Phat Pov had a dream.
Growing up in an impoverished village northeast of Phnom Penh in the 1980s, her education did not last long. When making a family with her husband Dum Vuth, Pov was committed to making sure all her four children could be successful.
“I really, really wanted to [study],” Pov, 50, told VOA Khmer at her home in Kandal province. “I told my children to study hard because I do not have anything to inherit to them, but [access to] education.”
They all listened and followed with her dream, including the third child, Rida.
Born in 1996, Rida was an obedient daughter and hard-working student, who worked tirelessly despite her modest background to be an academic success, according to Pov.
Rida won an award for her Khmer language work in high school and won a scholarship at one of the priciest private universities in Phnom Penh.
She was due to graduate with a bachelor degree in political sciences in July. But a tragic event in the early afternoon of March 26 changed everything.
Pov was busy – as usual – preparing pumpkins for sale at her home in Prek Tamak when she received a call from Rida’s landlord in Phnom Penh: Rida was involved in a serious traffic accident.
Rida was driving slowly on her Honda Cub motorbike when she reached a crossroads in the busy Tuol Kork district of Phnom Penh – not far from her university – and was hit by a speeding SUV.
Rida died at the scene.
“I was bewildered and speechless … I did not know what to do and it was hard to believe,” Pov recalled of the moment she was told of Rida’s death.
Rida was among 513 people killed in traffic accidents in the first quarter of this year, according to Interior Ministry figures, which recorded 1,761 casualties in the traffic accidents across the country last year. Accidents cost Cambodia $350 million a year, officials say.
Kong Ratanak, acting director of Cambodia’s Institute for Road Safety, said Cambodia may not be able to meet the United Nations’ goal – set in 2011 -- to halve traffic casualties by 2020.
“We always urge to the public for more attention, spotlighting the problem and more discussions of the issues ... as it seems likely that the public and the media appear to take it [road safety] for granted,” he said.
But, he adds, it is an uphill battle.
A Great Loss
For families losing members in traffic accidents, the losses cost them more than the figures tell, Ratanak said.
Pov focuses on the good memories she shared with Rida, despite the hardships.
“I feel pity for my child. She didn’t have anything good in her life, either tasty food or comfortable life. But she never complained if we didn't have good food. She was perfect.”
“It severely affects [the whole family]. She is my heart. She is her siblings' heart, her dad's heart. We placed high hopes in her.”
According to Pov, Rida told her just before the accident that she wanted to go to school abroad after she graduated in July. “She was close to success, but things turned upside down.”
At school, a teacher who saw Rida’s academic promise during her secondary school years said she remembered her former student as curious, savvy and a near-perfect student.
“She had a very good personality,” said Lay Sovanny, Rida’s former Khmer language teacher.
“That is what I can remember about her; a girl from a poor family, but very diligent, perseverant, and humble. She asked lots of questions that made me very happy to answer,” Sovanny told VOA Khmer by phone.
“I was so shocked and feel very sympathetic to her and the family. We lost a great human resource for the future. I feel such sorrow.”
Policy and Enforcement Struggles
Experts and observers are calling for a review of enforcement strategy from roads to the courts to boost safety on the roads.
Cambodia adopted an updated law on land traffic in 2015 with stricter regulations and punishments placed on reckless drivers with an additional requirement for motorbike drivers to be equipped with a driving license before hitting the roads.
But Prime Minister Hun Sen backed down from implementing the proposed rule changes.
In late 2015, Anti-Corruption Unit Chief Om Yentieng made a rare public criticism of the police force, complaining about corruption that needed an “iron brush” to clean up, but later on backed down with an apology to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who oversees the police forces.
Investments to increase road safety has also been called into question. Kong Ratanak said that he agreed that the investments were a drag on enforcement efforts.
“It is still at a low level. I think the chance of getting close to success in reducing traffic casualties is pretty slim.”
In a speech delivered to the trimonthly meeting of the National Road Safety Committee, Transportation Minister Sun Chanthol agreed that investments into road safety education and implementation were underfunded, adding that the $400,000 per year from the national budget for the NRSC was “insufficient”.
“When we lose some $350 million per year and we could not have $1 million or $2 million to deal with the $350-million loss, I think it is not yet appropriate and we should pledge for more funds to do more work to reduce traffic accidents,” he said.
He also called for participation from the private sector to help contribute more funds to regular training for their employees.
Long Road to Justice
Cambodia ranked 125th out of 126 countries surveyed by the US-based law-advocacy group World Justice Project in its Rule of Law Index 2019, scoring just 23 percent on civil justice measures.
San Chey, Cambodia director of the Affiliated Network of Social Accountability, said that limited action by law enforcement was to blame for the high rate of traffic deaths and victims’ limited access to justice.
“We see double standards in enforcing the traffic laws, resulting in differing levels of access to justice. Some cannot receive justice with the prolonged process that most certainly equalize to no justice,” he said.
“If victims come from underprivileged backgrounds with limited education and resources to access legal services, justice can be harder to achieve for them,” he added.
Ratanak of the Institute for Road Safety said justice in traffic accident-related cases could mean the wrongdoers are prosecuted in accordance with the law and families of the deceased and survivors were paid proper compensation and reparations.
Rida’s case prompted an overwhelming public reaction that led to the arrest of the SUV driver, the daughter of ruling Cambodian People’s Party politician Yin Ngech.
Ngech offered $70,000 to Rida’s family as his daughter was set to face trial.
But for Pov, no amount of money can replace her lost daughter.
“I really long for her. If I could, I would exchange my life for her life,” she said.