POSTSCRIPT / February 28, 1999 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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How to drive and beat city traffic, made easy

We offered the wheel to the American husband of a balikbayan friend so he could feel the road on this his first visit to Manila.

He recoiled, despite his being a freeway speedster back in California. “I can’t drive,” he moaned in horror, “There are no lines, no lanes!”We offered the wheel to the American husband of a balikbayan friend so he could feel the road on this his first visit to Manila.

We explained to him that lines on the road are not really that essential to driving in Manila. Any line you see, we said, is merely decorative. As they have only persuasive effects, you may blithely disregard them.

Still, he refused to drive. The big hulk must have been scared.

Driving in Manila, we continued, is much like playing football. You grab the ball, run as fast as you can, going not necessarily in a straight line toward the goal but wherever you see an opening.

Being a football player, he should understand that, we thought. He nodded, grinning, but still won’t dare take over the wheel.

* * *

SO, we thought we should prepare a small manual for foreigners who may want to cast caution to the wind and dare to drive in Metro Manila’s exciting traffic.

First, there’s the matter of license. As in all civilized countries, you need a license to drive. Right? Wrong.

You don’t really need a driver’s license in this country, especially if you’re Caucasian. Traffic officers usually do not bother to check on white foreigners.

In the unlikely event that they would, talk only in English. Eventually, the officer runs out of English and would let you go with an embarrassed smile.

* * *

AN international covenant allows you to drive in this country using your foreign-issued license. Under no circumstance should you part with it, especially if you’re departing in less than a week.

It is extremely complicated getting out of a traffic violation mess if the traffic officer is holding your license. If he is persistent (maybe he hasn’t had lunch or coffee), fish out a $10 bill to cut short the dialogue.

The law against bribing an officer is a dead letter. You get slapped with a bribery rap only if you don’t know how to flaunt money.

* * *

ON the positive side, your chances of avoiding or surviving a fatal accident in Manila are much greater than on a freeway in the States.

It is highly improbable that you would figure in a fatal crash, because the roads are crowded and the traffic slow. Accidents usually involve only dents, scratches and frayed nerves.

There is only one possible scenario where you might just die in an accident. This is if you get in the way of one of those killer buses careening down Epifanio delos Santos Ave. (EDSA).

There are two other non-accident situations where you could die behind the wheel. One is if you suffer a heart attack because of the stress and the massive pollution. Another is if an irate driver whose car you just grazed gets off with his pistol and guns you down.

* * *

ON the possibility of a heart attack, our lawyer says that we’re not responsible for your weak constitution. But he’s a lawyer and not necessarily a friend.

As a friend, our advice to the fainthearted is to ignore the bedlam, the kamikaze culture, the daredevil brinkmanship, and the lack of courtesy. The utter chaos will down you only if you allow it.

But why shrink away from the intimidation and allow yourself to lose face and space on the road? Forget about defensive driving. Shift to offensive driving!

* * *

ONE reason why Manila traffic is so painfully slow is that more than 40 percent of drivers spend more than 60 percent of their time blocking other drivers who are also blocking them.

The rationale is simple: If you don’t block the next driver, he would block you. Do unto others as they would do unto you. And do it first.

Never stick to your lane. Drive on your lane and the lane of the other driver. In other words, hog road space by straddling two lanes. That’s more efficient since you are effectively blocking not only one but two other cars behind you while you’re thinking of your next move.

Don’t signal your intentions. If the driver behind you knows where you want to turn, he will swing to your side to block you.

* * *

IF you have to signal at all, give the wrong signal. When you intend to turn right, for instance, signal left—so the idiot behind you goes to your left and leaves your right side open.

Watch the front wheels of cars around you, not their signal lights since they are giving wrong signals like you anyway. If someone to your right at the red light has his wheels turned left, for instance, whatever his signals are, expect him to suddenly cut to the left to grab your lane and block you when the light turns green.

Gun your engine and jackrabbit ahead of him a full second before the red light turns green.

Keep glancing at the green light for the cross-traffic (if left turns are not allowed at that intersection). When that other light turns yellow, yours is about to turn green. Shift to first gear/drive and step on the gas.

The problem here is if the slow cross-traffic caught at the intersection is still blocking your way. You may want to get into the mood by turning on your high beam and blowing your horn like hell. You may also open your window to spit out expletives, but that is optional.

* * *

THE whole point about driving is getting from point A to point B in the least time and the least wear and tear.

Assuming that your car is in top running condition, the only serious obstacle to a successful arrival at point B is the phalanx of vehicles blocking your way. What to do?

You could always run for president so you would have a security force clearing the way for you like the parting of the Red Sea. But you have to be a movie actor first, and that may be tougher than being an ambulance driver.

A straight line is the shortest distance between points A and B and that should be the ideal direction, but nobody drives in straight lines in these parts.

In fact, the zigzag is the favored route. This means that, as in football, you go wherever you spot an opening and make sure you do that with lightning speed. Remember, don’t signal when you do that; otherwise some dolt would block your way.

One word of advice, though: Unless you’re driving a heavily insured tank, you can grab lanes everywhere but not the lanes to your right reserved for those murderous buses.

* * *

TALKING of lanes, forget what some manuals say about the leftmost lane being the fast lane.

In this town, the left lane is the slowest, because it’s the most crowded. Everybody, even the trucks and buses consigned to the right, gravitate to the left lane.

Student and new drivers, bless their souls, also flock to the left lane because there they don’t have to worry about the gutter to their left bumping them. They also assume that they need not worry about vehicles to their right since the burden of keeping a safe distance is presumed to be on the drivers to their right.

On the highway, the fast lane is not the left lane, but the shoulder. Yes, if you want to move faster, especially on the tollways, drive on the shoulder whenever the way is clear for that risky operation.

* * *

BACK on city streets, one trick that you have to master is how to grab lanes. This maneuver, however, requires that your car be in tiptop shape and your vision and reflexes in prime condition.

Plan your route well. When out there on the road, watch out for traffic buildup ahead so you know which lane to avoid. As in business and life in general, sometimes we are slowed down by the people leading the way on our chosen lane.

The key to adroit lane grabbing is the feint. For instance, if you want to move to the left lane, look first for a likely opening. We repeat, don’t signal your intention.

When you sense that the driver to your left is not expecting it, jerk your wheel to the left like you’re cutting in. But be alert and be ready in case you have to abort the lane grabbing and pull back to your lane.

* * *

THE driver to your left either slams on his brakes in surprise or he steps on the gas to spurt forward to block you. While feinting, closely monitor his reaction, either by turning your head to glance or keeping an eye on him using your side mirror.

If he brakes or at least lets go of the gas to slow down, cut in fast into his lane. He might blow his horn belatedly. Don’t mind him. If you move with speed and rhythm, he won’t be able to recover fast enough to block your cutting in.

But if instead of slowing he spurts ahead with horns blaring, pull back to your lane fast. He’s not giving way and you better respect that.

* * *

WHEN foiled, go back to your lane and try the feint again on some other likely victim.

With experience, you can sense if the driver beside you can be bluffed or intimidated. The most vulnerable are new drivers, whom you can spot by their frequent unnecessary braking as indicated by their busy red stoplights.

Vehicles with a defective clutch and which, therefore, cannot surge forward fast enough are fair game. They are at a disadvantage, especially on steep grades, inclines and the approaches of overpasses.

Related to lane changing is merging, which refers to one’s entering a thoroughfare and joining onrushing traffic from a slanting direction.

Many drivers make a full stop before entering the expressway from a slanting direction after clearing the entrance tollbooth. This could be dangerous as the slow vehicle entering the freeway is suddenly thrust in the way of onrushing faster traffic.

Instead of stopping, rapidly accelerate to the same speed as the vehicles on the freeway or the thoroughfare you’re entering. This time, keep your correct signal on while merging fast, deliberately and smoothly into the onrushing traffic.

He who knows how to merge smoothly into things gets ahead.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 28, 1999)

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