Unsafe transportation

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

After that horrific bus accident in Carranglan, Nueva Ecija, there will be the usual probes, sanctions on the minibus operator, and official promises to tighten regulation of mass transportation.

Considering the sorry state of our mass transport sector, however, there are more such vehicular disasters ahead.

The accident merely highlighted once again the inadequacy of mass transportation facilities in our country. This is a problem that has festered for ages.

That minibus was overloaded because there are few public utility vehicles plying routes with low passenger traffic. Who wants to be squeezed into an uncomfortable seat in a crowded bus while traversing a winding mountain road? If there are better alternatives, passengers would take them. Yet witnesses said passengers were even standing in the ill-fated minibus.

If there is only one ride through the mountain within half a day, people will endure the ride no matter how uncomfortable and even pay extra just to squeeze into the vehicle. Never mind if the bus is SRO, or if the “seat” is the step for boarding the back of the jeepney, or if your seatmate is a squealing piglet.

You can’t entirely blame the vehicle operators. There are people who even beg to be packed into an already overloaded vehicle.

Officials also continue to take road safety for granted. Reports said the bus accident was the seventh in that spot in recent years. There are warning signs around the accident-prone area, according to reports. But more than warning signs, the spot could have used larger, stronger barriers.

I’m no civil engineer and I don’t know if anything can stop a minibus with at least 77 passengers rolling downhill with malfunctioning brakes from hurtling off a cliff. But if that road bend is accident-prone, can’t the mountainside be trimmed a bit to make the bend less sharp, with fortified barriers installed?

* * *

Once during a visit to Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro, I missed the return ferry to the Batangas port. I was told that I could board a larger ship in Mamburao, which would take me straight to the Port of Manila.

This meant crossing the mountain to Occidental Mindoro in a large jeepney. There were only a few such trips, through a narrow, rough mountain road.

The jeepney that was preparing to leave was so rundown it didn’t look like it would make it to Mamburao. But the next one would leave in about an hour or two, and I might miss the ship. So I picked a seat in front of the jeepney, the one farthest from the driver, so that I could easily jump out in case the rickety vehicle lost its brakes and rolled into a ravine.

The brakes held throughout the bumpy ride along the winding dirt road. But I was soon covered with dust. The windshield was built to swing out and let in air – and everything else – and passengers seated in front served as filter for the natural air conditioning.

Because there were few rides across the winding mountain road, the jeepney was packed all the way to the roof. Passengers sat in a row on the roof, holding on to a metal railing, together with the chickens, vegetables and other stuff bought in Sabang Bay and the Batangas port.

Foreigners love taking photos of such overloaded jeepneys, which highlight the inadequacy of our mass transportation.

* * *

What can the government do?

It can encourage operators with franchises to field more vehicles. But these operators are running businesses, not charities, and they will want to maximize profits. They’re not going to field too many vehicles on low-traffic routes. Local government units may have to step in and augment the private mass transport vehicles. Who knows, the LGUs might even manage to turn a profit.

The government must tighten requirements for regular maintenance of any vehicle used for mass transportation. The problem here is the exorbitant cost of vehicle maintenance in this country, but this should be considered an unavoidable business cost of mass transport operators. In Metro Manila, truck haulers keep breaking down, often while driving up overpasses, aggravating traffic. Logistics operators have money and lousy maintenance of their haulers is inexcusable.

Only professional drivers must be hired for mass transport vehicles, and they must pass an actual driving test before they get the license. These are in fact requirements, but the rules are easily broken especially in remote areas. 

Barangay and local government officials should identify accident-prone spots in their jurisdictions, such as that one in Carranglan, and ask the Department of Public Works and Highways to implement safety measures. The DPWH has regional offices and action need not be delayed.

There are funds for such projects. We pay a Road User’s Tax for vehicle registration. By law the tax must be used specifically for road safety devices and facilities. President Duterte, who has promised to wage war on corruption, should find out how the Road User’s Tax has been utilized in the past years, and ensure that it is used for its mandated purpose under his watch.

All these measures will take time and political will to implement. Before this happens, more tragic road accidents would have occurred.

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