Motorcycles on Metro Manila streets

As a motorcycle rider, I resolutely avoid riding in the city.  I think one cannot find a more unsafe place for bikers than Metro Manila’s streets.  That is why I can’t help being distressed by daily reports of road accidents involving motorcycles in Metro Manila. A growing number of fatal accidents seem to happen between dusk and dawn, involving riders and passengers of light motorcycles without safety gear, and mostly along inadequately lit roads and intersections.  In some instances, the drivers are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

It is easy to make generalizations on the basis of what is seen on the early evening news.  The media reports tend to prompt knee-jerk reactions aimed at curbing the rights of two-wheel riders.  But nothing can be more silly and dangerous than to borrow measures developed from the experiences of other countries.  What we do with motorcycles, how we ride them, for what purpose, and under what conditions, are very much shaped by the particularities of our culture and societal reality.  The encounter between technology and culture is basically unpredictable.  To adopt new road use arrangements, like designating a special lane for motorbikes, without the benefit of a systematic study, may only complicate traffic and cause even more accidents.

There is no excuse for irresponsible driving, but I argue that many collisions between bikers and other motorists occur because the latter have not learned to “see” the former as legitimate road users.  I believe that the first thing we need to accept is that motorized twowheelers – “underbones,” scooters, and big bikes — insofar as they pay the vehicle registration fee and road user’s tax, have the same entitlement to the use of the roads as four-wheel vehicles.  On major thoroughfares and expressways, where traffic is fast-moving, restrictions on access may be imposed against some types of vehicles.  But that is another issue.

The relative “invisibility” of motor bikers in the radar screens of the average Filipino motorist is mainly due to the fact that cars and buses came to our country way ahead of motorcycles.  This is unlike the situation in big cities like Delhi, Bangkok, Saigon, and Jakarta where two-wheelers achieved a critical mass on city streets long before an emerging middle class could afford cars.  In our case, the transition is from four wheels to two, which testifies not only to the decline of a postwar automobile culture, but also to the country’s failure to provide an adequate mass transit system to its growing population.  The exponential growth of remittances from our overseas workers (OFWs) and the entry of low-priced bikes from China greatly accelerated the acquisition of motorbikes by lower-income Filipinos in just the last 10 years.

What this means basically is that motorcycles, which now constitute about 45% of all registered motor vehicles in the country, are at that point in the transition where they take their visibility for granted and tend to be more aggressive in the struggle for limited street space. This is a situation that aggravates drivers of other vehicles no end. As they sit helplessly in slow-moving traffic, they are inclined to vent their fury on the two-wheel riders in puruntong shorts who recklessly weave in and out of the train of steaming cages.  The market for small commuter motorbikes will continue to grow.  We can anticipate a time when motorbikes will be dominant on Metro Manila’s streets. When that time comes, deaths from motorcycle accidents will hopefully go down, rather than up.  For there is safety in increased visibility.

But, in the meantime, we find ourselves in the worst possible conjuncture.  The urban population grows unabated.  The number of vehicles being registered continues to rise, yet our streets are not expanding.  Experimentation with various traffic schemes never seems to stop.  The motorist in Metro Manila navigates a dimly-lit terrain interrupted by the dazzling lights of gigantic billboards showing men and women in seductive poses.  He must contend with U-turn barriers that suddenly materialize in front of his headlights.  He must watch out for other motorists who indifferently talk, text, and read messages on their cell phones while driving.

These are problems that attend the difficult transition to a complex society.  There is little we can do except to anticipate the conditions that complexity brings.  But this presupposes a capacity to plan well before the problems manifest themselves.  Our ability to educate our people about modernity is severely compromised at every turn by the governance deficit that has worsened over the years.

Yet we need not wait to reform the whole political system before we can begin addressing the issue of safety in our streets.  Accidents may not be easy to prevent during this difficult period, but the number of deaths can be significantly lowered if we strictly enforce some basic rules.  Motorbike riders must be required to wear proper protective head gear – not those thin plastic caps that instantly fly out of a rider’s head during a spill.  The wearing of a sturdy helmet has been shown to avert death in 70% of all motorcycle accidents.  More important, riders should not be allowed to take more than one passenger, and, certainly, not small children.

The arrival of cheap scooters and motorcycles has immensely democratized mobility in our society, but it has come with a steep price.  It would be insensitive to take this away from our people now by imposing all kinds of restrictions with which only the truly well-off can easily comply.

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