Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Driving in the Philippines, an Outsider's View

Driving 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!)


Ed said...

You are right on the money here about driving and surviving the roads in the Philippines. Having been driven around over my last two trips, I think I could handle driving a scooter in the RP but I would make sure that my health policy would cover me or buy some sort of supplemental policy.

Didn't know that about the police that you could avoid the bribes. Good to know. The group I've been with has never been shaken down but I've heard that happening quite often.

If I ever retire there, I'm just going to get a scooter and use mass transportation or hire a driver for everything else.

One of my favorite things is that you can be driving along in the middle of the night and a portion of the road will have slumped off the mountain. They will have marked it well by outlining the missing portion of the road with a few rocks or clumps of grass!

Señor Enrique said...

I moved to Metro Manila about the same time you did, Phil, but before driving around here I asked the opinions of a couple of veteran taxi drivers. Basically the consensus was always yield to jeepneys, taxi cabs, and FXs because they're hustling for a living while you're driving for pleasure. By following their advice, I've avoided getting upset by these incorrigible jeepney or taxi drivers.

As for American drivers, when much younger my friends and I did a lot of bicycling/camping out in Long island. One afternoon about 5pm, while riding on a two-lane highway heading west, right ahead of us was a huge German sheperd who broke off his leash and came rushing toward us bikers. Our reaction was to completely stop but not make eye contact. Luckily when the dog neared my friend who was at the lead, the dog merely sniffed around him and the bike until the owner came running to fetch him. Once the dog was secured we turned to look at the back of us and there must've been about ten cars patiently waiting -- they surely stopped without making a sound so as not to arouse the dog and hurt us. :)

Another great post, Phil! Enjoyed reading it.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hiya Senor... I definitely agree, yield, yield, yield! Nope, I don't drive for pleasure. I have work here and I go to school.... When I go someplace, usually its because I need to be there, but that is beside the point. Its best to yield because staying alive takes precedent over whatever reason you have for being on the road in whatever capacity. I can respect that jeepneys and taxis are trying to make a living, but the road doesn't belong to them any more than it does to any driver. Just the same, I know their tendencies to swerve, especially to swerve to the curb; and knowing that, I try not to place myself where they might go. That's another reason I keep beeping my MARCO, MARCO, MARCO to them! I'm sure my horn has kept me out of trouble many times.

Your dog story is not a unique one.. I have many. Dogs and me don't get along. I love the dogs in the Phils; the ones on the street are meek and mild for the most part. One of these days I'll post my dog story where a german sheperd came at me trailing a rope and forced me to break his jaw with a right uppercut. That incident stopped all the cars in the area as well. I think they were anxious to watch "the show." "MAN BITES DOG!"

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hello Ed,
A scooter or small cycle is the way to go over here. I have a camping rainsuit that comes in handy for this time of the year while zipping along in precipitation. And a medical plan is always a good thing to have no matter where you go.

The shakedowns here are more inconvenience than anything else... Most cops will let you go for a hundred pesos for minor offenses like no helmets, or perhaps some imagined or made up driving error. A buddy who has spent time in Mexico says they are much more ominous there. After what I've heard of Mexico, I doubt if I ever try to visit that place.

What you say about mountain roads is very true, especially during a typhoon. Best bet is don't drive in the mountains at night! I can't think of ANY reason to do so.

Oh, another thing about driving here... smile, be friendly. Paint it on if you have to and put it on disply no matter the situation. Even if there is another driver or pedestrian doing the dumbest thing you have ever seen, SMILE and knod as if its no big deal. Getting angry and putting someone on the spot over here is counter productive and culturally mortifying to a Filipino. Always be friendly and let them save face. That is VERY important over here. Just a little advice learned from experience....

Ed said...

I think driving at night in the mountains is common place to avoid the gridlock during the day caused by slow moving vehicles going uphill and slow moving trucks trying not to cliff dive on the way down. During my first trip to the Philippines, about every trip I did was in the darkness of night.

Driving at night showed me that there is one more condition for honking. It didn't take me long to figure out all the ones that you mentioned but occasionally they would honk at what I thought was nothing while all alone on a deserted stretch of road in the middle of the night. After asking, it turns out that they honk when crossing bridges at night to ward off evil spirits.

I don't know what Filipinos would do if the horn on their vehicle ever broke. I suppose they would just haul the vehicle to the scrap yard. LOL

Anonymous said...

That's a good post Phil. You know what gets me is that (1) I rarely see accidents here in the Philippines and (2)there are very few stop signs around. Yeah, isn't it incredible that those Filipinos, undisciplined as they are, really do manage to navigate well in traffic? I think I've witnessed only one real accident since I've been here. Then again I use public transport, as in jeepneys and buses, and don't have my own vehicle. Also, I agree with you on the local guys running around you as you try to be polite. Cripes! I've stopped in narrow lanes to allow old folks and cripples to pass, and suddenly some a**hole will come up from behind me and then he will have to dance around the cripple I'm trying to give way to. Funny world we live in, ain't it?

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hey Alec, Yup, you'd think that the dearth of stop signs would cause chaos, but it doesn't. I too was amazed at the system that has developed at intersections. My take on it is that Filipinos manage so well because no one assumes they have the "right of way." Plus, everyone pretty much has the same level of selfishness when maneuvering their "noses" into the traffic flow. You are absolutely correct, it's amazing how well the system works...a combination of chaos and order. Cooperation and selfishness all rolled into one, but it works!

As far as the lack of bad accidents, I believe that is mostly because its difficult to get a real head of steam up. That's why the accidents I saw in Korea were so awful; they REALLY get moving there and it results in extreme mayhem. This country's road are so choked and blocked that no one can go that fast. Less speed, less death.

Ed said...

I have never seen an accident in the RP. Seeing that most of my time is spent in the mountains of northern Luzon, most of the mangled cars I have seen were being wenched back up to road level from some very deep gorge. I've seen several of those.

PhilippinesPhil said...

If you're here long enough, of course, you'll see all manner of accidents. I've seen a number of them. I was in the Mount Carmel Hospital and happened to be in the emergency room.... Ugh! A woman had just been brought in who had been clipped by a passing jeepney... Blood all over the floor, even on the walls. She was all screamed out... I think they lost her... They didn't have enough blood to keep her going, or so it seemed. What got me was the blase attitude of the staff. Only a couple of them were actually doing anything for her, probably because she had no money. Other folks were just chatting and laughing as if nothing was out of the ordinary -- and maybe for them, it wasn't. I wandered in and out of the area and no one said a thing to me... it was very surreal.

Nick Ballesteros said...

Phil, unfortunately I think I'm one of the more hot-headed guys when I'm on the road. When people cross the streets and they're not on the pedestrian lane, I'd say out loud, "namamasyal yata o. The street is not a park!" and honk continously. I also don't care much for cars which counterflow into my side of the road. I'd flash my lights and honk continously and drive on.

And I'm not like that at all when I'm not driving. Strange, huh?

But I steer clear of jeepeys, taxis, and tricycles. They're trouble. When you get bumped by one, where do you think will they get the money to pay for the damage? It's just a cause for delay and headache.

I haven't been apprehended yet but yes, there have been instances when I'm a passenger and we get pulled over so "arrangements" are made. But recently, my officemates were surprised that the cops simply hand over the ticket and that's that. No negotiations. Fines can now be paid through Metrobank.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Well hello Wat.... Sounds like you have a light case of road rage, still not so bad.

That thing where cars will drive in the wrong lane, the first time I observed that I was stunned. Now, I do it occasionally with my scooter... I've got to watch that. I'm starting to do really stupid things on it. I have no idea why. There's no reason for it. I have no reason to hurry anywhere! It's no big deal to be late here, so why do I do it? It's like a bad habit.

In fact I clipped a trike passing a stack of cars. Usually, I do that slowly, one car at a time, but today I flew up the line. A trike suddenly put on his turn signal and turned left in front of me. I was able to turn with him to avoid a major crash, but his front wheel clipped my muffler. I yelled out a "sorry!" and kept going... It was a rude reminder to myself to slow down and start drving rationally again.... That'll probably last for a day or so...

Amadeo said...


I left the old homeland more than 26 years ago, but every time I visit, and I have been back many, many times since then, I always drive - at least in Mindanao where I assure you driving conditions are more atrocious than Metro Manila.

Thus, I can empathize with all your observations and some of those in the comments. Such as that while traffic conditions are bad, accidents rarely get very bad. Typically just fender benders and frayed nerves. And indeed it is because most vehicles cruise at lower gears only.

Personally, I find driving with manual transmission the biggest change I have to make there, having to perpetually be changing gears.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Amadeo, I hadn't realized the driving conditions were so bad in Mindanao...in what way do you think so? The roads seem better maintained down there; is it the driving skills you are referring to?

In stop and go conditions, around here mostly stop, the only way to go is automatic transmission. I spent the extra bucks to find one for my wife... and my scooter certainly is. I've seen accidents over here because of the time it takes to figure out which pedal to press. As you say, nothing serious, because no one can really go very fast. Speed kills.

Amadeo said...


Even assuming that some roads are better in the provinces, which I doubt, the biggest challenge are drivers, especially public utility vehicles including motorcabs and relas, who do not observe even the most basic of traffic rules and road courtesy.

Davao may be an exception because of the very alert mayor, but Cagayan de Oro, for example, is quite something else.

One has to witness it to believe.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I know what you mean Amadeo... I've SEEN it!

E. S. de Montemayor said...

cops here give me angina.... but i guess that's only in the greater Manila area where the corruption is at its peak....

i'm from bacolod, so there are no problems with cops mulcting drivers...

btw, the perpetual victims of this corruption are the jeepney drivers.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hello Jules, nice to meet ya.... I must admit, cops everywhere give me a pain in the neck, but the ones around here are particularly "painful." I passed a motorcycle cop today, or we passed each other headon, and he gave me this disdainful look like, "You are a piece of foreign crap." I didn't care, as long as he didn't stop me... The strange thing is he was actually wearing a helmet.

Jeepney drivers have always been the source of ancillary police funds, mostly because they are always screwing up. They stop where they are not supposed to, and if there is a traffic law in existence, other than speeding, they have probably violated it.

Unknown said...

This is one insightful post, Phil. And I’m sorry about what happened to your wife. It was traumatic and at the same time terrifying. Were she able to get a new license? Anyway, back to your post. I think roads and drivers’ attitudes are pretty much the same in all places. There are good drivers and bad drivers everywhere. It is a matter of how they handled their vehicles and their attitude on the road. We never know who’s driving next to us on the road. Just to be sure, practice safe driving and get a comprehensive car insurance.