Surviving the government gauntlet

Dealing with the government’s frontline offices often feels like running the gauntlet. Meaning: It’s not a pleasant experience but a kind of hazing. There’s danger lurking everywhere, and you feel defenseless. You need a good map or a guide to tell you where to go, what you must have with you, and how to get to the end of the ordeal with your pride, sanity, morals, and faith in government intact.

Going to the Land Transportation Office to renew a driver’s license or a vehicle registration is one such experience. It need not be. Recent reforms show that a lot can be done to simplify the process while making it foolproof.   It was definitely a hundred times worse in the past. The whole system seemed structured precisely to give work to the army of fixers that inhabited the LTO premises.

Fixers jump the line and ease the process for those who pay, while lengthening it for those who take the trouble to fall in line. The last time I renewed my driver’s license at the LTO main office many years ago, I brought two books with me to read and prepared myself psychologically to spend the whole day shuttling from one window to another and waiting in a cramped, poorly ventilated public area. Someone from the chief’s office recognized me and invited me to wait in their air-conditioned office while my license was being processed. I politely refused, but he might have done something to speed up the process for me because I was soon called to a room where my photo was promptly taken.

These days I go to an air-conditioned mall to have my driver’s license renewed. It takes no more than an hour. I read and have coffee while waiting. But the one thing that had always baffled me is why the drug test and the vision test cost more than the license itself. Recently, the drug-test requirement was abolished on the ground that the expensive test had failed the law’s intent and is unnecessary.

I am sure there are countless other equally superfluous requirements that have been built into the system by all kinds of laws. They create business for a few entrepreneurs at the expense of the general public. The government agencies in charge of enforcing them know that they are basically useless, yet they cannot do much to change them without amending some law or other. If one wants to get a good glimpse of the appalling quality of legislative work in our country, the best way to proceed is by reviewing the different requirements and signatures needed for the most common transactions with government offices.

One can start with the LTO. The registration of vehicles used to be nightmarish and immensely more complicated than renewing a driver’s license. I used to ask the dealers from whom I purchased my vehicles to take care of renewing the registration every year. They charge a service fee for this, which I didn’t mind paying. But when a new law requiring emission tests for motor vehicles was passed, I thought it was an additional hassle to have to bring the vehicle to a testing center to obtain a clearance before it could be registered.

I decided it would be quicker if I brought the vehicles for emission testing and registered them myself. In my case, these are mostly motorcycles. In the last seven or eight years, I have been personally bringing my bikes for emission testing, before proceeding to the LTO main office for inspection, the TPL insurance, and registration. On fast days, the entire process takes about four hours. On slow days, one has to return the following day. Curiously, in all these years, I have never encountered any other big bike being inspected or registered in this place. Maybe my fellow big bike owners do it elsewhere, or maybe they ask others to do it for them who don’t have to bring in the bikes for inspection.

I welcome the thorough inspection, though I have always wondered why it needs to be done every year. If there’s anything faulty with my bikes, I should be the first to know and be concerned. I would have it at once corrected, since it’s my safety that is at stake. Besides, the law enforcers in the streets should be able to stop anyone driving a vehicle with busted lights or worn tires.

Indeed, I have long asked why vehicle registration has to be done every year. This used to be the case for driving licenses, but now they are good for three years. In most countries, such licenses are given for much longer periods and they could be obtained through the mail. I am, of course, aware of the need to guard against the registration of stolen, smuggled, and “chop-chopped” vehicles. But how effective are the present procedures and their myriad requirements in preventing spurious registrations? Take as an example the whole business of requiring stenciled images of the engine and chassis numbers.

I used to spend whole mornings trying to get a good stenciled likeness of these two numbers while the vehicle is cold. I always emerge from the effort filled with grease and getting no more than a faint impression. I have since discovered the “stencil boys” around the LTO who can work around the hottest engines for a few pesos. Their work seldom yields clear numbers, but that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone at the receiving counter. So, why continue to require it? It’s the law, that is why.

My friends tell me: Why spend precious time attending to these little chores when others can do them for you for a small fee? To me, it’s not the time or the money that matters but the need to understand why things remain the way they are, and how we may make them better. We simply cannot continue inventing new laws to make up for our inability to enforce the existing ones.

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