The Cambodian National Police Commission said Friday it would ease a crackdown on traffic violations after a public uproar about arbitrary and excessive fines at a time when the population is struggling economically during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new traffic law allows police to fine the driver of any noncommercial vehicle without license plates U.S. $300. Those driving unlicensed commercial vehicles can be fined $600, more than the monthly wage of many drivers.
It has been relatively common in Cambodia for drivers to purchase and use vehicles without registering them and acquiring plates, especially motorcycles and other small vehicles.
Under the relaxation announced Friday, police in Phnom Penh will not levy fines against vehicles without license plates if drivers can prove they are in the process of applying for tags, the commission said.
The move was welcomed by motorists and the drivers of the locally popular three-wheeled motor taxi called the Pass App, whose drivers were being hit with fines.
Police have been arbitrarily fining people, especially those who drive their cars without plates, a Pass App driver named Sok Heng told RFA’s Khmer Service.
He said that it takes about a week to get license plates, but the police never give motorists enough time.
The Pass App driver said he wished authorities would not require motor taxi drivers like him to have licenses during for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic because many of the drivers are afraid to provide their services because they might get caught.
“I don’t have a taxi license,” said Sok Heng.
“How can I get one? I’m illiterate. How can I learn the regulations [to pass the test]? I can’t,” he said.
The police decision to ease up on fines was welcomed by Vorn Pov, the president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA).
He argued though, that the police should also stop fining drivers of vehicles without plates until Phnom Penh’s public works department is able to manufacture license plates fast enough to meet demand that has surged since the new law came into effect.
“The police should consult with the Ministry of Public Works on issuing license plates and increase the number of locations where customers can go to apply for driver’s licenses so that motorists can comply with the law,” he said.
Vorn Pov said that motor taxi drivers for pass app and other companies are having a difficult time acquiring driver’s licenses because they are illiterate and application costs are high. He called on the police to resolve these issues, as taxi drivers and pass app drivers are low-risk for traffic accidents.
“They don’t drive fast. They drive on community roads so I think they should be given a break,” he said.
According to police reports, on Friday, more than 1,300 motorists were fined in Phnom Penh.
Common offenses included driving without a helmet, driving without a seat belt, speeding, no license plates, and too many riders on motorcycles.
Since the beginning of May, motorists in the city were fined 16,000 times. More than the coronavirus, excessive fines is why Phnom Penh roads are empty these days, a resident of the city, Phun Kuychheang, told RFA.
“Those of us who drive motorcycles are all afraid to go out,” he said, adding, “We’re afraid of the heavy fines.”
“Right now there is no traffic congestion because we are afraid the police will fine us,” he said.
RFA attempted to contact National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khouen for comment but were unable to reach him, but he told local media that the crackdown on traffic violations went smoothly. He said the heavy fines were successful in making people realize they need to comply with traffic laws.
Kong Ratanak, a road safety official, said that the heavy fines have definitely made the roads safer, but that the excessive crackdown on traffic violations was inappropriate right now because of the ongoing pandemic.
“The fines have forced people to change their behavior, and we want them to continue to [drive safely],” he said, but argued that the authorities should listen to the will of the people and choose to implement the law only after the crisis has passed.
The police have arrested three people on charges that they disseminated disinformation about the vehicle crackdown. The three were set free after they were asked to make public videos apologizing to police for wrongfully criticizing them.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.