A Deadly Road

posted by Peter McDonald

The road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, the sprawling capital, is bumpy and narrow. It is divided by a faint yellow line in some places, and closely flanked by wooden houses and storefronts. School children play badminton in the roadside dust, inches from the tires of gas trucks, buses and motorbikes, which catapult past at break-neck speed. The road has one rule only: get to your destination as fast as possible.

Drivers ignore the lanes as if they were never there. Large cargo trucks accelerate into oncoming traffic to pass slow-moving motorbikes and exhaust-spewing dump trucks full of watermelons.

We rode in a gray bus, but it looked more like a shoebox. The flat front windshield revealed the road ahead, but it was never a pleasant view.

Our driver spent more time in the opposing lane than our own. Every few seconds he would veer into oncoming traffic to pass slower vehicles — sending the bus careening to the left edge of the road, forcing motorbikes coming the other way to drive into the dirt. Often times, I would look up to see large trucks or buses looming in the distance, speeding toward us head on. Seconds before our collision and certain death, our driver would swing back into his lane, cutting off whoever was driving behind us.

What is the rush? I thought. He drove with unexplained impatience and recklessness. We weren’t on a schedule. We had nowhere to be. But I realized that this driving style was all he knew. In Cambodia, traffic laws are not enforced, nor given any real regard.

The biggest vehicles rule the road simply because they cause the most damage on impact. Motorbike drivers spend a lot of time avoiding collisions, weaving their way between cars and trucks, squeezing through tiny gaps and using all available ground – sidewalks and dirt included – to maneuver. And most bikers don’t wear helmets.

Our bus driver nearly lost his side mirror on multiple occasions, but didn’t bat an eye. He was the Mario Andretti of bus drivers, whipping the bus’s bulk into tiny spaces and around corners, moving at about one HCAPM (head-on collision avoided per minute). His confidence was reassuring, but I wondered how often car accidents really happened on the road. I soon got my answer.

We returned to the bus after a brief snack of fried tarantula, and I sat near the rear, next to a left-side window. We were talking, laughing. I heard a loud smash combined with a flash of color in my left peripheral. At first, it sounded like something had collided with the side of the bus. A few people yelled out, startled and confused. We looked around and tried to make sense of it as our driver drove on, unfazed.

“I think we hit another car’s side mirror,” somebody said.

“Oh my god, no,” someone responded. “That was a person.”

The few Cambodians on our bus conversed rapidly while we sat in horrified silence. The conferred with our driver and got the story straight. Our guide, Santhou, leaned over to me.

“It was a motorbike with four people on it. They behind us and try to pass. So they go into other lane but they not see a car coming the other way. It was a big car. Lexus SUV.”

The helmet-less riders, crammed onto one motorbike and probably traveling at upwards of forty miles per hour, had veered into oncoming traffic. The back of our bus blocked their view of the road until it was too late. The flash of color I had seen was the driver’s body, which had been thrown off the bike on impact, smashing into the Lexus’s windshield and flying into the air.

“Don’t look,” Santhou said, but I couldn’t stop myself. I stood and peered through the rear window. Behind us I saw a battered mess of motorbike parts in the middle of the road. Next to it lay a lifeless, crumpled body. A couple onlookers slowly walked toward the wreckage. Our driver drove on.

“I don’t think they survive,” Santhou said, and I didn’t see how any of them could. It was a high speed, head-on collision in which none of the riders wore helmets. Their bodies were thrown and smashed before falling, mangled to the pavement. Out in the countryside, the nearest ambulance was miles away and the health care unlikely to have been good enough to help. Nor could the riders have afforded it.

So why, in this country, do they drive like they do? Relaxed laws and safety regulations have made driving a complete free-for-all, but don’t people realize how the slightest miscalculation or the smallest error in judgment can be fatal?

In two weeks, I have seen at least three traffic accidents. The locals must see the same, yet they continue to follow that one rule: get to your destination as fast as possible. It’s ingrained in their heads. It’s all they have ever known.

As a traveler, it’s easy to grow comfortable with a place after a week or so. But as I sat in the back of that bus, only about two feet and a glass window separated me from that crunch of death. I was reminded to never let my guard down. In foreign countries, the tap water and fruits can harm one physically, but vivid experiences can also have immediate mental effects.

After the accident, we sat in silence for the rest of the trip — each passenger in awe, disbelief, and reflection. We had experienced the split-second obliteration of human life. In our air-conditioned bus, we drove on.


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