Driving in the Philippines, an Outsider's ViewDriving here – leave your road rage at the terminal.
Since attaching Sitemeter to my blog, I’ve noticed that a good number of folks reading my posts are searching for information about retiring and living in the Philippines. I aim to please, so I figure why not write about something truly unique to this place, like driving. In fact, driving here is unlike driving anywhere else, although it is quite similar to what I saw in Liberia. The other day, on my way home from school, while I was tooling happily along on my scooter, it occurred to me how much I’ve had to adapt to here when it comes to driving and walking the roadways. Right away, I started to write this post in my head. I’m sure all you bloggers know exactly what I mean.
My primary advice to other pensioners such as me, now driving the hi-ways and bi-ways of this country, is to first of all remember you’re retired. Theoretically, there should be no need to get impatient or upset. Having said that, believe me, you WILL get mad; sometimes you just can’t help it.
Road rage – it is an emotional virus that has infected many in the USA. Try to eject it from your soul. If you’re an American, chances are, you will struggle with this one. I did and still do at times, but it’s much less a problem since I started getting around on a scooter. The scooter keeps me from having to “deal” with blocked or slowed traffic, a primary source of frustration while driving in this place. I LOVE my scooter!
Still, when I think of other places I’ve driven in the world, I have to say I’d rather drive here than some of THOSE crazy spots! For instance, I’ve never driven in Korea, but I have never been more "concerned" as a passenger. When a Korean taxi driver sees a traffic light, evidently to him it means, “Damn the RED lights! Full speed ahead!” Perhaps I’m being unfair, since I mostly make that observation as a backseat taxi fare. The other thing I remember about Korean city streets are vividly horrible crash remnants of squashed sedans where they had either crashed into each other, or just got squashed by the equally crazily driven buses. Give me a Filipino driver over a Korean any day!
The problem with American drivers is that many of us refuse to think outside of what we are used to back home. Here is the problem as I see it; we Americans can’t control our tempers. For example, back home, if we hear a horn and we are behind the wheel, we immediately turn around angrily to see who the hell has a problem. Come on – you know you do! (There’s more on the use of the horn below). We take umbrage with every imagined slight. Get over yourselves Yanks!
Marco! Polo! .... Ever play that game in the pool with your kids? Or, maybe when YOU were a kid? Well, when driving in the Phils, I liken the use of the horn to that game, only without having to look for the response, “Polo!” Before I came here, I wouldn’t touch the horn unless I was pissed at another driver, or if I wanted to get a friend’s attention. Here, you beep to tell other drivers and pedestrians that you are there. It is a warning that you are coming, probably passing, so just be aware and don’t hit me or get in my way. In other words it’s like saying, “Marco!” “Marco!” “Marco!” To hell with the “Polo!” So here’s the deal … Use your horn, and use it ALL the time! You cannot use it enough when you drive over here. In fact, people EXPECT you to use it. In the space of a mile, I probably beep my scooter’s horn 20 times! It’s hard for us Americans to use it, but you gotta honk over here and profusely.
Another “different” thing is the use of headlights. It seems to me that local drivers use their headlights as a signal to anyone in front of them, either those they are passing or those they are bearing down on, that they ARE COMING! Usually, when passing, they use both the horn AND the lights. My suggestion, if you see headlights coming straight at you, “chicken” style, apply your brakes immediately and liberally; and I mean “liberally” in the GOOD sense of the word! Do NOT think like you would back home that just because you are minding your own business in YOUR lane, that the guy playing chicken with you should be the one to give way. Nope, not smart if you want to live. He’s warned you that he’s committed; he’s coming, no matter what. Brake and prepare to pull over. That’s right; let him run you off the road. It’s his country; you just drive here. Let it go and live to drive another day.
When driving here there are many things to consider. As I try to think of them I have to get my mind back to a stateside way of thinking. After four years, most of the intricacies of getting around on Filipino streets now seem normal to me. For instance, driving here is about position. You must establish it by using the bulk of your vehicle. I even attempt to use the concept on my scooter. Believe it or not, pedestrians and bicyclists use this tactic as well. I’ll give you an example: Streets narrow to one and a half lanes all the time here, and for all number of reasons. Perhaps a truck has parked in a narrow spot, or maybe a slow moving tricycle is causing a moving impediment to traffic. When steering your car past one of these chokepoints, it is important to do so with conviction. If a car is coming toward you, flash your lights to announce your intention to pass around the obstruction and to establish position as you make your way around it. You can do this even if the oncoming vehicle is fairly close, but ONLY as long as he has time to slow down for you. A normal local driver will not object to your causing him to have to put on his brakes. On the other hand, try that maneuver in the US and your looking at a serious flare-up of road rage. The American driving outlook is, “How DARE you cause me to apply my brakes; you bastard!”
Another consideration I had to adjust to is that the roads here belong to EVERYONE, including pedestrians, bicyclists, tricyclists, horse carts, and yes, even carabao. Technically, this is true in America as well, but in reality, US drivers believe that roads are for cars ONLY. I can certainly attest to this selfish attitude after decades of running and bicycling the streets and roadways of my home country. I always strove to stay as far to the side of the street as was safely possible, but there were times that I had to run or bike a little further into the roadway. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had irate American drivers scream epithets for causing them to slow down as they passed me. Once, a thrown beer bottle hit me, still half full of suds. I KNOW that Arkansan HAD to be mad to waste beer like that! Americans like to sneer at the road conditions here, but no one would ever do such a hateful thing in the Philippines. Drivers here constantly have to slow down and patiently wait before passing foot traffic and bicycles with sidecars. They will beep as a warning and carefully pass. So, from personal experience, for the most part, driving in the Phils CAN be much more civil than in the USA.
Having said that however, Filipino drivers can ALSO be mean and selfish. I once stopped my car to let an old woman cross the street and that act very nearly cost her her life. A man driving a small truck swerved around me honking like crazy and sneered something angry at me. The old woman had to spring back out of the street as he missed squashing her by scant inches. The lesson of that story, don’t stop for pedestrians.
And that leads to your next lesson concerning crosswalks. For those foreigners visiting and mostly on foot, crosswalks here are a deathtrap. It is rare to see any Filipino driver actually stop at one to allow foot traffic to cross. Instead, they will honk and step on the gas. I have no idea why they do this, but that’s how it is. My last trip back to America I was shocked as I approached a crosswalk at the airport in Las Vegas and ALL the cars stopped for me! It threw me for a loop. I'd forgotten how that's SUPPOSED to work.
Here is another bit of driving advice: Ride the brake! I keep my left foot on the brake pedal ready to mash it at all times. You MUST be prepared to stop, and quickly. Just today I was scootering along and a kid, without a look to the right or left, simply walked across the street in front of me. I’ve seen trikes do this, I’ve seen bicyclists and vehicles do this. It never ceases to amaze me when it happens, and I cannot fathom the apparent suicidal nature of this action, but it happens regularly. Not everyone acts like this, but even its only 5 or 10 out of a hundred, that’s a lot. There are other reasons to ride the brake – such as, inoperative brake lights on the vehicle in front of you – SURPRISE!
Another problem with American drivers is we take everything PERSONAL. Drivers here WILL take ridiculous actions sometimes impulsively, or more likely out of a typical selfish attitude. There is no doubt that a large percentage of Filipino drivers are horrible at it and THAT can cause conflict. Here is where our cultural differences come into play. In the States, when two drivers happen into a quarrel, whether because one feels he has been cutoff by another, or for a whole number of possible offenses like tailgating or “unfriendly” passing, we will not shrink from yelling, honking or worse. That kind of adversarial behavior is NOT normal here. It’s just not done. In my four plus years I’ve only seen “the finger” used two or three times. Instead, there might be an “angry” horn or even a cross word, but it ends quickly. In other words, road rage is almost nonexistent, except from some of the Americans who live here.
Another reason to be careful is the dubious condition of the road surfaces. Where I live, streets are always coated with a film of sand when its dry, and slippery patches of mud when it rains. I’ve dropped my scooter twice because of the always-slick condition of the roads. Luckily I sustained only minor injuries, but it could have been worse. It isn’t just about speed; a driver must be aware of the street itself. For instance, in Manila I have seen missing manhole covers left like that for days. If my driver had not seen the gaping holes and swerved in time, broken axel time for sure.
Overall, there is a lack of traffic control devices, such as stop signs, traffic lights, lane markings, speed limit signs and traffic officers. In other words, if you like driving any way you want, as fast as you can go, this is the place for you. If your car has the power, you can gun it and go as fast as you want. I wouldn’t suggest it, but you can get away with it – there are no police vehicles that can catch you. One of my buds told me this story: He was speeding and came upon a police vehicle with guns drawn. He blew past them and they fired away. They didn’t bother to try to go after him, knowing they’d never catch him.
Speaking of the cops, you CAN expect to experience “a shakedown.” They aren’t paid much and like most non-1st world police officers, they are not averse to padding their pay with “ancillary” funds. The drill usually consists of two or three of them standing on the side of the road. They will flag you over depending on who you are. They feel especially safe pulling foreigners over, and once they do, they will start “fishing.” They’ll check your license and registration for irregularities, and if nothing is found, they might mention that they have a “police fund” and would you like to donate?
When I first got here I missed a miniscule one-way sign. A motorcycle cop turned on his siren after I was just 20 feet into the one-way. I didn’t even know what I’d done wrong. Right away I figured I’d be out 500 pesos in no time. Around here, they simply take your license from you if you don’t “pay the fine” on the spot. Interestingly, even though he acted brusquely, he was okay. I used the word “sir” at least twice per sentence and apologized profusely for my "stupidity." He asked me if I wanted a break, which confused me. “You mean like 500 pesos?” I asked uncertainly. He chuckled demanding, “Do you want a break or not?” “Oh, yes sir. I would appreciate that!” He let me go with a laugh.
Last month my wife was on her way across Manila on the way to Cavite. Our driver was behind the wheel, and the van was full of family members. A cop pulled them over and demanded to see papers. Everything was in order, but he demanded 100 pesos anyway. Rather than to continue to be detained, my wife forked it over. It’s a good thing I wasn’t there, because I wouldn’t have given him squat, but that’s the kind of thing you can expect here.
A last story on local cops…a buddy of mine was on his cycle, his girlfriend on the back. My friend always “used to” teased me about my wear of a helmet while I ride my scooter, saying a “real” man would never wear one. I teased him back, “Just wait, you’ll get pulled over and you’ll see why I wear one.” Sure enough, as I was saying, he was on MacArthur Blvd and it was bumper-to-bumper stopped. My pal found himself immobile right in front of four officers and there was no room to “run” because of the traffic. All four of these cops were on cycles and NONE had helmets. My friend made a HUGE mistake. He made a show of writing down the ranking officer’s badge number remarking, “I don’t see YOUR helmets.” The officer took a step back and pulled his pistol saying loudly, “Are you resisting arrest!?” My bud knew the jig was up. He threw away the badge number and paid the cop. The lesson: NEVER show ANY of these people up. Be nice, polite, and say “sir” continuously AND mean it. You don’t have to pay off the little bribes, and I will NEVER do so, now that I’ve been here for a while and know the ropes. Take the ticket and pay the 100 pesos down at the LTO to get your license back. No biggy. Keep paying these guys on the street and they’ll keep doing it.
Getting my local license was a new experience. I used my New Jersey driver’s license to basically “trade in” for my Philippine license. Like a lot of foreigners, we use a “handler” to help us with the dealing with the “system.” My first question to them got nothing but blank stares, “Where can I find a driver’s manual?” Evidently, they are rare indeed, if they exist at all. I’m sure they have driving rules here, but since I didn’t have to take a test, I don’t even have a hint as to what the rules might be. I assume they go by international driving law, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.
My wife had her license stolen when she was mugged not long after we got here. (A man on a motorcycle snatched her purse off her shoulder as she got out of her car. She tried to fight for it and almost had her arm pulled out of the socket. There IS a lesson there!) Unfortunately, she had both her New Jersey license and her local license, so she had to take a test. Yeah right! Someone gave her a test with answers already filled out, so I can’t even use her to find out what might be on the “test,” which could provide a clue as to Filipino “rules of the road” if she had actually taken it.
I realize this post is a bit on the "stream of consciousness" side, but I’ve written it over a week’s time between schoolwork, playing with the kids and watching events unfold in the Middle East. Sorry about that.
Anyway, to put it succinctly, Driving in the Philippines is a “trip!” Pun intended.
(Another entry under the topic of retiring in the Philippines and living in the Philippines...enjoy!)