Monday, September 19, 2016

Motorized Mayhem: Three Facets of Our Collective Lack of Discipline

I have known how to drive a car since 1992. That's twenty-four years, and even longer than some of my current co-workers have been alive. I have spent the entirety of that time driving through the streets of the Philippines, and the bulk of that time driving through the streets of Metro Manila. I am generally a fairly disciplined driver, as self-serving as that may sound, and I know how to stay out of trouble as a general rule. I consider my observations here, therefore, reasonably supported by my own experience as both a driver and a passenger on public transport.

This is not the first time I've written about traffic; I had quite a bit to say about a fairly specific stretch of Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City right here. I think everything I said about the real (or at least the main) problem behind traffic at that stretch of Commonwealth may easily be applied to the rest of Metro Manila. That said, I want to add a little value to this diatribe to somehow distinguish it from what I've written before, and from what's no doubt floating out there on the internet. It's a little trite at this point to lament that traffic is bad because people have no discipline; I think anyone who has half a brain and isn't living in some state of heightened denial knows that at this point. I'm going to try to be a little more specific; I've identified three aspects of our general lack of discipline as drivers that are the most problematic, in ascending order:

3. Dogpiling, or "Monkey See, Monkey Do"

I am going to be embarrassingly honest here; on more than one occasion, I have joined a procession of counterflowing cars because I have seen how much more quickly the people in that procession get to their destination than I do. I rarely succumb to the temptation to do so these days, but I have done it and, if my need is dire enough, I could see myself doing it again, unless meaningful enforcement kicks in.

Simply put, dogpiling (as I define it here) is when one motorist's disregard of traffic laws, motorist etiquette and basic human decency gains him or her such a glaring advantage over the law-abiding motorists, most of whom have usually been sitting, frustrated, in traffic for some time, that these hapless motorists cannot help but follow suit, thus worsening the traffic exponentially. There are no doubt thousands of pictures or videos on social media that capture this phenomenon more accurately than my description ever could, and I wouldn't be surprised if, among the people reading this I have sparked recollections of what it's like to experience something like this, especially when one is the motorist who actually stays put because that's what the rules are, clinging to the unfortunate delusion that in that situation, the rules actually mean anything.

Yes, I have done it, and yes, I have been part of the problem, but I never want to be again. And the rest of us shouldn't be either.

2. "The Rules Only Apply to Other People"

This can actually be a very lengthy blog post, or hell, even a doctoral dissertation all on its own, as the thesis of a discussion of what's wrong with the world in general, but for purposes of this discussion suffice it to say that our traffic woes begin when one motorist, public or private, decides that the rules don't apply to them. Construction on the road results in limited lanes and a long line, and someone in the back decides "screw this, I'm too important to wait" and decides to counterflow.

There is a horrifying video on youtube in which a driver, tired of enduring a traffic bottleneck, takes matters into his own hands and overtakes, even in the presence of the double solid lines, which is a distinct no-no. He collides head-on with an oncoming motorcycle, with the driver doing a full-on somersault onto the asphalt. More recently, a motorcycle driven by a drunken woman with two passengers decided to counterflow and collided with a jeepney along a blind curve, with predictable results.

Laws, rules and road etiquette, the way I see it, feel abstract to many Filipino motorists, especially considering that, as my father once said, most Filipino motorists don't really know how to drive so much as how to operate a vehicle. Concepts like "zippering" or flashing lights to let the other guy go through and other nuances of polite driving are largely lost on many of our motorists, and it's worth pointing out that this is not a function of socio-economic status. I've seen plenty of drivers in expensive SUVs drive like complete pricks and have seen taxi drivers drive like complete gentlemen. (UV Express, tricycle and "kuliglig" drivers seem to have been uniformly spawned in a special corner of Hell, though).

The thing is, one of the reasons why laws and rules remain abstract until someone's bones get shattered in a collision is...


I realize, as someone who has done and continues to do a lot of human-rights related work, that the word "impunity" is most often associated with state-sponsored acts of terrorism like extra-judicial killing, torture and enforced disappearance. However, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary simply defines the word as "exemption or freedom from punishment, harm or loss" which makes it an apt description for the situation on the road given that many blatant violators of traffic laws often go their merry way, completely unscathed.

I do not envy traffic enforcers; even the most dedicated, competent ones face a considerable challenge when apprehending errant motorists, as a recent online fiasco showed when a "Grabcar" passenger tried to shame a traffic enforcer for pulling over her driver by putting his picture online. A look at the CCTV readily revealed, however, that the driver was, in fact, in violation of the law and that he had rightly been pulled over by the enforcer. This is but one example of the kind of difficulty they can face; they can be beaten or verbally abused by angry drivers (this has happened) or even dragged along by other motorists (this has also happened) for simply doing their jobs. Some of them are abusive, to be sure, but others really try to enforce discipline, and are rewarded with scorn, shame and pain for their efforts. To top it off, none of them makes a whole lot of money for doing what they do.

Not only that, but often there's strength in numbers. Traffic aides try to dissuade, or to apprehend as many violators as they can at a certain intersection or, for me the most dramatic example, on Commonwealth Avenue, but in accordance with Rule #2, until a person gets caught, they don't ever believe they will, and as a result plenty of emboldened violators slip through the dragnet.

There have been plenty of good ideas going around regarding enforcement, like the closed-circuit television cameras that exonerated the enforcer wrongly accused of being a dick to the "grab" driver, and the notion of "contact-free apprehension" which means that cameras simply capture the plates of the offending vehicles, whose registered owners will feel the sting when the time comes to register their vehicles again, if not sooner. The important thing, ultimately, is punishing the offenders, and making them feel the inconvenience of having to pay a fine, especially if they get higher with each violation. This should especially hold true for PUV drivers, whether they be drivers of buses, vans, taxicabs, or my very personal favorite bane of the road, tricycles and their "poorer" cousins, the "kuligligs." The consequences for these individuals should the operators catch wind of the penalties will be very real, and could be very persuasive should they think of counterflowing again.

Ultimately it should be impressed on everyone on our roads, whether drivers of private or public vehicles, that the rules apply to everyone. It can be done; normally "barumbado" drivers suddenly turn meek as mice in Subic because they know the rules are enforced there.

There just has to be the right combination of enforcement and compliance here.

Road discipline isn't "someone else's problem." It's everyone's.