a lot for a small city with lousy infrastructure,” he adds.

According to Ministry of Public Works and Transport figures, in 2016 there were 37,500 new registrations for passenger cars. This brings the total number of registered vehicles on Cambodia’s roads to more than 3.6 million, including 537,459 cars and 3,132,361 motorbikes.

“For a rather small city, of nearly two million inhabitants, you have maybe an increase of 50,000 cars a year on the road. That’s quite significant,” says Audi director of operations, Antoine Jeanson.

Car Capital

Despite this rising figure, the majority of new car registrations in Cambodia are not for new vehicles, with second-hand, imported cars making up 93 percent of total car sales.

“Within all these cars, the large majority are used cars, imported and registered here,” adds Jeanson. “The main source is the USA. They have the steering wheel on the same side, and the used car market in the US is very advantageous. You can get a second-hand car, with low mileage, for not that much money.”

Like many authorised car dealerships in the country, Brongers and Jeanson are concerned about the import of second-hand vehicles and unauthorised new vehicles, which are not properly inspected.

“There is the used car market, which is, as such, not illegal,” explains Jeanson. “Then you have the new car market, that is not coming through the official market. This is what can be called the Grey Market. In Cambodia, the only inspection cars go through is performed during registration to check whether lights are working, there are four wheels and the car can be driven.”

“There’s no real control,” adds Brongers. “Everything is allowed in.” He refers to a survey conducted by Toyota, which checked 200 varied brands of second-hand and new cars being imported into the country. “They sent the VINs [Vehicle Identification Numbers] back to the US to research the mileage on the cars and found 80 percent had the mileage turned back,” he says. “Forty percent were complete insurance write-offs. Those cars were supposed to go to the scrap yards.”

The reason second-hand cars are in high demand in Cambodia is because importing vehicles into the country is not cheap. According to Jeanson, the tax to import from outside ASEAN is 137.5 percent of the cost of the car.

“If you are a Cambodian car buyer, and you want to buy a new car for $20,000, you don’t get much,” says Jeanson. “You’re going to get a compact, city car; a Mazda 2, or something like this – or you can get a 10-year-old, second-hand, Toyota Highlander, which is a mid-size SUV, with a big engine. So, when you compare, you have an entry level car from a mainstream manufacturer, or something that gives more for your money. That’s why today, you have only seven percent new cars and 93 percent used cars.”

This also raises grave safety concerns, with Jeanson adding many vehicles have serious structural damage. “It’s very dangerous,” he says. “It is a serious concern for all of us.”

Brongers is currently proposing a professional, third-party inspection is carried out on cars entering the country. “We would like to see the government put a strict limitation on the importation of used cars, and we would like to see only new cars being imported by authorised dealers,” he adds. “You don’t need an old expensive car, you can take a smaller car. Not everyone needs to drive a Lexus 570.”

While the country’s luxury car market remains small, an increasing number of vehicles sporting iconic emblems of high-end car brands such as Jaguar, Rolls Royce, Porsche, Bentley, Audi and BMW – who all now boast showrooms in Phnom Penh – are on the roads.

However, the luxury car market still has a long way to go before it catches up with its neighbours, says Brongers. “It’s nothing; it’s a really small number. We sold 120 cars at BMW Cambodia last year. BMW Thailand sold 12,000 and BMW Vietnam sold 8,000.”

For luxury sports cars, it is even less and most of those are likely to have come through the Grey Market. “Luxury sports cars, like Ferrari and Lamborghini, is a very different market,” Brongers adds. “All these cars are being imported through the Grey Market. People who buy those cars often only drive them for three or four months and then give them back to the importer. The high-end sports cars from the Grey Market dealerships are changing hands very fast.”

Upgraded Ride

“In my point of view, people buy a luxury car to show off their wealth or hierarchy,” says University of Health and Science student, Yanuth Soth. “Having an average, quality car [in Cambodia] is already considered lucky.”

While a luxury car would be a blessing, Soth says she is happy with her 2005 Toyota Prius from a local dealership, as it is less responsibility than a bigger car. “The bigger the vehicle you drive, the higher the responsibility you need to take,” she says. “Driving a car is a lot of responsibility, since a crash can kill so many people.”

Like many Cambodians, Soth navigated the country’s roads on her motorbike. However, the 20-year-old recently up-scaled to a car due to safety concerns. “My family observed that fatal accidents often occurred with moto riders, while there are less cases with car drivers, and that’s why I chose a car over a motorcycle,” she says, adding rising reports of bag snatches fuelled her fear. “There are even cases where people die from it. It makes me jump out of my skin.”

Soth says there are still benefits to being a moto driver in Cambodia. The mounting volume of traffic on the road makes weaving in and out with a moto much easier than sitting in a car. “Riding a moto can be faster than a car, it moves like a mouse, while the cars are stuck in one place. That’s the most frustrating moment,” she says. “Parking in Phnom Penh is also hard work for drivers. You are lucky to find a single space in front of a restaurant or café anywhere in the heart of the city. One car eats up almost six parking spaces for motos.”

According to the World Bank, Cambodia’s gross national income per capita has reached $1,070 per annum, still far below the income needed to purchase a car. However, it is evident that car sales are increasing.

“I think many Cambodians can now afford to purchase a simple car,” Soth says. “The number of cars in Cambodia, especially Phnom Penh, has risen drastically. Some families even own more than two cars.”

Soth says she is preparing for a bumpy ride ahead as the swelling number of vehicles and congestion worsen. “While the roads are getting better in expansion, and even few sky bridges are being built, the traffic doesn’t seem to get any better,” she says. “The population of people, as well as the growth in the numbers of vehicles, are increasing too rapidly.”

Buckle Up

“Congestion is a growing concern in Phnom Penh right now, and will become a bigger problem because of the fast-rising number of vehicles, and the number of migrants into the city,” says Ear Chariya, founding director of Road Safety Institute Cambodia (RSIC). “Poor knowledge on traffic rules, enforcement and city planning make the problem worse.”

As part of an NGO dedicated to lifting Cambodia’s road safety standards and recording road statistics, Chariya says on average, the number of car registration has increased by about 35 percent a year during the last five years. Car-related casualties accounted for 10 percent of all road accidents, although they represent only 12 percent of total vehicle registration.

Chariya says a lack of education is one of the main factors for road accidents. Even after roads are improved, road crashes increase due to speeding and poor safety standards. “Road environment is one of the contributing factors of road crashes,” he says. “After roads have been rehabilitated or improved, road crashes are always increased.”RSIC research shows speeding and drunk driving are the top reasons for road fatalities, with speeding accounts for 40 percent and drink driving 17 percent. 

While education is key to improving road safety, and safety campaigns involving new traffic lights, barricades and signs are appearing around the capital, proper law enforcement is needed for any of it to be effective, urges Chariya.

“Some big donors, such as Asian Development Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency and the World Bank, have been working with the government to initiate community-based road safety activities, like awareness campaigns to communities and schools, but there is still a missing link between those awareness activities, and law enforcement,” Chariya says. “As a result, it gives a minor impact on making the roads safe in Cambodia.”

Chariya says the lack of road safety facilities and audits of road projects, leave Cambodian roads as one of the most dangerous in the region.

Combined with a lack of insurance and the culture of blame on the roads, and the situation becomes more troubling throughout Cambodia.

“Almost nobody is insured in this country,” says Brongers. “The big issue with insurance is that when you have an accident, basically the one who is perceived as being able to pay is the one who is guilty. And if there is no immediate settlement the driver will go to jail.”

Jeanson adds huge improvements to the roads would be reached by moving away from an informal sector that takes in the Grey Market, untrained mechanics and poor inspection standards and towards a regulated car culture. “Then, there could be much higher standards of safety, of insurance, of quality work and training. These are the sorts of things we would like to see here in the future.”

With car registration increasing, it seems a perfect time to lay the groundwork for safer road culture in Cambodia. As improved roads lead to higher speeds and the fear of more frequent accidents, the need for law enforcement, safety education and proper vehicle maintenance and inspection are essential, because cars in Cambodia are here to stay.