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No accidents

/ 12:16 AM December 30, 2015

After I wrote about the growing number of vehicular accidents in Metro Manila, freelance writer and road safety crusader Dinna Dayao wrote me with the proposition that there are no accidents, at least not on the road. Call them crashes or collisions, but not accidents, because there are always reasons for these terrible events.

As an anthropologist with a special interest in language, I’ve always felt words are powerful in shaping the way we think of the world, of people, and of events. After getting Dinna’s e-mail, I did realize that the word “accident” makes us attribute the events to fickle fate, the supernatural, even God, rather than human factors.

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“Accident” reduces accountability. We see and hear it all the time: a driver scratching his head with an excuse for the “accident”: the brakes didn’t work, he was sleepy (no one ever says “sleepy from drinking”), the road was dark.

‘Five Es’

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Vehicular accidents don’t happen, well, by accident. Much has been said about traffic problems clustering around “five Es,” three of which are probably better known because they’ve been discussed for many years: faulty road engineering, weak enforcement of laws and regulations, and lack of driver and pedestrian education. In recent years, two more Es have been added, especially around the safety of schoolchildren on the road: the need for encouragement of good road safety programs, and constant evaluation of traffic situations.

The lack of monitoring and evaluation is probably the most serious deficiency, feeding into all the other problematic Es. It took us years, for example, to get rid of all those dangerous U-turn slots, and even today we have major intersections that are even more dangerous, allowing simultaneous left turns and U-turns.

Dinna sent me a link to articles on “stories.thinkingmachin.es” (that’s not a typo, the “es” is the domain) analyzing data from the Metro Manila Accident (sic) Reporting and Analysis System, with some revealing findings, three of which I think are particularly striking:

Predawn crashes are three times more likely to end in injury or death than those during the day.

While Edsa, Commonwealth and C5 figure in the biggest number of collisions and crashes, the three most “road-unsafe” cities, when injuries and deaths are divided by the number of residents, are Parañaque, San Juan and Valenzuela.

Pedestrians comprise 44 percent of total deaths from the road collisions, followed by drivers (40 percent) and passengers (16 percent).

We need to go beyond collecting data, and begin to analyze them. What’s more, the analysis should be used to bring changes around engineering, enforcement and education. The Metro Manila data show that collisions involving motorcycles have been on the rise since 2005, which parallels the growing number of motorcycles. I remember data from the Department of Health showing that in collisions involving motorcycles, the chances of death tremendously increased if no helmet was used. The implications of these findings for road safety regulations and education are clear.

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The encouragement factor is important. The Metro Manila data show that Marikina is the second safest city when it comes to pedestrians, and it can be attributed in part to the city’s “walkable sidewalks” program. We need the media to highlight such best practices.

Or, simply, to feature motorcycle drivers whose helmets saved them from death. Or parents talking about how seat belts protected a child from more serious injury, or death.

Talking about education, I also wish we’d learn from ad agencies that put in money not just to design marketing campaigns but also to evaluate the impact. We don’t need expensive research here: Just watch where pedestrians cross the street and you’ll see that they do it right at crossings where there are signs warning them not to cross, or risk death. No one takes those signs seriously, the best proof being a threatening sign that I saw in front of a private driveway: “Bawal mag-parking dito. Nakakamatay.” (Loose translation: Parking here can be fatal.)

You may as well put a cross or a smashed-up vehicle in places where there have been deaths. When I’m out of Metro Manila and pass one of those crosses on a highway, a local driver is usually ready with a full story of the collision, complete with a commentary about the driver being drunk, or speeding, or both.

Let’s get back to the language aspects. We should be thinking of local terms for a crash or collision. In Tagalog we use “banggaan,” which captures the full impact of a collision. People can also be very specific, describing, for example, how a motorcycle driver was thrown off his bike as “sumemplang.”

New Year’s Eve accidents?

I thought a yearend column disputing the concept of accidents would be a good opportunity as well to talk about New Year’s Eve revelries, including using firecrackers and firing guns. Let’s look first at the firecrackers. Years of using these firecrackers support the view that pyrotechnics should be left to experts, with carefully engineered public displays. Yet each year we allow the sale of these dangerous chemicals, seeing it as private entertainment, and allowing even children to handle them like toys.

As with road collisions, I suspect that the educational campaigns against firecrackers have limitations because they tend to concentrate on the immediate effects which, while bloody and gory, still do not capture the long-term suffering it causes to the victim and his or her family.

The photos of missing fingers and bloodied faces and limbs from firecrackers have fleeting impact. People don’t realize there are people who die within days from the infections of firecracker injuries.

Then there’s the firing of guns. Every year, law enforcement officials go on television and radio to warn that the firing of guns could lead to “accidents.” What we need is a very simple message, a reminder to people that when they fire guns into the air—which they think is a safety precaution—the bullets that go up won’t land on the moon. Get
Ramon Bautista to go on air with this New Year’s “science of the stupid” lesson: What goes up must come down.

Each new year, we wake up to read the headlines on the number of injuries and deaths from firecracker use and gunshots. We shake our heads and feel momentary compassion, especially for the children maimed or killed. And because we call them accidents, we can just shrug our shoulders and resign ourselves to another year of living dangerously.

Let’s strive for a truly happy new year.

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