Safety First

Regin Regidor is currently Director of the National Center for Transportation Studies of the University of the Philippines. He is also an Associate Professor of the Institute of Civil Engineering of UP and is doing research on Environmentally Sustainable Transport (EST). This was published in the October 19, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

Road traffic accidents are now mentioned in the same breath as killer diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks it among the top ten (ninth as of 2004) causes of death, together with strokes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS and influenza. The WHO’s Global Status Report predicts that road traffic injuries will rise to become the fifth leading cause of deaths worldwide by 2030, while already being the top cause of death for 15 to 29 year olds. However, like many diseases, traffic accidents can be prevented or if “diagnosed,” can be “treated.” Moreover, we already have a wealth of resources and tools to enable us to address the problem. A major roadblock seems to be that we have not yet been able to bring all these resources together as government agencies and private sector entities struggle to cooperate to stem the rapid increase in the number of traffic accidents.

There are no quick solutions or cures to this disease. We can, however, treat symptoms to alleviate its impacts – among which are economic losses that are estimated to be in excess of US$ 2 billion a year for the entire country. Diagnosis of the symptoms is the collective responsibility of the DPWH (Department of Public Works and Highways), local government units, and the Highway Patrol Group (HPG) with the enabling of the DOTC (Department of Transportation and Communications) through the LTO (Land Transportation Office). Road safety audits should be undertaken for major roads and this know-how needs to be transferred to local governments for them to make similar assessments for local roads. The HPG needs to intensify its campaign in monitoring roads as well as apprehending errant motorists even for minor offenses. But they should not do this “to instill fear in the heart of motorists and pedestrians”, as some officials have often declared. Rather it is done to firmly establish a culture of responsible motoring and discipline for road users through informed, fair and consistent enforcement.

In Metro Manila, accidents occur everyday yet none of these accidents are reported and recorded. Instead they are relegated to the profusion of anecdotal information going around about how frequent and serious accidents have become in the metropolis. The installation of video cameras at critical locations around the metropolis provides an opportunity not just for monitoring and recording but for studying the behavior of drivers, riders and pedestrians. Footage from the cameras, if clear enough, may also be used to go after traffic violators.

Local government units, including the MMDA (Metro Manila Development Authority), would do well to avoid overdoing unconventional or unorthodox methods for traffic engineering and management. While “out-of-the- box” solutions have been successful to a certain extent, caution must be exercised when applying these schemes elsewhere. The prevailing practice is to over-generalize the application of traffic schemes, resulting in continuing experimentations which in turn create situations that lead to accidents and traffic congestion.

I’ve always taught my students that it is important to go back to the basics when dealing with the safety aspect of roads. In highway design we have to keep in mind that there are many elements that come into play, including those concerning the vehicles, the drivers, and the environment. Key to the design is to have an understanding of the interactions that take place among the elements for one to be able to come up with a suitable design. Such are the basis for design speeds and curvatures as well as determining the appropriate traffic control or management schemes for the road. One has to ensure the natural movement of vehicles as well as enable conditions where motorists are able to assess the situation on the road with minimal complications that may bring about driver error. Failure to account for the design elements or to understand the interactions among the elements will lead to higher risk of accidents. Thus, a person can have all the skills and experience of a good driver and still be involved in an accident due to a poorly designed (or located) island or barrier. Also, a person could be the best defensive driver and yet be hit by a drunken driver or a motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic.

Highways need not be declared as traffic discipline zones if efforts are firm, consistent and sustained for all roads. It is understandable though if authorities would want to focus on particular corridors or areas in order to gain quick wins and confidence in the campaign for safe roads. However, such campaigns must be fought simultaneously along several fronts. It is here that the DOTC through the LTO and the LTFRB (Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board) should play a lead and active role especially since they have the mandate as far as licensing and franchising are concerned. In addressing the accidents involving public transportation, for example, it is recommended that stricter policies be formulated and implemented with respect to licensing and employing public transport drivers. Operators must be held accountable for accidents. There should also be initiatives that emphasize transport as a service rather than simply a business and a source of livelihood or employment.

Road traffic accidents have become far too common. Television and radio news programs report incidents round the clock; often putting the spotlight on those involving public transport and particularly ones that have resulted in fatalities. All these scream the obvious:  our roads are unsafe. We are all vulnerable whether we are behind the wheel, a passenger of a public utility vehicle, or just a pedestrian standing at the roadside.

The opportunity for genuine reforms that would lead to safer roads is here and it is imperative that we act decisively. Needless to say, this will require strong commitment and cooperation among various stakeholders to ensure success in reducing the rate of traffic accidents and making our roads safe for the present and future generations.

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