Death trap on the North Luzon Expressway

Last Saturday, April 26, at about 2 p.m., a Philippine Rabbit passenger bus headed for Baguio was cruising on the northbound lane of the North Luzon Expressway.  Since January this year, when the road widening activities began, motorists have seen long stretches of bumper-to-bumper traffic on sections of this highway.

Either the bus driver was going too fast, or was dozing off in the summer heat, or was looking at the billboards that framed the highway, he realized too late that a cluster of vehicles had suddenly appeared in front of him.  He plowed through them with a force so great the bus mounted the Toyota Revo it had rammed, triggering a multiple collision involving six other vehicles.

My brother Dante’s van was the third vehicle in those crashing dominoes of metal and glass.  A Volkswagen Beetle filled with kids punched his CRV van from behind.  So powerful was the blow that the CRV flew and landed on its side, trapping my brother, his wife, youngest daughter, the driver, and the house help inside.  They had to quickly crawl out of the window of the van because the gas had started to leak and could set off an explosion. Though shaken, he and his family luckily suffered only minor bruises and scratches. Three passengers in the Volkswagen were seriously injured.  Two from the flattened Revo died instantly.

It is not the first time an accident like this happened, and it will likely not be the last.  Two weeks earlier, another collision involving a gas tanker occurred in almost the same spot.  The pattern is similar: the driver of a speeding vehicle realizes too late that the vehicles looming on the horizon are barely moving and he is coming up too fast.  If a bus driver, with a higher and wider view of the road ahead, can fail to see the danger before him early enough to slow down, one can imagine what the view is like from the driver’s seat of a small sedan. The April 25 accident happened in broad daylight, when visibility was at a maximum.  What would it be like when the rains come?

The North Luzon Expressway rehabilitation project is long overdue. The shameful condition of this 30-year-old vital highway is an eloquent symbol of the unremitting decline of public infrastructure in our country since Marcos.  The foreign private contractor that is undertaking the widening project seems to be doing an excellent job. The construction is proceeding quite fast.  In contrast, the Philippine National Construction Company or PNCC, the government agency in charge of our expressways, has shown an incredible numbness over the supervision of the highway.

The lack of early warning signs and blinkers in areas of anticipated traffic concentration is appalling.  The paucity of personnel to oversee the flow of vehicles especially in those portions where counterflow is enforced is criminal.  Not surprisingly, the fatal accidents occur least during the long holidays when the flow of people to the provinces is heaviest.  The reason is simple:  this is also the time when the private sector is mobilized to assist in ensuring the safe and smooth flow of traffic.

Our highways need not be the death traps they are today, despite the terrible quality of our roads.  The PNCC has to hire more experienced traffic minders to guide motorists, even if only for the duration of the ongoing roadwork.  It has to install moveable warning blinkers to alert oncoming vehicles to heavy traffic ahead.  It has to stop using those lightweight plastic traffic cones in the middle of the expressway because, even when filled with sacks of sand, they are easily knocked off by the suction created by speeding trucks and buses. Scattered in the center of a fast highway, they pose a grave hazard.

Counterflow is a very dangerous maneuver to encourage in an expressway, especially in a culture like ours where impatient motorists need no prompting to resort to it at the slightest sign of traffic.  If it has to be employed at all, the PNCC must make sure that the points where the lanes merge back into one lane are adequately supervised.  The absence from the Filipino consciousness of the norm of alternating entry, where drivers dutifully await their turns when joining a fast lane, complicates things at the endpoint of counterflows.  This is the reason why in our country counterflows always trigger gridlocks at the merging points.

On that fateful Saturday, I was on my way home from Dinalupihan in Bataan.  It took me four hours, instead of two, to reach Manila because of the counterflow.  The traffic was however worse on the other side.  I did not realize that among the endless line of vehicles that clogged the northbound lane of the viaduct near the San Simon exit was the wreckage of my brother’s van.  The traffic on the northbound lane stretched from Balintawak to San Fernando, easing up only in some portions near the Sta. Cruz interchange in Bulacan. It must have taken those hapless weekend travelers all night to traverse that slow corridor misnamed the North Luzon Expressway.

On a normal weekday, especially in the early morning, the rustic scenery along this highway is actually awe-inspiring.  My favorite view is that of the mystical Mt. Arayat rising above the verdant flatlands of Central Luzon.  I do wish, however, that the PNCC, even as it makes the expressway safe, would tear down those ugly billboards that mar our view of this solitary mountain. In fact, it would not be a bad idea if it banned all billboards from the expressways, not only because they pose a real danger to our health but also because they subliminally and unfairly intrude upon our most unguarded moments.


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