Bandits on the road

The following is my column for today, August 16, 2006, at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today:

I LIKE driving. It is an activity that clears my mind and relaxes me. Unfortunately for people like me, driving around the streets of Metro Manila has ceased to offer these pleasures. This column narrates why.

Although it is wrong to embrace it as a given, I have come to accept that a little rain, some accident, and in most cases, simple carelessness and inconsiderateness on the part of one or two kababayans will create a monstrous traffic jam, which does not mean of course that I will stop ranting about it. But another day, perhaps.

Hulidap and kotong cops, I think, are a little more manageable although not necessarily any less annoying and exasperating. In my experience, the best way to deal with them is to flatly refuse to give in, get their names, and tell them that you will report them. I am told that speaking in English and being firm and assertive without directly challenging them do the trick. I have had about four encounters with scum like these, all of which ended up with me standing my ground and threatening to report them and them waving me off with a scolding. Most of my friends have learned to do the same. Truly, there are no tyrants where there are no slaves. It goes without saying of course that fighting for principle works only if one has not broken a traffic rule or committed a crime on the road (running down a corrupt cop may not qualify as a crime though, just kidding, just kidding!).

But it can be a really traumatic experience if it happens at night. Which leads me to my other aggravation: checkpoints.

I drive a car with medium tint and which, for some strange reason, seems to be a magnet for checkpoints. There are days when I do wonder if I am missing out on some research finding that says terrorists, carnappers and rapists use a particular brand of car of a particular make and color that happen to match those of my car because I always get flagged down at these checkpoints.

Ideally and elsewhere, a phalanx of policemen with enough guns and firepower to battle the Hezbollah should be a comforting sight. I mean, they are supposed to be there to provide safety and protection to ordinary citizens, right? Wrong! They sow terror and panic in the hearts of ordinary citizens. But then again, who knows, maybe that is exactly the point.

It is not just that they set up those checkpoints under the cover of darkness and at places where you least expect to find them (e.g. right at a blind curve). It is also the manner in which the policemen conduct themselves during these harrowing instances. I still have to encounter a courteous or articulate policeman; more often than not, they resemble the seven dwarves, without Happy and Bashful of course, but always with Grumpy, Sleepy, and Dopey in attendance.

Last Saturday evening, my friend Jojo and I were driving to Quezon City from Manila. We encountered a checkpoint along Quirino Avenue, right at the spot where the highway curves to the left going towards Nagtahan. I do not know what exactly they were doing and why, but they were aiming their heavy-duty flashlights directly into the faces of the drivers to either wave them on or signal them to the side.

First of all, I think it is not only rude but also stupid to aim flashlights directly on the faces of people who are driving. It is enough to cause momentary blind spots and accidents. But I guess courtesy towards citizens and concern for safety are the least of the concerns of these people.

A few hours later, I was driving back to Manila and had to drop off my friend at Zobel Roxas in Makati. Since I live in Malate, I had to pass through Vito Cruz and turned right towards Arellano leading to Estrada Street. I ran right smack into another checkpoint. As usual, I got stopped. They flashed those annoying flashlights on my face and ordered me to open my glove compartment. I sat there with a sungit expression on my face without saying anything. And then they offered a lame excuse, “kasi tinted ang sasakyan mo [Cause your car is tinted].”

I am always tempted to ask if they know what exactly they are looking for when they open glove compartments, or the trunk of the car, or when they conduct their searches. I have this nagging suspicion that, just like those guards at the malls, they do these things purely to comply with some routine procedure and not really to find contraband materials. If I were a terrorist, why would I conceal the bomb in the spots where they will most likely check?

But what do you do with bandits on the road who attack in broad daylight using all kinds of pretenses?

On a number of major roads where bottlenecks are common, you see them emerge seemingly from out of nowhere: Jack with the menacing expression on his face carrying a grimy pail swishing with murky water, a dirty rag or sponge in his hand. He attacks by scratching your windshield with his rag, or if you are luckier, simply smudging it up. This he does under the pretense of doing you the gigantic favor of having your windshield or your windows cleaned in exchange for a few bucks. You can try to wave them off, blow your horns, or simply pay off even before they go through the motions.

Someone I know made the huge mistake of opening her window to admonish the enterprising car wash guy. She ended up having to go home to take a bath and to change clothes. You can figure out what happened.

I am told that along Araneta Avenue, your car’s side view mirrors can disappear while waiting for traffic lights to turn green. At the Quirino Avenue and South Superhighway intersection, a number of people have lost cellphones and in at least one incident, someone lost his life (he was a student at the college where I teach) because he refused to surrender his phone to an evil person.

I actually intended to write about another thing aside from those darn billboards (I have already written about those in this column) that distracts attention from the roads and serves very little purpose aside from fake aesthetics. I am referring to those gaudy, synthetic-looking, often purposeless street lamps that have been sprouting all over the metropolis in the last few years. I have written about it in my blog in the past and a number of readers have offered more examples of just how ridiculous it has become.

It does seem that at a certain point in time, the mayors of Metro Manila came together to organize a contest as to who could come up with the gaudiest street lamps and who could produce the most number of these ugly things. And it seems the contest is not over yet. What is appalling is that the local governments do not even maintain these “stylish” street lamps. When they get busted, and they do so faster precisely because of the absence of maintenance efforts, another street light of yet another gaudy design is simply put up beside it.

Judging from the way these street lamps are sprouting everywhere, it looks like some people are benefiting from it. And I don’t necessarily refer to ordinary citizens who could benefit from better and more reliable services.


justicialiga said…
Excuse me but are you the same one who professed to sacrifice his rights several months ago?

Yes. It is rude for them to flash drivers directly in the face and they must be properly dressed.

But criminals can be cornered in checkpoints too and some of them might not be so careful in hiding their tools of trade.

I think your car being tinted does play a factor why you get stopped frequently.

And yes. I would choose a place where I would be least expected to preserve the element of surprise too.
vic said…
On checkpoints: we have checkpoints but they are announced by the police authorities in advance and for what purpose. And the cops, never, never direct lights on the driver or passenger face. Tinted windows are allowed for passengers (back seat) and only to some degree on the front.

Checkpoints had been challenged but approved by the court for checking for impaired drivers. Actually during the allowed period of checkpoint I drive around to encounter some, because the cops are giving complementary coupons for the inconvenience they caused and sometimes, something you need for winter driving. Checkpoints are conducted during the holiday season when drunk driving accident is at its peak. So altogether, driving in this part of the world is still an activity to enjoy, except for the gas prices. Next time I’ll go for diesel powered. The new diesel, the common rail is clean, economical, torquey and very quite. Happy motoring..
Anonymous said…
Re. the tint of car windows, I remember asking my brother why his are not coz ours are lightly tinted just to keep some sun out, and he says "ayoko, takaw ambush yang may tint". Yeah, and they would just shrug it off as mistaken identity. My skin crawled at the thought of it ever happening to my family.
Taga-Iyam said…
True.....those policemen think they are doing their job......kala kasi nila job nila ay maghuli nang mahihingan. Watch for those policemen who are assigned to do the traffic on that street coming from the airport going to Makati or EDSA (ata).....I am not familiar with the streets there....but I know that every time we get to this turn, may kasunod na agad kaming police na napito at nanghuhuli....reason...wala daw ang driver sa line nang left turn at "obstruction of traffic " daw ang offense. This has happened to us every time na sinusundo kami sa airport. Then finally the one time we picked up my husband from the airport because we did not fly into Manila together, at nahuli na naman ang aming driver, I told the policeman, " you are the one obstructing the traffic because, you are not where you should the first place.....wala namang traffic na naho hold, until, you told us to move the car to this side....there, tatlo-tatlo kayong nanghuhuli....if money is what you need, then do it right and dont use your uniform and your whistle to ask....! I then handed him a 100 pesos bill....and he said.....galit po naman ata kayo...Talagang galit ako because the many times I have been to the airport this time that I came home to visit,our driver is always caught at the same susunod, I will stand on this corner and count how many vehicles you would catch for the wrong reasons.
BongA said…
Thanks for dropping by guys.

would love to respond and argue and swap stories, but sked is just too hectic lately - new job, end of term at the school, saturday classes, family emergencies - i am averaging 4 hours of sleep. sigh.

Bong Austero
snglguy said…
I live in Manila too and I'm very familiar with the goings-on in those streets you mentioned, especially along Quirino Ave. where unlucky motorists can get mugged even while inside their car.

While checkpoints do have their purpose, it is sadly also being used by those crooks in uniform as a means to extort money from unwary motorists. Like when they "accidentally" find a packet of 'shabu' in your trunk.
Anonymous said…

I hope you find time to talk about tinted plates in the future...there are lots of them now and they can be use in crimes as well.
Anonymous said…
Yes. If you are not a criminal what do you have to fear from those policemen? After all, as justicaliga said, didn't you say that you were prepared to give up your rights and freedoms so that the country can move forward? Hey, if they catch one criminal out of the 100 the people they shine flashlights on, didn't you say you were willing to pay that price?
Anonymous said…
What about those who have tinted plates you can no longer see what is inside the plates? They can be use in crimes and can "avoid" the UVVRP scheme?
BongA said…
Whew, all these rants about tinted cars. I'll keep this in mind for a future column.

And to those who are still using that open letter as the framework for everything I write about, I have already explained many times the specific context of that original open letter -even appeared on television to do so.

But I guess the bottomline is that there will always be people who will choose to see me in a specific light - and I guess there is nothing I can say or do that can change your opinion of me. Even the fact that I allow people to bash me in my own blog!

What can I say, fortunately I am not running for public office so I have no great desire to win everyone's approval.

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