‘Semplang’ | Inquirer Opinion
Gray Matters

‘Semplang’

One morning last week I got an email from an administrator of a school I run. It was accompanied by photos, which the administrator had kindly “censored,” choosing less gory ones of a man lying on the road with his motorcycle nearby.

Na-aksidente,” the administrator reported, one which happened around 10 a.m. Because it was close to our college, the security guard on duty sent an emergency alert right away and our nurse, together with other staff, rushed out for first response, and to assist in traffic management.

The man was initially still conscious and kept trying to get up while our nurse tried to keep him immobilized as they waited for an ambulance. He had a head injury, sustained when his motorcycle crashed, his head hitting the pavement.

After a few minutes, the man lost consciousness, and when the ambulance finally got him to a hospital, he was declared dead on arrival. He was 34, worked as a security guard, and had a family.

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Only a few days earlier, the Inquirer reported on a talk by Health Assistant Secretary Albert Domingo about how deaths from transport accidents in the Philippines rose from 7,938 in 2011 to 11,096 in 2021.

“Transport accidents” is the official category used for health statistics but there are a growing number of articles—medical and nonmedical—that question the use of the word “accidents” because the term suggests these occur by chance and cannot be prevented or predicted.

There are suggestions to drop “accidents” to take away this notion of purely random events although I also think that sometimes, using “accidents” still evokes an underlying religious or metaphysical “explanation” that resorts to fate, karma.

Terms that are now being encouraged are “mishaps” (not a frequently used English word in the Philippines), “incidents” (for which an incident report has to be filed) and “events” (somewhat frivolous, I think). The latest edition of the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD), 11th edition published in 2023, has a long list of “transport injury events” with specific descriptors. In the case of the motorcycle mishap I’m writing about, WHO’s classification would be “unintentional land transport event unknown whether traffic or non-traffic injuring a motorcyclist.”

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Notice, too, when people ask what happened, accounts tend to describe the consequence of the “accident,” most often mentioning a “bangga” or a collision, a vehicle hitting a person, or vehicles hitting vehicles.

When I called my school to get more details of the incident, I was told “na-semplang,” a Tagalog word that means to crash on the ground, head-on. A collision may have occurred leading to the crash but, in this case, the motorcyclist crashed on his own.

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This is the stuff that parents worry about all the time. When my teenage son began to use a motorbike, we had a long heart-to-heart talk as I warned him: if you have a collision with a car or, worse, truck, you are on the losing end, with almost no fighting chance of escaping uninjured. But I fear semplang even more than a collision because crashing to the ground can happen with a motorbike on the road, even without another vehicle involved.

I think of the WHO distinction between “intentional” and “unintentional”; with semplang, does anyone actually want to crash on the ground?

Of course not. What happens is a mental disconnect. Few people are conscious about having to be safe behind the wheel of a truck, a car, a motorcycle and, ironically, the riskier motorcycle seems to evoke less safety mindfulness than when driving a car. It’s “motor lang” (only a motorbike) so slippers are OK. Shorts, too, which invite burn marks from contact of the bare skin with a hot tailpipe or muffler.

Once on the road, motorbikes bring out the thrill of riding against the wind, the thrill of speed.

Where semplang happens, the blame is usually placed on faulty infrastructure (bad roads, blind corners, and other risky characteristics without road warning signs), bad lighting, inclement weather, and, finally, the drivers involved.

But the fateful factor is miscalculation—too quick a sharp turn, swerving to avoid the child or animal running across the road, for example. The miscalculations happen, too, from not getting enough sleep, or taking medicine that causes drowsiness, or alcohol and intoxicants.

Domingo advises more use of active transport: walking or taking a bicycle. We know people do sustain injuries or even get killed with active transport but the risks are much lower simply because you are moving more slowly, and you are not dealing with powerful machines—steel, metal, and glass—with so much more impact when they collide. Let’s not forget these vehicles can semplang, too, turning over, maiming, mangling, killing.

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