No Free Lunch

Small rules and big laws

It just doesn’t seem right when a car driver gets apprehended by a traffic cop, while in barely moving traffic, for not wearing her seatbelt, or having a passenger not wearing his—and yet all around are jeepneys full of unrestrained passengers, with some barely hanging on to the rails at the back. Someone I know actually experienced it.

Perhaps the cop was being a bit overzealous. More plausibly, he could have been baiting a bribe. Whatever his motives, he in fact stood on firm legal ground. The Seat Belts Use Act of 1999 (Republic Act No. 8750) does state that “the driver and front-seat passengers of a public or private motor vehicle are required to wear or use their seat belt devices while inside a vehicle of running engine on any road or thoroughfare.”


Note that the vehicle need not even be moving, only that its engine is running. And for private cars, the requirement extends to back seat passengers as well—but not so for passenger jeepneys, where rear passengers are not required to have protective restraints. It’s as if only those who can afford to have cars (or ride in one) need be protected; never mind the jeepney-riding masa. As the Filipino saying goes, “Bahala sila sa buhay nila” (their lives are their own business).

I am a comebacking motorcyclist, having recently gone back to what used to be my main means of mobility many years ago as a student and young professor at the sprawling University of the Philippines Los Baños campus. Unlike in my younger days, I now, by law (RA 10054), must wear a helmet whenever I ride, and so must my wife when she rides with me. One might question why the law is not applied to tricycle drivers and passengers. Neither are seat belts or other protective restraints required in their sidecars, which can arguably be more dangerous to be in than in the front or rear passenger seat of a car (fellow Inquirer columnist and motorcyclist Randy David wrote on this seven years ago).


And to my knowledge, there’s no similar law for bicycle riders, or for pedicab drivers and their passengers. Looking at motorcyles alone, there must be millions going up and down highland trails all over the country every day, where the ubiquitous habal-habal is the only available means of transport—and where nobody is around (or interested) to enforce the helmet law.

Still on tricycles, how come we encounter them in national highways all the time, when they are supposedly banned from being there at all? While there’s no Republic Act imposing such a ban, the Department of the Interior and Local Government issued a memorandum circular in 2007, banning these vehicles from “national highways utilized by four-wheel vehicles greater than four tons and where normal speed exceeds 40 kilometers per hour.”

The regulation makes eminent sense on the basis of avoiding undue risk to lives and limbs, yet everyone knows this is a rule hardly anyone enforces. The reasons are both practical (there may be no alternative routes or cheap means of transport) and political (tricycle drivers and passengers represent large numbers of the voting public). So if you find yourself in a four-wheeled vehicle forced to a crawl on the highway by a tricycle ahead that you can’t overtake because of busy oncoming traffic, you’ll just have to hold your patience and accept that these slow-moving three-wheelers are often kings of the road wherever they are.

Our country is replete with rules and laws that are not enforced consistently, or not enforced at all. Rules of the road only scratch the surface. What, then, can one expect with bigger laws of far greater consequence, especially when it’s the leaders of the land who openly flout them? You can’t get any bigger than our Constitution itself, Article XII of which provides that “the State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens”—and then Malacañang declares that the President has made an agreement with a foreign leader openly violating it.

There is much truth, unfortunately, to the sad joke that in the Philippines, laws are mere suggestions.

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TAGS: habal-habal, helmet law, Republic Act No. 8750, road safety, Seat Belts Use Act of 1999
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