COMMONWEALTH Avenue was once a dirt road which for some reason cut through the northern portion of the 500-hectare University of the Philippines campus. With only the occasional snake to worry about in the darkness, students would cross it to get to a bar called Butterfly. Commonwealth nowadays is an eight-lane highway serving the many subdivisions that have sprouted in what were once paddy fields, and leading to the House of Representatives, the Batasang Pambansa of martial law days.
Butterfly Bar has morphed into the 20- hectare UP Techno-hub, a joint undertaking of the University of the Philippines and property developer Ayala land. Devoted to developing information technology, the hub also has coffee shops, restaurants and bookstores to which the employees of hub-based companies like IBM could repair for coffee, meals, books, writing implements, newspapers and Web access. UP students and professors who visit the hub for those amenities risk life and limb every time they do so, the entrance to it being accessible by car or taxi from UP’s University Avenue only by crossing four east bound lanes of speeding vehicles, making a u-turn, and immediately cutting across four west-bound lanes down which trucks and busses barrel at breakneck speeds.
Commonwealth Avenue isn’t an accident waiting to happen. It’s an accident that’s been happening every month, every week, even every day. There are thousands of accidents on it each month, and dozens of human casualties. The usual culprits are trucks and busses, whose drivers think themselves kings of the road because of their vehicles’ size and 12-ton heft, to whom drivers of lesser vehicles must give way. Whether by day or night, they race down Commonwealth as if competing for the Le Mans Cup, in a number of cases smashing into other vehicles and killing and maiming motorcyclists, pedestrians trying to cross all eight lanes, private car drivers, and public utility vehicle passengers.
Despite the fragility of their vehicles, motorcyclists also share part of the blame. Every idiot with a ten percent down payment can get on a motorbike without the benefit of compulsory rider training, resulting in, as one police officer described it, their “dying like flies.” As for taxi and jeepney drivers, every Filipino who’s gotten into their vehicles knows how hair-raisingly reckless they can be. A combination of these factors, some of the most poorly designed roads in Asia, and the epic indiscipline of most Filipinos (they ignore traffic lights and cross highways at their leisure and at any point) has resulted in Commonwealth’s earning the title of “highway of death.”
Last week the accident that’s Commonwealth claimed another life, that of journalist and UP journalism instructor Lourdes “Chit Estella” Simbulan. She was on her way to meet former high school classmates when a speeding bus hit the taxi she was in as it was about to enter the UP Techno hub.
There’s a speed limit of 60 kilometers per hour on the highway, but — isn’t that a surprise? — it’s not observed and hardly implemented. At the root of the high rate of accidents on the country’s roads is the same failure of governance that’s reduced the Philippines to what it is: the basket case of Southeast Asia, one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists as well as for political activists, human rights workers, nuns and priests, judges and lawyers, and even local officials, and the one place in Asia where things have changed, not for the better, but for the worse despite a liberal constitution and laws numerous enough to fill several libraries.
The virtual surfeit of relevant laws on the one hand and the absence of impartial or even any kind of implementation on the other is only part of the problem. But as far as traffic, vehicle, road and driving management are concerned, they’re crucial to the chaos and mayhem that prevail on Philippine roads, streets and highways. Anyone, including the deaf and blind, can get a license to drive a vehicle in this country so long as he has the connections or the means to bribe someone. It explains why individuals who can hardly read and write, who treat traffic lights as Christmas décor to be ignored, and who would not know the difference between parallel parking and a parallelogram, are behind the wheels of trucks, busses, jeepneys, taxis, tricycles and motorbikes.
The near absence of actual, rigorous, on the ground regulation in the licensing of drivers has also resulted in the development of a primitive and lethal driving culture. People who teach others how to drive, including your uncle, cousin, father or brother, and the driving instructors from the many driving schools that do a thriving business in these parts, instruct would-be drivers to ignore other vehicles that may be on their path and to go ahead because they’ll stop anyway (“ituloy mo; hihinto yan”). This is the very opposite of defensive driving, which instructs vehicle drivers to do the right thing and to assume that the other driver will do something stupid. The driving culture of “go ahead, he’ll stop” is reproduced across generations. In the Chit Estella accident, what very likely happened is that the taxi went ahead despite the oncoming bus, while the bus went ahead despite the taxi.
The same culture dictates how things are done in the rest of Philippine society. Laws are passed only to be ignored, and intimidation and violence are the instruments that decide behavior. Laws are supposed to protect people from themselves and from each other. But only those Philippine laws that protect and/or enhance elite interest are meaningfully implemented. Such other laws as those that protect ordinary citizens are either indifferently implemented or not at all.
Both drivers in the Chit Estella incident, like other drivers, are first of all the creatures of a culture of indifferent traffic rule implementation. But they are also the inevitable products of the same culture of intimidation, corruption and violence that prevails in the society Philippine elite rule has fashioned according to the imperatives of preserving its interest. That culture kills, and kills often.