Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Punitive traffic management system

This is my column today.

Imagine that you are driving at night along the North Luzon Expressway. It’s a generally cool night, traffic is not so bad, and there’s a drizzle out there—in short, it’s a comfortable drive. Suddenly, a police car, one of those pick-up patrol cars that zip in and out of the expressway, glides by next to you and then signals you to pull over. You are sure that you haven’t broken any law so you are naturally apprehensive. At the emergency lane, two patrolmen in uniform get out of their police vehicle, approaches the driver’s window and demands your driver’s license. It’s a scary situation because it’s nighttime, you’re in the middle of an expressway, and for all you know the two guys were thieves masquerading as traffic officers. It’s been known to happen.

You ask what your offense is. They tell you that the taillights of the car you are in are defective; actually, a taillight (singular) because it is only the right taillight that was not working at that particular time.

This happened to me last Sunday evening while we were driving down from Baguio City. I must say that in fairness to the two traffic officers, they were not abusive. They weren’t courteous at first; but they weren’t gruff either.

I went down from the car, checked the taillights, and true enough, the right tail light was not functioning. It must have been busted fairly recently—most have been on that very day, or just a few hours prior to the apprehension—given that I drove the car around Baguio City in the last immediate five foggy nights were having functioning taillights was a must. I told the traffic officers that I sincerely did not realize that one taillight was busted. One of them gave a lecture on how drivers need to check the condition of their cars before entering their precious NLEX, how safety in the expressway is a major concern, blah blah blah. One comment made me groan inwardly. He said that I was supposed to know that a taillight was busted. Unless one is running behind a car while it is moving, how is one supposed to know that?

Since as a matter of principle I don’t bribe traffic cops, and I was already famished at that time and needed to go to a bathroom, I told them to just issue a ticket to the driver of the car.

The exchange was very cordial; no one raised his voice and tempers were kept in check. It struck me that the whole incident seemed like a good material for a column, so I started asking questions. In the interest of transparency, I introduced myself as a columnist of this paper and openly told them that I might decide to write about the whole incident. That’s when the behavior of the traffic cops changed. One immediately went to their car and called someone on a cellphone, supposedly to report the situation. I could overhear the cop reporting the make, color, and plate number of my car, my name, the name of the driver, etc. And that’s when they started to be deferential. They even willingly showed me their identification cards. I still insisted on having the violation ticket issued but I asked that the ticket specify exactly what the offense was. I noted that the ticket (Temporary Operator’s Permit) did not have the appropriate box for “defective tail lights” so the traffic officer simply wrote “defective tail lights” in huge letters across the middle part of the ticket. I asked him to specify that only the right tail light was defective.

The traffic cop was helpful in one other aspect. He volunteered that it would take a week before the license could be redeemed at the Land Transportation Office at its Head Office in Quezon City. Apparently, it takes that long before they could forward the confiscated driver’s license to the LTO. The expiration date printed on the ticket, however, was very clear: The driver was required to appear at the LTO in 72 hours.

Let me repeat for the record that while the whole exchange was not exactly pleasant and friendly, it wasn’t hostile either. Like I said, no one raised his voice; no one issued threats or behaved in a negative way. I did ask, however, what we were supposed to do since we had a defective taillight. What I wanted to know was whether we were supposed to turn on the hazard lights from that point on given that the main reason why we were asked to pull over and issued a ticket was precisely because we were supposedly posing as safety hazards at the expressway. The traffic officer told me it wasn’t necessary. We were told to proceed as if we didn’t have one defective taillight. It was as if a traffic violation ticket already lifted the hazard potentials.

This is my main beef with traffic enforcers. I am all for enforcement of traffic laws on our streets and highways. I think we can all benefit from a more stringent enforcement of traffic laws as most traffic jams are really caused by motorists who do stupid things on the road without thinking of the consequences to others.

But I have this feeling that our traffic enforcers seem to think that they only have one job description, and that is to apprehend real or perceived traffic violators. And in this respect, it does seem as if they have a quota that they need to meet everyday. They don’t seem to think that their job is first and foremost to make sure that traffic flows smoothly rather than serve as vultures on the lookout for unsuspecting prey. Thus, in many cases, traffic enforcers simply stand on the road oblivious to anything else, their attention focused only on spotting violators.

I’ve only been issued a traffic violation ticket a grand total of once in my whole life. I was charged with the very nebulous charge of illegal swerving. I turned right into Edsa from an inner lane, mainly because the outermost lane was filled with pedestrians waiting for their rides and who appropriated the whole lane for themselves. I wasn’t the only driver who was apprehended. In fact, there were at least six of us who were being issued violation tickets, and we were all obstructing traffic all the more. In fact, all of the MMDA traffic enforcers working at that time were busy issuing tickets that no one was minding the traffic anymore. I complained that if the traffic enforcers spent time clearing the lanes of passengers and guiding motorists, there would have been no need for them to write tickets to begin with. The point was completely lost on the hapless traffic enforcers.

This is something that I have been concerned about for quite sometime now. I am becoming more and more convinced each day that the traffic management system in our country is leaning more toward a punitive orientation rather than toward nurturing citizens’ behaviors. What appears to be the collective paradigm among our leaders and officials is that it is only through meting out punishment that Filipinos can be made to follow laws. I think this is a wrong paradigm not only because punishment has not been proven to produce positive behaviors, but more importantly because short of declaring martial rule, this country does not have the resources to enforce discipline comprehensively and effectively.

There are jokes that truly make your day. The following joke, which was delivered by one of the speakers at a conference I attended last week, had me laughing so hard. Question: What is the richest country in the world? Answer: Why, the Philippines of course! The proof: Ang tagal tagal na tayong pinagnanakawan ng ating mga pulitiko, hindi pa rin tayo nababa-bankrupt. Oo nga naman. Amen.

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