Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Philippines and Rolling coffins

Passenger buses in the Philippines have come to symbolize what’s wrong with this country, where many of the problems that exist can be fixed by mere political will. With eerie regularity, we hear about tragic accidents caused by failing brakes or some mechanical malfunction that killed passengers and other people. The latest report came Sunday, when yet another bus, this one from Cul Bus Lines bound for Quezon City from Leyte, lost its brakes and plunged into a 12-foot ravine in Pagbilao, Quezon Province. At least four died, and more than 30 were injured. This accident came after another case wherein the bus also lost its brakes, fell 150 feet, and killed 42 passengers. These are all too familiar stories that have been replayed over and over, earning for the buses the unfortunate tag “rolling coffins.”

The way buses that ply routes in Metro Manila are driven offers clues to the problem. As a rule rather than an exception, maniacs seem to be driving these vehicles. Emboldened by their big vehicles, the drivers show no modicum of discipline or respect for the law as they pick up and drop off passengers wherever they please, even on the middle of the street. They bully other drivers in smaller vehicles, swerving all over the place, and often drive at dangerous speeds.

Not only passengers and other drivers are at peril. Commuters and others bystanders are exposed to exhaust fumes, which at times appear black to most people except to law enforcers. It’s actually funny how many of them need to use gadgets to nab so-called smoke belchers even when it is clear to the naked eye that a bus is spewing something that’s killing people slowly.

The irony is that buses offer a valuable public service. Fewer people would use them if there were better public-transportation alternatives. If buses were better managed, perhaps more people would choose to ride them than deal with traffic and parking in the metropolis.

Not good enough
Virginia Torres, head of the Land Transportation Office (LTO), announced that her agency would offer free driving safety seminars to those who want them. This pathetic initiative was a reaction to the recent deadly accident over the weekend.

Instead, the LTO should clamp down on reckless drivers. Not only should it teach driving safety, but it should make attendance compulsory to bus drivers who figure in fender benders—no matter how minor—and those who repeatedly break traffic rules, say those who get at least three citations a year. Plus, LTO should refuse to renew licenses of those bus drivers who would not comply. Of course, the LTO should tighten the tests it administers to drivers, especially those behind the wheel of public utility vehicles of all kinds. Because of anecdotal evidence from media reports, the public
perception is that there is general lack of knowledge about traffic rules, signs, and overall good driving practices among drivers of public utility vehicles.

Likewise, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFB) and other government agencies should do their part. There should be a more stringent—and regular—inspection of vehicles to ensure roadworthiness and safety. This should in fact be applied to all vehicles, not just passenger buses. How many times have we seen vehicles with broken headlights or malfunctioning turn signals, not to mention faulty brakes?

Maybe, it’s also time for government to review the pay mechanism for bus drivers, outlawing pay based on commission. Perhaps drivers will not compete for passengers if their income were not based on how many passengers they get.

That being said, it may be worthwhile to look at other simple but effective solutions. For instance, buses in Indonesia have elevated entrances to compel passengers (and drivers) to stop only at designated loading and unloading areas, which are also elevated. Without a ramp people can’t easily and conveniently get on board. This simple measure seems to be more effective than the pink-fenced bus stops that are not common in most places and are sometimes ignored by the drivers in spots where those things are in place.

Just enforce the law
With the buses, the situation is frustrating because the solutions seem to be so simple. Police and other officials just need to enforce the law, period.

Brakes, as well as other mechanical parts and safety gears, are supposed to be inspected. Given the recurring crisis, there is something apparently amiss.
Drivers, not only of buses but also of all other vehicles, are supposed to know and to follow traffic rules. Apparently they do not. There is supposed to be a law, the Clean Air Act, mandating buses that ply EDSA to convert from conventional fuel engines to compressed natural gas. We really don’t need to appreciate all the soot and smog to know that most are not complying.

President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino 3rd campaigned on a promise to lead the country along a straight path leading to progress. Mr. President, the buses here have been on a crooked road for a long time, and for the public’s sake, the government should spare no resource to force them to follow a straight path. Forcing the seemingly incorrigible drivers to follow laws—and the authorities to enforce them—may seem simplistic. If we do that, though, we won’t just feel safer on buses, but we will most likely succeed in finally getting this country moving forward. Manila Times

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