Surviving the North Expressway

Within a week after I wrote my column about the dangerous situation brought about by the ongoing rehabilitation of the North Luzon Expressway, small but essential changes in the management of the traffic on this highway began to be instituted.  These timely measures have saved many lives.

The first thing one notices is the deployment of more traffic personnel in critical portions of the expressway.  Equipped with handheld radios, they monitor traffic flow in the critical zones where counterflow is in operation.  At specific times, the northbound traffic is allowed to occupy two lanes, while the leaner southbound traffic is confined to one lane.  The increase in traffic minders is very reassuring, but I think some of them slightly overdo it when they stand in the middle of a fast two-way lane as if they were directing traffic in Quiapo.  I hope these people are insured.

Those dangerous plastic traffic cones bisecting the highway have at last been removed.  In places where they are being used, I noticed that workers have nailed them to the ground to prevent them from being swept away by speeding trucks and buses.  I have also seen a number of highway personnel in makeshift tents offering assistance to motorists along the whole stretch of the construction area.  I only wish they would also install more portable toilets and carve out temporary parking bays for commuters who have to stop and seek relief from what may sometimes be a kidney-busting journey.

Traffic is still bad on the Candaba viaduct.  There are many signs advising motorists to stay on their lanes and avoid swerving, but none telling them to slow down because there is heavy traffic ahead.  In my previous column, I had proposed the installation of moveable yellow blinking lights ahead of an expected traffic buildup.  This is to alert unwary drivers who may be cruising at a speed that disables them from braking smoothly when they come suddenly upon the tail of vehicles on full stop.  Alternatively, traffic personnel can be positioned at some distance from the traffic buildup to signal drivers to slow down and keep to their lanes.

Vehicles that insist on using the narrow outer lane for overtaking are still a problem.  These are the ones who impede the flow of merging traffic.  As the lanes merge into one, creating a funnel, big buses and trucks muzzle their way aggressively into the inner lane, using sheer size as a weapon.  The principle of alternately merging traffic is as alien to them as road courtesy, and the traffic personnel seem not to mind them.

The day after my column appeared, I received a letter from Wilfredo Cu, the acting president and CEO of the Philippine National Construction Corporation (PNCC), assuring me that they have taken serious note of my concerns and suggestions, and that they are instituting various means “to achieve safety” and promote the “convenience of the motoring public.”  I have no doubt they have done so.

Mr. Cu’s letter, however, left me wondering about the highway billboards that I said were a hazard to travel and an injury to the spirit. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “these billboards are installed beyond our jurisdiction and unless a law is passed disallowing billboard installation near highway perimeters, I suppose we have to endure (quoting me) ‘the subliminal and unfair intrusion upon our most unguarded moments’ by these advertising materials.”  Who owns the horizon then?  Shouldn’t the PNCC find out?

Too bad Mr. Cu has chosen not to take responsibility for something that fundamentally affects the quality and safety of travel on an expressway he manages.  Now I don’t know whom to thank for the removal of some of those billboards along the viaduct.  The last time I passed there, I saw many empty billboard frames.  The one that has however remained solidly planted against the horizon – truly a vexation to the spirit — is a huge “B-meg” portrait of a well-fed pig.

I have heard it said, more than once, that our traffic situation is so symptomatic of the general state of governance in our country that, if we could only figure out how to solve our problems on the road, we should be able to set the whole country right.  This proposition may seem an oversimplification of our society’s current state, but it does synthesize many commonsense insights into the nature of our problems as a nation.

Gridlock epitomizes the current state of our public life.  Now and then our society grounds to a halt only because a few self-seeking individuals among us try to get ahead by ignoring all the rules and flouting good sense, leaving everyone stuck in the gridlock they create.  Worse, these individuals become models of survival in a culture without a clear moral compass.

We should not hope to ensure the smooth flow of vehicles by adding traffic personnel and relying on them indefinitely.  A large part of order on the road has to come from the internal discipline of the motoring public.  That discipline does not take root overnight.  Rather it is acquired slowly if painfully by citizens who come to respect the law not so much because they learn that failure to do so triggers punishment, but because they realize that following the law ultimately brings good results for everybody.

We cannot teach our people the rule of alternate merging into a common lane by posting policemen on both sides of the road.  For that rule is based on the basic grace of giving way, and on the ethical principle of queuing and waiting for one’s turn, values that are first learned not on the street but at home and at school.


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