POSTSCRIPT / November 25, 2004 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Number of cars is rising, but fuel usage dwindling

CELFON BLOWUP: In jest, I once suggested to a telco executive the insertion of a mechanism in cellular phones that causes a unit to burn — or even explode — if a thief or an unauthorized user attempts to enter three times a wrong user’s code or password.

It was my exasperated reaction to the spate of celfon snatchings. Of course the idea was far out. Imagine, celfons in this texting capital of the world exploding all over the place!

What we have hereabouts is the blocking of celfon SIM (Subscriber Information Module) cards when a wrong code is inputted three times. Blocking prevents illicit use of the celfon.

But then, all a thief has to do in this situation is simply replace the SIM card. No sweat, since such cards can cost as low as P200 apiece.

Imagine our surprise yesterday when we heard about our idea of exploding celfons now a random occurrence in the great US of A!

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NONE IN R.P.: Federal safety officials have received in the last two years 83 reports of celfons exploding or catching fire — not because of wrong passwords or codes, but because of incompatible, faulty or imitation batteries or chargers.

The Associated Press reports that burns to the face, neck, leg and hip were among the injuries suffered by the victims.

I have not heard of similar complaints of exploding celfons or units bursting into flame from users in the Philippines. But then, our celfon technology seems to be more advanced (?) than that in the US.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission is providing tips for safer celfon use. There have been voluntary battery recalls, the AP says, and the CPSC is working with companies to make better batteries.

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HOT BATTERIES: Most fires and explosions in the US were caused by counterfeit batteries, according to US phone makers and carriers. They said that statistically the accident rate (less than 100 so far) is very low considering that there are some 170 million celfon users in the US.

That means that, density-wise, with a population of 284 million, six out of every 10 Americans own a unit. In the Philippines, with 25 million users between Smart (15 million) and Globe (10 million), three out of every 10 Filipinos among the 84-million population lug a celfon.

But Filipino users are a hyperactive lot. It is bruited about that the total number of short messages (text) going back and forth in Philippine airspace in one day exceeds the number of messages in the entire European continent over the same 24 hours.

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SMALL BOMB: Why would celfons catch fire or explode?

Carl Hilliard, president of the California-based Wireless Consumers Alliance tracking incidents of celfon fires and explosions told the AP: “If you’re cramming more and more power in a small space (the battery), what you’re making is a small bomb.”

Though genuine batteries can also malfunction, there is a greater chance that poorly made and counterfeit ones will lack safety features to detect overheating or overcharging. The batteries could overheat if, for example, heat vents are covered.

“We have seen temperatures as high as 600 degrees,” the CPSP said, “and you can have a torch-like effect if these batteries don’t function properly.”

The commission has announced three battery recalls since January, one from Verizon Wireless and two from Kyocera Wireless Corp. Just last month, Kyocera reportedly recalled one million batteries and changed vendors.

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SOME VICTIMS: Carriers and manufacturers advise users to exercise reasonable care of batteries, chargers and phones and to buy them directly from reputable phone companies rather than second-hand dealers.

Still, bad products manage to find their way onto store shelves and on to consumers. The AP cites some cases:

Angela Karasek, 21, bought her Motorola phone and battery from a Nextel store. She awoke one night to what she described as a pinging sound and saw fire. Her cell phone battery had blown out, igniting a doll about three feet away.

Marcelino Gonzalez, 62, of Brentwood, New York, suffered second-degree burns after his Kyocera phone exploded in his hand as he turned it on to make a call. He has contacted a lawyer.

Michael Sathre, 13, was picking his fully charged Verizon LG cell phone off the floor when it exploded. Choosing not to sue, the family from Oceanside, California, has instead allowed the companies involved and a consumer group to study the case so it would not happen to someone else.

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SAFETY TIPS: The AP gives these tips for the safer use of celfons:

  • Do not allow battery to come in contact with metal, such as keys or coins.
  • Do not expose battery to water or extreme temperatures.
  • Avoid crushing or dropping battery.
  • Ensure battery and charger are compatible with the phone model.
  • Buy parts from reputable sources, such as an authorized dealer.

We have also seen advice about not using a celfon near a gas pump at a service station. There have been reports of gas fumes in such places being ignited by the static (an electrical flicker) generated when celfons are used.

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RECORD DROP: Looking at statistics on motor vehicles and fuel consumption cited by Sen. Ralph G. Recto, chairman of the Senate ways and means committee, one would think we should land in the Guinness book of world records for fuel conservation or something.

There are 760,000 more motor vehicles today than there were five years ago, but the yearly national consumption of gasoline dropped by almost a billion liters. If that is not confusing enough, look at this:

The Department of Energy said gasoline consumption increased from 23.3 million barrels in 1998 to 24.6 million barrels in 2003.

But the National Tax Research Center said that based on actual fuel tax collected, gasoline sales dropped from 3.44 billion liters to 2.56 billion liters during the same period. Excise tax collected on gasoline dropped from P17.27 billion in 1998 to P11.53 billion in 2003.

To complicate the puzzle, Recto noted that during that time frame, the number of cars registered shot up from 3.533 million to 4.293 million.

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LIKELY REASONS: Maybe there was a shift to diesel-run vehicles? That cannot be, the senator said, because despite their increase in number from one million in 1998 to 1.3 million in 2003, diesel-fed vehicles consume less fuel.

He said there could only be two reasons — savings or smuggling — for the “incredible fall” in gas use and the P9-billion drop in oil tax collection.

“We could either win the Nobel Prize in gas conservation, if there’s one, or win the gold in fuel smuggling, if such were an Olympic sport,” the Batangas senator said.

The alarming drop in excise tax collection showed “taxes, in the billions of pesos, are being siphoned off from the national government by smuggled or duty-free fuel,” he concluded.

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DIESEL DOWN, TOO: The plunge is more precipitous in diesel, Recto noted, with annual consumption down to 4.53 billion liters in 2003 from 5.88 billion liters in 1998, or a drop of 1.35 billion liters.

“This brought down excise tax collection on diesel from P9.58 billion five years ago to P7.38 billion last year, or by P2.2 billion,” he said. “The decrease is incredible because during that time, the number of diesel-run cars increased by almost a quarter-of-a-million.”

He said the slide in consumption is true also in other petroleum products covered by excise tax. He cited figures:

  • In jet fuel, consumption is down from 233 million liters in 1998 to 133 million liters in 2003. This despite the increase in the number of commercial airlines.
  • In bunker fuel, the 3.8 billion liters used five years ago have been whittled down to 2.5 billion liters last year.
  • In kerosene, the poor man’s fuel, there is a marked decrease in sales from 745 million liters to 458 million during the same period.

Sixty centavos is collected in excise tax per liter of kerosene, P4.80 per liter of regular gasoline, P5.35 per liter of premium or leaded gasoline, P4.35 per liter of unleaded gasoline, P3.67 per liter of aviation jet fuel, 30 centavos per liter for bunker fuel, and P1.63 per liter of diesel.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 25, 2004)

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