Backsliding is a word originally coined to refer to born-again Christians who live upright lives after conversion, but then revert to their old “bad” ways. Locally, Ferdinand Marcos used the term in a secular sense, to refer to the way Filipinos became disciplined right after martial law, only to return to old habits. Of course, Marcos used it mainly to scold ordinary citizens, and never mind the main backsliders: his cronies and officials who went wild with impunity after martial law removed the checks and balances on power.
It’s a word worthwhile reviving in the context of the present administration, with its emphasis on “matuwid na daan” or moral uprightness, and where better to look at signs of progress, or backsliding, than on the road, with traffic enforcement? I have two related stories, both set on the road.
I frequently take Santolan on my way home from the University of the Philippines in Diliman, and it used to be an ordeal because of the many drivers who would counterflow (i.e., drive on the wrong lane to get ahead of other motorists, thus blocking cars coming from the other direction).
There were warning signs every few blocks threatening a P2,000 fine, and I used to mentally calculate how much revenues the government could gain just by apprehending the counterflowing drivers and collecting the fines. I doubt if the fines were ever collected, the warning signs used instead by cops and traffic aides for occasional highway robbery when they needed merienda.
The traffic flow dramatically improved after the Aquino administration announced it would get serious with banning counterflow, which it did. But in the last two months or so I’ve noticed backsliding, with more and more drivers authorizing themselves to counterflow and bringing back the terrible gridlocks, with the police and traffic aides turning a blind eye. Not only that: I’m told by friends that in some cases, the police and traffic aides themselves order motorists to go on a counterflow.
A major cultural revolution is needed to eradicate counterflow, which springs out of deeply embedded cultural notions of “sayang” entitlement in relation to spaces. Woe to anyone who lets down his or her guard while queuing because if you allow the tiniest space to free up, someone will sneak in. The same principle operates on the road as motorists weasel their way into the space in front of you… or, in the case of counterflow, take over the opposite lane, zooming ahead and then trying to get back into the correct lane as they get to the intersection.
Besides reinforcing the corruption of “sayang” and its entitlements, counterflow rides on feudal privilege. I am sure the habit started with some VIPs taking over the opposite lane because they were in a hurry. The campaign against counterflow came with the ban on the wangwang or police siren, which had become another odious symbol of feudal privilege, allowing big-shot officials to get home faster with much fanfare just so they could run to the little boys’ room.
There were mixed reactions when the newly elected P-Noy ordered a strict implementation of the ban on sirens. I was among those who welcomed the move, especially because the President, although entitled by law to use the siren, said his own vehicles would not use it. What a refreshing new image it was of a President willing to wait, and to stew in the traffic.
Others were horrified, arguing that he (and officials, and rich people, and those with connections) can and should use the sirens. There were dire warnings he would end up late for all his official functions or would compromise security. Still others were skeptical, giving the ban a month or two.
Two years have passed and generally, the ban on the siren is being enforced. But again, I’m seeing backsliding here in a rather creative way. Now we see advance teams of motorcycle cops who stop vehicles at various points so the hot shot’s SUV can zoom by, with no wailing siren but with flashing lights on the car’s roof. Silent wangwang, I thought.
The President, and others in his administration, should know that once people taste reforms, they will react if those reforms are threatened. The reason I decided to do this column was an incident two weeks ago on Santolan. I was driving along when a taxi behind me swerved into the opposite lane and sped away. As I drove on the traffic flow slowed down to a crawl, and then I saw the taxi, at a standstill on the opposite lane but the cabbie dragged out by an irate motorist who was coming from the other direction and who had been blocked, perhaps even coming close to a head-on collision.
It was a heated confrontation and the cabbie finally jumped back into his taxi and drove off, escaping into a nearby intersection and nearly getting other vehicles into an accident.
We will see more of this road rage instigated by counterflow. When I discussed the incident in a graduate class, the students all became agitated, agreeing that counterflow reinforced the worst in the Filipino. One student said she would never allow a counterflowing vehicle to try to get back into her lane.
We can and should stand our ground, but there is little we can do if the traffic enforcers allow the counterflowers to get their way, or even order the counterflow. Which takes me to my second story, still about life on the road, but this time about modern-day anting-anting or amulets.
I recently noticed that our family driver had a “Bureau of Fire Protection” sticker on his motorcycle. When I asked him if he had a friend working in the bureau, he smiled sheepishly and said he didn’t know anyone, and that he had bought the sticker. Turned out he had bought two: The other one reads “Philippine National Police,” and he had put it on the rear windshield of the car he was driving. I thought of how he had imitated the principle of a religious scapular for the car, the rear with a PNP sticker and the front with all kinds of calling cards of police and military officials which he got from my father, prominently displayed on the dashboard beneath a rosary.
For my father, the cards are trophies, signs of connections to power. I warned the driver not to look at these connections as a license to break traffic rules, but he quickly clarified he was displaying them, and the sticker, and presumably the rosary, to protect himself from extortionist traffic enforcers who flag down motorists for some alleged traffic violation (swerving, no seat belts, texting, even having a child on the front seat).
I learned that the driver bought the stickers on Recto, that notorious street in Manila that has a thriving trade in manufacturing fake diplomas, birth certificates, passports and other official documents, with mainly the poor and powerless as customers. If our roads reflect impunity, then Recto offers, like nearby Quiapo, some solace and a sense of being protected through the intercession—real or imagined—of gods in heaven and on earth.
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