Worse than kotong

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Last month two drivers got to talking at the Parañaque city hall.

Both were there to pay traffic fines under the city’s no-contact apprehension program or NCAP. One, a professional driver, had stopped for a red light with the front wheels of his vehicle on the white line outside the yellow box, at the junction of Roxas Boulevard and NAIA Road.

The other drove all the way from his home in Quezon province, after being told by the Land Transportation Office there that he could not register his vehicle because he had a traffic violation in Parañaque. He guessed that the violation occurred when he went to the NAIA to pick up someone.

Both had to pay P3,000 per violation.

The Roxas Boulevard-NAIA Road junction is one of the busiest in Metro Manila, even late at night. There’s no stoplight countdown timer, so a vehicle that isn’t even speeding can easily get trapped inside the yellow box, or on those peripheral white lines, after driving under a green light that changes to yellow and quickly to red.

In six cities in Metro Manila, that could mean a fine  ranging from P2,000 to a hefty P5,000.

Such amounts are peanuts for the privileged .001 percent of the population. But P3,000 to P5,000 is a fortune for daily wage earners on motorcycles, jeepney drivers, delivery riders and others who drive for a living, and even new nurses who are paying for their first car in installments from their P12,000 monthly pay.

Even for middle class folks with some disposable income but are confused by road markings, changeable traffic signs and unreasonable rules, such fines are oppressive.

For the motorist who wasted an entire working day to drive from Quezon province to Parañaque and back to pay P3,000, the NCAP is worse than kotong.

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Eradicating kotong or mulcting traffic enforcers – a pervasive problem in Metro Manila – and promoting compliance with traffic rules through technology are the main reasons for NCAP.

Properly implemented, the system does the job. The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority has been implementing its version of the program long before the pandemic. The MMDA itself monitors violations through closed-circuit television cameras, sends out the citation with the specifics of the violation, and sets the fine, which can be paid through MMDA offices or Bayad Centers.

The MMDA citations can be challenged, but because the amounts range from just P150 to P300, most motorists avoid the hassle (and during the pandemic, the risk of COVID infection by waiting in line in a crowded government office for half a day) and simply pay.

In all these years, if there were issues raised about the NCAP under the MMDA, I don’t remember hearing any loud complaint.

The protests began only when local government units, beginning with Parañaque in 2018, implemented their own NCAP, with the spotting of violators plus setting and collection of fines outsourced to private entities. Payment can be made only at city hall and not through Bayad Centers.

Albay Rep. Joey Salceda has questioned the legality of outsourcing law enforcement to the private sector. It would be interesting to find out who are behind these private companies. Because of the technology used, Salceda has also raised the issue of possible violations of the Data Privacy Act.

With 70 percent of the fees reportedly going to the private company and only 30 percent to the local government, it’s not surprising that money making rather than the promotion of traffic discipline and public safety underpins the onerous penalties.

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At the start of the NCAP by certain local government units, several motorists I know paid thousands of pesos in fines for turning right at certain street corners with no incoming traffic and where waiting in line for a green light before turning right simply worsens traffic congestion.

Perhaps due to numerous complaints, these street corners now allow the turns, with street signs giving the sensible advice to simply “turn right at any time with care.” Still, a driver I know was fined P2,000 recently for making a right by overtaking a vehicle that had lingered at the right-turning lane. How is this penalty reasonable?

Other signs simply advise right-turning motorists to give way to bikers. Public utility drivers (PUVs) complain that the bike lanes have made turning right confusing.

The most problematic situation is a wide, busy intersection with no stoplight countdown timer, like the one at the northbound junction of Roxas Boulevard and P. Burgos in Manila and that junction with NAIA Road. These are entrapment zones.

The MMDA is reportedly spending P1 billion to gradually eliminate the countdown timers all over Metro Manila. The idea is supposedly to replace the analog stoplights equipped with countdown timers with a “smart” system that can sense vehicular volume and change the lights accordingly. The timers supposedly interfere with the digital sensors.

This would make it even more difficult for motorists to predict when a green light is about to turn yellow and (almost immediately in several stoplights) to red.

*      *      *

Why is P1 billion in precious tax money being spent to replace something that isn’t even broke, and is actually more useful? The only times that traffic volume drops significantly in Metro Manila – when those smart sensors can be of some use – are during Holy Week, COVID lockdowns and Sundays.

For the rest of the time, all the way past midnight along the major thoroughfares where NCAP is in place, vehicular volume is heavy.

And it will become heavier with the start of in-person classes next week. This has to be part of the reason why several associations of motorists and PUV drivers and operators have asked the Supreme Court for a temporary restraining order on the NCAP. As of yesterday, there was no such TRO.

There are, as we have seen in numerous cases caught on CCTV, so many reckless, discourteous, irresponsible and even murderous drivers. We truly need to instill road discipline, and a system like NCAP can facilitate the process.

Unfortunately, as in many other programs that are implemented with the best intentions in this country, the system has been abused, with the poor who depend on driving for a living the hardest hit.

NCAP didn’t entirely eliminate human discretion, which encouraged kotong. Those manning desks where traffic citations are contested give discounts or write off the penalties under certain circumstances. It’s a safe bet that they won’t collect fines from city officials and their staff, other VIPs and the well-connected.

Meanwhile, lesser mortals are likening NCAP to highway robbery.


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