Monday, January 31, 2011

A woman at the steering wheel

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Hollywood superstar Sandra Bullock shot to international stardom by playing the role of an accidental bus driver in Speed, a blockbuster movie starring Keanu Reeves. The fact that a woman was at the wheel of a bus loaded with explosives contributed to the nail-biting suspense although it must be noted that it was less because of her gender and more because she was supposed to be inexperienced in driving a bus.

From what I remember (the movie was shown two decades ago), whatever reservations and apprehensions people had about Bullock’s character in that movie was gone after ten minutes. People eventually forgot about her gender and started rooting for her. A movie is probably the worst metaphor for the latest wrinkle in our lives as commuters but there really is no other parallel we can think of at this point. Most of us have not seen a woman bus driver although it’s a common sight in other key cities abroad.

I once saw a female jeepney driver in Taft Avenue a couple of years back but I think she was a rarity; I’m not sure there are still female jeepney drivers plying Metro Manila routes today. I’ve also seen quite a number of female tricycle drivers, but those three-wheeled contraptions don’t really compare to buses.

If the Metro Manila Development Authority had its way, we will have more female bus drivers plying Metro Manila thoroughfares starting March of this year. According to the MMDA, female drivers are more disciplined. They are supposed to be involved in fewer accidents compared to men.

The announcement was met by skepticism. Some even thought the MMDA was joking and derided the announcement as yet another harebrained idea that bored bureaucrats produce every now and then.

There are those who think that driving a bus is a job that is not appropriate or suitable for a woman. I am not sure there are still jobs today that are gender specific-and let’s please not quibble about “babymakers” because I think that’s a job created purely for cinematic purposes by our local film industry. We have female plane pilots and they have been found to be just as competent as male pilots. Most of the production plants in the manufacturing sector already employ women even for jobs such as forklift operators. In fact, I am told that women make better forklift operators as they tend to be more diligent and set higher benchmarks in terms of quality.

On the other hand, more males have also invaded what were once considered exclusive domains of women. For example, the kitchen used to be off limits to menfolk as women tended to be solely responsible for bringing food to the table. I think we have more male chefs today than women. My friends and I visited an embroidery shop at Quezon Province recently to shop for materials for barong and were pleasantly surprised to discover that the embroidery craft was already being embraced by men as well although we were told that the “craftsmen” tended to specialize in embroidery using machines rather than the traditional handcrafting method.

There is this thing called reverse discrimination; it’s a phenomenon where women are barred from certain jobs supposedly for their own sake. Some people tend to see women as delicate, fragile creatures and tend to be “protective” of them. This same argument is being used against the idea of hiring female bus drivers.

The argument may be valid if we still lived in the seventies when buses were machines of steel designed to be operated manually. This is not anymore the case today. Driving the new generation of buses do not require as much physical effort anymore because of modern technology. Advanced hydraulics technology, for instance, has reduced all that heavy pulling and pushing to just a flick of a button. Driving a bus is now as easy as driving a car.

But the strongest source of skepticism directed at this idea of having women as bus drivers is this general belief that women are simply “bad” drivers. To be more specific, that women lack the “diskarte” required to be effective drivers on our roads. What we are really saying is that most women drivers tend to obey traffic rules such as speed limits and tend to stick to their lanes even in situations when stretching the rules a little seems the more sensible thing to do.

I’ve been in many situations where we seem “stuck” behind a car that’s cruising at normal speed, refusing to change lanes, or conversely, trying to change lanes in preparation to make a turn a hundred meters away from the intersection. We would automatically conclude, with a hint of sarcasm, that the driver of the car in front of us must be a woman. If we come to think about it, what that driver was doing was exactly what everyone should be doing except that most among us do flaunt our ability to circumvent traffic rules with just a little dexterity or sleigh of hand.

I’ve also been in many situations when we’d get annoyed at one of our passengers who would turn instantly into a backseat driver, nagging whoever is at the wheel to follow instructions. Of course, the backseat driver would turn out to be a woman 98 percent of the time. It’s a fact: Women are just more conscientious about following rules.

And they are just more focused when driving compared to men who have to do a thousand other things while trying to steer the wheel at the same time. Of course there are exceptions. I know someone who leaves her residence in the morning straight from the shower and arrives at work an hour later fully made up and dressed for client calls. She puts on her makeup, blow-dries her hair, and puts on stockings while driving. We’re talking generalities here, not specifics.

This is wishful thinking, but hopefully, passengers would also become a little more considerate and law-abiding when a woman is at the wheel of a bus. One of the things that aggravate our traffic situation is the fact that passengers often demand to be allowed to board or get off a bus at the most inappropriate of places, not to mention outside of designated zones. A woman can get away with berating passengers for being undisciplined. Also, a woman driver would presumably be more considerate and patient and would not get into situations where buses would hold up traffic just because bus drivers are playing a game of one-upmanship with the rest of the world.

Of course authorities would have to give our female drivers the necessary training and support. I would imagine that other drivers would try to take advantage of female bus drivers by cutting into their lanes or taunting them unnecessarily. We also need to conduct better information and education drives to enable everyone to adjust to the change. Having female bus drivers is not just a simple matter of changing the gender of whoever is the steering wheel of our public transport vehicles. It represents a significant shift in our social and cultural structures as well.

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