Motorcycle exclusions

I remember the first time I drove a motorcycle on the expressway.  It was 1967, and the new North Diversion Road, as it was then called, was almost finished, although it had not yet officially opened. I realized that some motorcycles were made for open highways, while others did better on city roads.  The concept of “limited access highways” was new in our country.

In 1968, the Dept. of Public Works and Communications issued A.O. No.1, which, among other things, prohibited motorcycles on limited access highways, putting them in the same category as bicycles and pedicabs.  This was contrary to the practice in most countries.  The ban is based on the unexamined belief that motorcycles pose a greater danger than motorcars to the free flow of traffic on expressways.

Many years have passed, and, even as cars are getting smaller, the new bikes that are being produced are not only getting bigger and faster, but also more stable and maneuverable.  The science that has gone into the crafting of these high-performance machines necessitates a new way of driving.  The power they pack imposes great responsibilities on their owners.  In many countries, a license to drive such machines is issued only after the completion of a special riding course.

In July 2001, the Dept. of Public Works and Highways issued D.O. No. 123, allowing motorbikes with at least 400cc engine displacement access to the expressways.  This new policy was prompted by a Makati court’s grant of a preliminary injunction on a petition seeking the lifting of the ban, which had been filed earlier by bikers James Mirasol, Richard Santiago, and the Luzon Motorcyclists Federation, Inc.

Encouraged by this new policy, I bought my first big bike, a Ducati Monster S4, with an engine capacity of 916cc, one month after the ban was lifted.  I’ve been riding almost every weekend ever since, using either the North Luzon Expressway (Nlex) or the South Luzon Expressway (Slex) as access routes to the rest of this beautiful country.

But something happened to the world of motorcycling that was not foreseen.  Taiwan, South Korea, and China entered the scene as motorcycle manufacturers, churning out light motorbikes that were being sold at incredibly low prices. This compelled the Japanese producers that had traditionally supplied the bikes for the local tricycle market to come up with comparable models at competitive prices. The rise in overseas workers’ remittances in the past decade greatly stimulated the demand, and the availability of easy installment schemes changed the whole configuration of the market.  In an instant, this chain of events democratized motorcycling as a hobby.

Today there are more than 3 million registered motorcycles in the country.  Organized as associations of sporting enthusiasts, their owners constitute a formidable force.  I remember being approached by a fellow rider whose beautiful modified “underbone” had caught my attention.  In the course of our conversation, he brought up the idea of putting up a party-list group for motorcyclists.  What would be our main advocacy, I asked.  Well, he said, for one – the right of equal access to the expressways.  Of course, he added, eyeing my Ducati, you don’t have this problem.  But why, he pressed on, testing my democratic credentials, should the highways be for the exclusive use of the rich big bikers?  He had a point.

I was going to build a case justifying the selective lifting of the ban, but lowering the minimum engine displacement requirement to maybe 250cc.  I started to tell him that going on full-throttle speed to keep within the speed range of expressways could subject small engines and narrow tires to the risk of blow-ups.  But my friend was in no mood to listen to a discourse on the concept of expressways and the rationality they embody.

I suddenly became aware that a simple distinction based on engine displacement had quietly acquired a class undertone.  The big bike is no longer just a heavy machine; it has become a signifier of social exclusion.  The unverbalized resentment that this breeds may sometimes be felt in the awkward social distance that segregates big bikers from the small “underbone” riders in gas stations where they congregate for their Sunday rides.  There is an easy camaraderie among big bikers that is symbolized by the quick friendly wave on the road, but I have to admit this is not something customarily given to fellow riders on underbones.

The original petition filed by Mirasol, Santiago, and the LMFI had sought the total removal of all motorcycles from the list of vehicles to be excluded from the expressways.  Ironically, it was the big bikers who became the sole beneficiaries when the DPWH amended its rules allowing motorbikes with at least 400cc displacement access to the freeways.  This was like rubbing salt on an open wound.

In June 2003, the Makati RTC ruled with finality against the petition. The judge restored the ban on all motorcycles, regardless of engine displacement.  The case found its way to the Supreme Court. In a fascinating decision penned by Justice Antonio Carpio last year, the Court took an unexpected route, partially granting the petition by annulling some department orders that had been issued, but upholding the legality of the original ban against motorcycles on expressways under Administrative Order No. 1.  The high court refused to be drawn into a discussion of the rational use of expressways and why motorcyclists can be responsible users of these roads.  Instead, in one fell swoop, it flattened all motorcycle distinctions and democratized expressway exclusion.


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