When it comes to road use, I have always believed that all duly licensed motorists and bikers, as well as cyclists have equal rights and privilege. Pedestrians, on the other hand, should remain on sidewalks for their safety, except in instances when there are no sidewalks. Then, they can be accorded the courtesy of using the side of the road.
Problems arise when certain groups of people abuse their privilege, to the disadvantage of a larger group of people with just as much right and access to roads. Many times, such abuse is done with impunity and reckless abandon, raising the risk of accident or injury if not death. Worse, such abuse is tolerated by authorities, if not done by people in authority themselves.
Saturday last week, Nov. 27, I was driving up to Tagaytay City with my family around 8 a.m. when we encountered maybe three batches of motorcyclists going up the Tagaytay-Sta. Rosa Road. They had motorcycle “escorts,” presumably motorized policemen, flagging down motorists to slow down and give way to the “riders” in their obviously expensive big bikes.
The bikers and their escorts were going fast, at times counterflowing or overtaking dangerously. There were about 25 bikers, in three batches if I recall, with each batch led by maybe two escorts. At some point, two cars — one of which was a van — presumably part of the biking group, also counter-flowed using the shoulder of the oncoming lanes, posing danger to other motorists. All this, just to get ahead of other vehicles suffering from the slow pace going up.
It is easy enough to let this go, and let the group have their fun. No harm, no foul, right? But the fact remains that what they did is abuse of privilege, and with impunity. Their possible violation of traffic rules, disregard for safety of others, and the use of “escorts” — whether or not policemen — in what appears to be an unofficial function are only a few of the questions raised by the situation.
The same biking group appears to have ended up at the Mushroom Burger restaurant in Tagaytay City at around 9 a.m., with their “escorts” standing guard at the restaurant’s parking lot. I don’t know who these people were or where they came from, and what gave them the right to wantonly disregard traffic regulations and put others at risk. I am also uncertain whether their escorts were indeed policemen, or just bikers illegally using red-blue blinkers.
But I have encountered such biking groups often enough, on their weekend ride to various destinations outside the metropolis. Their recklessness — speeding, weaving in and out, abruptly swerving and changing lanes without signaling, and going between cars or illegally lane splitting — are witnessed even on tollways. The sad part is the fact that despite their recklessness, they seem to get away with it as “escorts” usually accompany them.
Privilege is defined in the dictionary to be a special right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by certain persons beyond the advantages of most. Such privilege is not necessarily accorded by law, but simply exercised by choice by those unscrupulous enough to take advantage of their wealth or position to enjoy certain benefits or gains, or to free themselves of certain obligations and liabilities, as they assert themselves to be better than or above others.
The abuse of privilege is a problem not just by locals, mind you. Even visiting foreigners, foreign residents, and even unscrupulous diplomats and diplomatic staff tend to disregard smaller or minor rules, observing them more in breach, and bending them when convenient. Average motorists with violations will have to contend with tickets and fines — or bribes — but not them.
I recall an old story in the Los Angeles Times by staff writer John Goldman noted how New York City protested to the US State Department the non-payment of parking tickets by diplomats. As of 2001, Goldman reported, the city had more than 200,000 outstanding parking tickets from diplomats, totaling more than $21.3 million in fines, of which only over $160,000 had been paid.
The tickets were issued to foreign diplomats from consulates and embassies in the city, and the United Nations Headquarters. This prompted then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, in 1997, to ask the US State Department to revoke the special diplomatic plates for diplomats who ignore parking summonses, but the State Department denied the request.
As I had written previously, this problem is not only in New York City. In The Hague in the Netherlands, for instance, authorities have resorted to impounding over-speeding diplomatic cars rather than ticketing their owners, and that diplomatic status would not ensure the release of impounded vehicles. This is an obvious workaround, since “immunity” applies only to diplomats, and not their vehicles. New York opted to tow, impound, and auction vehicles rather than accost their diplomat-owners.
Is this something that cannot be done here? Is there anybody in Congress willing to author and sponsor legislation that can finally put an end to abuse of privilege that results in recklessness on our roads? Or, is this asking for too much from our government? I recall a 2006 economic study that noted there was a significant correlation between home-country corruption (as measured by Transparency International) and unpaid parking or traffic fines.
The “special” privilege to disregard traffic rules does not belong only to unscrupulous government officials, military officers, and policemen. Even some diplomats think themselves at par with local abusers and allow their staff to act illegally with impunity. It takes political will to put order on our roads. Driver education, regulation, and enforcement need to go together.
The situation is difficult. As I had noted in a previous column, the issue really is how a lot of people believe themselves above laws, rules, and regulations that are meant to apply to all. They do what they do because they know they can get away with it. They believe themselves immune to liability, and thus act with impunity. I can only wonder if this will ever change.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council