The San Juan City Council was scheduled to vote the other day on an ordinance that would penalize motorists who don’t stop at pedestrian lanes when someone—even one person—is trying to cross.
The ordinance’s sponsor, Angelo Agcaoili, makes several good points to explain the bill. First, it’s only fair that if law enforcers go after jaywalkers, then why not go after motorists who don’t respect the pedestrian lanes? Second, on a related issue, pedestrians can’t be expected to use these “zebra lanes” if they don’t feel it’s any safer to cross there.
As with the many laws, rules and regulations concerning motoring, we need to look at an entire road culture that has developed over the decades. That includes the way traffic signals, road signs and zebra lanes are perceived. Traffic signals, for example, are perceived by many Filipino motorists as “suggestions,” which isn’t as bad as the zebra lanes, which Councilor Agcaoili suspects are seen as mere decorations.
It’s worse with those yellow boxes painted at intersections. The boxes mean “Keep this intersection clear,” but I’m sure that if we did a random survey of motorists, most will not know that. San Juan is full of these yellow boxes, but you rarely see them because they’re almost always covered—by the cars that clog the intersections.
Solving our road behavior problems also means asking how different aspects of our road culture came about. With pedestrian lanes and intersection boxes, it’s clear that we need to do much more to educate the motoring public, including putting up large signs in Filipino and English saying that one must stop at the intersection.
Sure, many motorists will still disregard those signs, because there is a larger road culture that looks at traffic signals and signs as suggestions: “Please stop, but you can go if there are no cars crossing” or “Stop, only if there’s a policeman or traffic aide.”
How did this “traffic signs as suggestions” come about? To teach our kids colors, we ask them to watch the signals and explain: Red means stop, green means go and yellow means the color is about to change. But they also see, very early in life, how the traffic signals are disregarded. They see how Dada stops at a red signal but the driver behind honks his horn like crazy, urging Dada to go because there are no cars crossing or because there’s no policeman. So the kids taunt and holler, “Go, go, Dada, maybe the man needs to go poo-poo.”
Even worse are the times when there is a policeman or traffic aide who signals you to disregard the traffic signal. You confuse the public because the traffic signal is still going through the cycles of red, yellow and green but this doesn’t mean anything because the police and traffic aides are telling you to do something else.
Still another source of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance are those traffic signals that flash yellow all day long. They tell the motoring public that signal lights are neither here nor there, neither go nor stop, a kind of limbo in the hell that is traffic.
The biggest problem with traffic law enforcement is the lack of consistency, and the worst driver of consistency is corruption. I used to wonder why some of the worst traffic jams are in front of police stations, as well as government offices, notably the Land Transportation Office. Then I realized it was because so many of the people who hang around there feel they’re above the law, parking, loading and unloading everywhere except where they’re supposed to. Check out the cars and you’ll find they’re using PNP commemorative plates or fake car stickers claiming they’re with the PNP or Armed Forces, probably bought on Recto where you can also get fake diplomas—and driver’s licenses.
Out on the road you have to deal with these 21st-century Filipino talismans as well, with traffic aides finding ways for hulidap (huli, to catch, and hold up). This is where I worry about every new ordinance or rule about lanes. We’re always creating new lanes, supposedly to ease the flow of traffic, but they mainly become new lanes for extortion.
I’ve lost count of poor motorcycle riders who find it difficult moving in and out of those “motorsiklo” lanes on Edsa, which are in the middle of the highway. Besides risking life and limb to follow the law, they also have to be on the lookout for extortionist traffic enforcers as they try to get in and out of the lanes.
Once I was flagged down by an enforcer for being in a lane that read “Bus A Lane.” I argued that the sign didn’t say “No Cars” and only said that buses on A routes (another recent ordinance) should go through there. He let me through, but I know that many enforcers make money from their own interpretations of the lane. As far as I’m concerned, if a lane restricts certain types of vehicles from entering, there must be a sign that says so.
But I may be wrong, and that’s what’s so scary about driving in Metro Manila. There are too many laws about lanes, which not only encourage corruption but also reinforce still another problem: swerving from one lane to another. You’re taught in driving school not to switch lanes, but the plethora of road signs are constantly telling us to do that, and often at short notice. Remember that older Edsa regulation that said you couldn’t enter a particular lane reserved for buses until you’re about 50 meters away from the crossing you want to use? I always felt like a toy terrier trying to race into the crossing before stampeding elephants (the buses) got me.
I want to get back to those pedestrian lanes. Road culture is more than just about what we do on the road. It’s shaped by, and it shapes, broader social values. When motorists disregard pedestrians, it’s often because of class considerations: You don’t have a car, you’re not of my class, so you give way to me. My biker friends tell me, too, about how motorists do that to them as well, and they know it’s a way of saying, “Bisikleta ka lang…”
Beyond class, though, there’s basic courtesy again. One security guard once told me about an elderly woman in our subdivision who walks to and from Mass every day and refuses to be helped as she crosses a pedestrian lane in front of the guardhouse. She would snap at the guard in Filipino: “If you try to help me, all the more the cars will run me down and kill me.”
I thought it was just eccentricity until one day I watched from the guardhouse how motorists were disregarding the security guards, not just as they helped pedestrians but also while they tried to direct traffic. The worst offenders were shuttle jeeps that, I am told, are operated by the City of San Juan. One time I saw one of these jeeps going full speed even with the guard signaling, and braking within inches of the guard.
The message was all too clear, and ominous: “You’re only a security guard. You probably have no car, no bike. I do, and you have no business making me stop or slow down.”
Unraveling that aspect of culture will take more than ordinances, and lectures in schools.