Monkey in the driver’s seat

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

THE Dec. 16 Metro Manila bus disaster in which 22 people lost their lives and 20 more were injured was far from unique. On the same day, in Badian, Cebu, a drunken bus driver lost control of his vehicle while negotiating a curve and killed several people, including his own wife and daughter. Barely two months ago, on Oct. 9, a bus collided with a truck in Atimonan, Quezon, and smashed into two other buses, two cargo trucks, a trailer truck and a van that were going in the other direction. Twenty people were killed and 54 others were injured.
In 2010, a bus crash in Balamban, Cebu, killed 21 people and injured 26 others. A journalist and member of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication Journalism Faculty, Chit Estella, was killed by a speeding bus along Quezon City’s Commonwealth Avenue in 2011 that rammed the taxicab she was in. Although Estella was the only casualty in that crash, her death cost the country one of its leading journalists.

The Philippine maritime record is worse. The 1987 collision between the Philippine-registered passenger ship MV Dona Paz and the oil tanker MT Vector was the worst peacetime maritime disaster in the world, and has been described as “Asia’s Titanic.” Over 4,000 people died in that incident. A year later, the MV Dona Marilyn sank in a typhoon, taking nearly 40 people with it. In 2008, the MV Princess of the Stars capsized at the height of a middling, category two storm. Sixty-seven were confirmed dead, with 747 unaccounted for.

With the number of dead still rising (over 6,000 as of this writing) from the Nov. 9 devastation of typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan), the Philippines will keep its global lead in 2012 as the country with the most casualties from natural calamities. But it is also rapidly emerging as a leader in such man-made ones as bus accidents, while already the world leader in maritime disasters.

The reason for this is simple but defies the understanding of the State regulatory agencies that regularly put monkeys behind the wheels of busses, trucks, taxicabs, “FX” mini-buses, and passenger jeepneys. It’s easy enough to blame the subliterate creatures in the driver’s seat of public vehicles who can’t read traffic signs no matter how big they are, who drive down the narrow streets of Philippine cities as if they were competing at Le Mans, and who regularly cross red lights without the slightest regard for the consequences — or for that matter, the ferry captains with lapsed licenses who’re the first to abandon ship. But at the heart of these disasters are the regulatory agencies that are supposed to see to the safety of public conveyances as well as the competence of the people who operate them.

Outraged motorists who drive private vehicles who’ve had horrendous experiences with the “professional drivers” the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and the Land Transportation Franchising Regulatory Board (LTFRB) let loose on the streets know that too many of the latter have neither the intelligence nor the imagination to care for pedestrians, passengers, and other drivers. Most of these killers on wheels are not only subliterate; they’re also machine illiterate in that they’re totally clueless about the physics involved in maneuvering a 14-ton behemoth crammed with passengers down traffic-choked streets.

True enough. The “professionals” make driving in the Philippines one of the most stressful of human activities, comparable to negotiating a war zone in which motorists take hair-raising risks just to get where they’re going. But the moron who killed 22 people and injured 20 others on Dec. 16 isn’t alone, and no one should be under the illusion that throwing him in prison will put an end to the mayhem in the streets. His fellows, armed with a license to kill by profit-mad, mostly politician-owned bus companies, will continue to race down the country’s roads and highways, with many of them assured of immunity from prosecution because of their powerful owners’ capacity to manipulate the justice system.

The same impunity that attends extra judicial killings and the murder of journalists reigns as well in the streets and seas of these islands. A company with the most number of property damage-related road incidents from 2010 to 2011, one of the busses of the Don Mariano bus line almost fell off the EDSA-Ortigas flyover in July 2012, for which company operations were suspended for 60 days. Despite this record, the bus line continued to operate until Dec. 16, and was suspended by the LTFRB for 30 days only when it had already killed 22 people and injured 20, when its franchise should have been withdrawn long before so its busses could no longer kill.

The LTFRB is currently making noises about the “possibility” of suspending the company’s operations, implying that it could still allow the company to resume operations after its 30-day suspension. And yet, the Dec. 16 incident alone should justify a one-strike policy, in which a bus line should be summarily and permanently barred from operating once found to have violated safety standards, people’s lives being involved.

But the possibility of that happening is as remote as the Aquino administration’s taking the killing of journalists seriously. The MV Dona Paz incident alone should have merited the immediate cancellation of its owner Sulpicio Lines’ operations, but it did not happen even after the Dona Marilyn sinking a year later.

In 2010, the owners of the company simply incorporated under the name Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. — a recourse to which the owners of any killer bus or shipping line, or jeepney and taxicab operator, can always fall back on, given the State regulatory agencies’ willingness to turn a blind eye on such obvious maneuvers to keep on operating despite a record of violations of safety standards and their badly trained drivers and crews’ involvement in lethal accidents.

The immediate culprits responsible for the country’s emergence as the site of the most horrendous man-made disasters on the planet are the drivers behind the wheels of its public vehicles, and, in the case of maritime disasters, the captains of the aging ships that regularly take in more than their passenger capacities. But the blame goes all the way to the State regulatory agencies as well as the companies that put them there, and the corruption and inefficiency that infests the entire public sector that allow even companies with lethal records to continue to operate.

Expect the noises the regulatory agencies are currently making in reaction to public outrage over the Dec. 16 bus disaster to die down with little or nothing being done, and for things to continue as before. If in the rest of the universe nothing is permanent except change, in this country nothing really changes except the toll in the disasters — whether natural but aided and abetted by human fecklessness, or totally man-made — that have made it Number One on planet Earth.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
December 19, 2013

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