Our road users mirror our society
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo
Inq7.net 2006-06-26
When a businessman friend of mine first went to the US in the early 1980s, he inquired from Budget Rent-A-Car office if he can drive in California with the use of his Philippine driver’s license. The Budget sales clerk asked him what kind of a driver’s license he has. When he replied that he has a Philippine driver’s license, the sales clerk said: “That’s the best! You have the worst drivers and driving conditions there. If you can drive there, they know you can drive here. Just follow California rules.”

It turns out that the Budget sales clerk had been to the Philippines and was familiar with Philippine drivers and driving conditions. The reputation is of course well earned. We do deserve to be associated with the worst road users. An Australian I used to do business with in the 1980s euphemistically described Philippine driving as ‘unusually creative’. One Brit who worked in our sister company in the late 1970s turned over the wheel of his assigned company car to me barely fifteen minutes after we went on the road.

And nothing better mirrors the shortcomings of Philippine society than Philippine road users – the vehicle drivers, commuters and the pedestrians. Foreigners who visit our shores for the first time undergo a culture shock when they experience their first ride on a Philippine road transport. They nearly suffer a heart attack when they first try crossing Philippine roads. Many of them are led to ask: “Are there rules on Philippine roads for drivers, commuters and pedestrians?”

I have been a Philippine road user for over half a century now and yet I am not yet inured to the aggravation we can suffer from Filipino drivers and also pedestrians and commuters. I have been to many countries in nearly 30 years of overseas travel. Some countries may approximate some of our bad road practices but no country duplicates the Philippines in the extent of bad driving and commuter and pedestrian habits.

A perceptive person cannot miss how these bad road habits mirror the way we behave as citizens of our country. The end product, for one, is very similar – there is no order. Chaotic is the best way to describe our roads and our society. Nobody seems to respect the rights of the other citizen. Everyone seems concerned only with self interest and getting ahead. There is no sense of responsibility. The ‘Mexican standoff’ that happens when vehicles block the other lane in a two-lane street is no different from Filipinos who disregard the rights of others just to get ahead. Three lane roads here, like EDSA, become five lanes and the result is a further slowdown in traffic, delaying everybody and causing greater fuel consumption and pollution.

Driving on a Philippine road is like a video game where you win by navigating through a hellish course. You not only look out for reckless drivers on the road but also for vendors who ply their trade on main thoroughfares. In some places, be ready to suddenly have a dog in front of you while driving. When your traffic light says green, watch both sides of the intersection for drivers trying to beat the red light at 85 kilometers an hour. I encountered my first vehicle collision from one such driver right at the corner of Ayala and Gil Puyat (then known as Buendia) Avenues.

If these drivers, commuters and pedestrians did their usual thing in another country like the US and the UK, they will either land in jail or be meted stiff penalties and on the most serious violations – maybe get both a jail term and a fine. In Canada, for instance, if a pedestrian puts one foot on the road, no Canadian driver will dare drive past that pedestrian. That Canadian driver will stop as mandated by Canadian driving rules and allow the pedestrian to cross, regardless if the pedestrian is crossing via a pedestrian lane or not.

That is because in all developed countries the pedestrian is given the top priority in road use. Here the pedestrian is fair game, regardless if the pedestrian is on a pedestrian lane or not. In a developed country, maim a pedestrian and you may end up working for his living expenses for the rest of your life. Here, consistent with our semi-feudal reality, if you can afford P50, 000 (in some cases, a lesser amount of indemnity will do) then feel free to kill a pedestrian – just make sure that he does not belong to an upper class family.

Philippine road rules dictate that drivers are to overtake from the left. Here, the reality is more drivers overtake from the right. Some may do this out of ignorance. If so, then that is a condemnation of the system that allows these ignorant drivers to obtain licenses even when they do not have the faintest idea about road rules. Many know the rule but are just not inclined to follow it.

Now, does this not reflect one of the most serious flaws of the Filipino in his society – that of attempting to be above the rules if he can get away with it? Let’s face it – many of us take pride to be able to gain exemption from any or all rules. It’s as if it is a source of pride or a case of one-up-man-ship to be able to break the law and not be penalized for it. We first saw this in our colonizers and then Filipino illustrados took pride in also being able to enjoy similar exemptions to the rules. Lately, we saw these in our trapos and so we too want to enjoy this ‘gift of the gods’ of being above the rules and at times, even above the law. The psychology is one of seeking ways to be above the law rather than to follow the law.

Note how our so-called leaders are treated when on the road. They are escorted by vehicles with sirens and are allowed to pass us as if their appointments are more important and pressing than ours. They are supposed to be public servants yet when you and I are on the road, they are given these privileges that make the rest of us appear as vassals. In the cafeteria line, employers and bosses line up for their turn to get their food but that’s because corporate bosses are responsible leaders who value what their employees think of them. But it is not quite the same with our trapos. They have had generations of practice as feudal lords and we are to them nothing more than serfs and vassals. Let’s admit it – that is the sad state of Philippine society.

One might say that vehicle drivers tend to metamorphose into monsters once they are behind the wheel of a vehicle. It is no excuse but it is psychologically understandable how some people can be so affected by the feeling of power once they are behind the wheel, no different from the fly whose head swelled after getting on top of a carabao.

Just observe how many pedestrians insist on crossing dangerous thoroughfares even if the government has already erected very visible signs that establish the area as a no crossing zone and even if the government has already installed obstacles to prevent people from crossing. Just observe how many of them still cross the road even if vehicles have already been given the green light to use it.

In the case of our commuters, just observe how they block the roads in order to be the first to grab a ride – in the process slowing down traffic and delaying the flow of both private and public transport. In some cases, these commuters jump into the buses through the windows just to ensure that they get a seat. In their desire to beat the other fellow to a ride, they only manage to cause the further delay of many others to avail of transport. In areas where there is a lack of transport, the scene is one of ‘survival of the fittest’ and no different from the stampede of a thousand thirsty buffaloes rushing to get a drink in the river.

Woe shall befall you if you happen to be elderly, sickly or frail because you may have to wait until midnight to be able to get a ride without the threat of being jostled to the pavement or getting a wayward elbow from an inconsiderate brute. Outside of the rush to grab a ride, Filipinos are normally considerate to the elderly, to women and the frail. So how come that when they are commuters, they metamorphose into stampeding herds of insane roughnecks who become totally insensitive to the rights of others?

Depending on the place, time or circumstance, Filipinos become some sort of ‘Jekyll and Hide’ schizophrenics, appearing pious in Church but ruthless in business, well-mannered in the presence of high society but blunt and at times vulgar when among lesser folk. Filipino fathers can be generous to friends and buy them drinks that he cannot afford while at home his children hardly eat a decent supper.

The road mess in the Philippines is a whole kettle of rotten fish that stems from government half-hearted implementation of rules and regulations and the wishy-washy enforcement of the proper controls in order to curb these developed bad habits of drivers, pedestrians and commuters. We can also assign a good part of the blame to the state of corruption in the country. A Philippine vehicle driver will attest to just how much it costs to avoid the inconvenience of receiving official citations – money that goes to the pockets of arresting officers instead of the government.

I was once a special consultant for then Metro Manila Governor Elfren Cruz during the term of President Cory. Elfren felt that the Metro Manila Government may not be communicating well with the public so they thought that I could be of help in that department. In the various meetings that I attended, I noted how much of the traffic problem in Metro Manila was the result of too many drivers, commuters and pedestrians who did not follow proper road use rather than the abnormally high ratio of vehicles to road space. In meeting after meeting, the Metro Government under Elfren would deliberate on ways and means to correct the bad road use habits of drivers, commuters and pedestrians.

For a moment, we thought that Elfren’s “Pook Batayan” was the solution. Pook Batayan promoted private sector and police cooperation to manage key Metro Manila intersections, ensuring the ideal flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The names of the corporate partner as well as the traffic cop assigned to the intersection were visibly posted in the intersection to establish both accountability and the credit if people noted the improvement in the flow of traffic. Pook Batayan worked in the beginning but just like our Filipino ‘ningas cogon’ trait, it eventually was not sustained and fizzled out.

If the Filipino is to improve his society in order to have a better country for his children, the Filipino must reckon with the fact that not only our failed leaders need to be exorcised. We too have our own fair share of demons that we nurture and these are the demons that make our country such a hell of a place to live in. By all means let us purge our institutions of these corrupt, self-seeking leaders. But if we are to attain real progress, we too must learn to purge ourselves of our own demons.

You may email William M. Esposo at: macesposo@yahoo.com

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