Accepting 10,000 deaths a year costs 10,000 deaths a year—and hundreds of thousands of injuries. Art by Gica Tam
Drive Cars and Bikes

Cars kill thousands of Filipinos every year and we don’t care

Yes, this includes your Fortuners and Monteros.
GIAN LAO | Jul 24 2020

Eighty full airplanes. That’s how many Airbus A320s have to crash to get to 12,690—which was the number of road traffic deaths in the Philippines in 2016 alone. “Around 10,000” is not something you want to hear when you’re talking about yearly deaths, but that is a reality that many Filipinos (including myself) have learned to ignore.

Of course, we must expand that number. 12,690 is just the number of people who died. The number of those who leave these incidents with “non-fatal injuries” around the world can be estimated to be 15 to 35 times the number of dead. This includes permanent disabilities. We also have to account for the lasting trauma these incidents cause—even for the drivers who have to live with the idea of having killed or maimed someone.

Is it startling that bad things happen in the world? Not really. But the startling thing is that no one cares about one of the leading killers of Filipinos. To road safety advocates, it’s the equivalent of hearing an entire country say: “Oh, eighty planes crashed? No big deal.”

Anton Siy, Head of Pasig Transport, has a way of hijacking conversations with issues we ought to care about. As the best man at his wedding, I should know. You are in a completely casual conversation. Sneakers. Basketball. Times our crushes rejected us. And the next thing you know, you’re calculating how many airplanes would have to crash just to match the annual death toll of our nation’s long-term road safety failures.

Anton Siy of Pasig Transport. Photo from Mobile in MNL

To be fair, this conversation was a little less egregious. We were talking about our transportation woes during the pandemic, and Anton just goes: “Oh, you know what’s also a public health issue? Road crashes.” And so here we are.

“If we consider typhoons that kill thousands as public health disasters, then shouldn’t we revisit these issues we’ve learned to ignore—that kill tens of thousands?” asked Anton.

The annual death toll consists of a variety of tragedies: Poor children on the street hit by speeding vehicles. Cyclists hit by speeding vehicles. Pedestrians hit by speeding vehicles. Those living in close proximity to our national highways hit by speeding vehicles. People driving speeding vehicles… hit by speeding vehicles. Replay these incidents in your head 12,960 times and you’ll get the number of gruesome deaths a year.

We specify “speeding” vehicles because speed does much of the killing. People hit by cars going 30 kph have a 90% chance of survival. At 45 kph, this number plummets to below 50%. At 80 kph, the chance of survival reaches 0%.

SUVs and trucks are also more lethal than their smaller car siblings. They are 50% more likely to kill and 98% more likely to cause severe torso injuries. Cars typically sweep a person’s legs and have them slide up the hood. But SUVs and trucks are taller—meaning they hit the pelvis or the chest, not the legs. Getting hit by a car also diminishes some of the impact as the victim slides onto the hood or windshield, while SUVs and trucks are more likely to throw victims to the ground and run them over.

I am a sedan driver. This means I have pure, concentrated hatred in my heart for reckless Fortuner drivers. It’s always a Fortuner rudely cutting you without signaling—or visibly bullying cyclists into the fringes of the road. But I suppose there might be a statistical reason for my bias against Fortuner-type SUVs: It’s because almost all vehicles on our roads are SUVs. 5 of the top 6 selling cars in 2019 were either SUVs or trucks. This means many of the cars on Philippine roads are substantially more dangerous than the common car—both for pedestrians and for the SUV drivers themselves. This is part of the problem too.

“There is so much good science on SUVs,” says Anton. “They have a lot of safety issues. People buy them because they make you feel safe, but the risk of SUVs rolling over is actually higher because they’re taller and narrower.”

Of course, we can’t ignore buses, jeepneys, and taxis when we talk about road safety. This is actually where the astounding income inequality in the Philippines enters the fray. The main culprit is the boundary system, which basically guarantees income for the operators, while putting drivers at risk of making zero money despite an entire day’s work. Anton Siy’s dad—himself an economist and an urban planning professional—wrote a column about how this system hurts road safety:  

“If we compensate bus and jeepney drivers based on how much fares they collect, it brings a host of problems related to “on-street competition” among drivers: racing to catch the next passenger, lingering at bus stops, stopping to pick up passengers even away from stops, and working long hours to achieve the daily target revenue.

The cost of maintaining this business model is not only reflected in increased traffic congestion and worsening mobility, but also measured in lives lost and injuries suffered because of crashes involving PUVs.”

Mirick Paala poses with his dissertation summary. Photo via Mirick Paala

The more one looks into the road safety issue, the more one realizes that it’s an unappetizing stew of our nation’s deficiencies. A car hitting a person is only the last step in a sequence of avoidable failures.

Few people know this more than Mirick Paala. He has spent so much time on overpasses, setting up cameras and just watching. He would go to high-risk sites in Metro Manila to look at how everything interacts with everything—the cars, the buses, the jeepneys, the commuters, the barkers. He would estimate the speed at which vehicles traveled, observe how people move, and note the traffic mix. He would go to Recto, Ortigas, and Commonwealth to count accidents that almost happened.

The work was part of Mirick’s Masters Dissertation at the University of Leeds—an effort to find “the nature of conflicts and crashes in three distinct high-risk sites.” The insights he gathered has helped widen the lens through which we view the problem of road safety, which is perhaps a clue about why this is all so difficult. He argues, for example, that road safety is also an inequality issue.

 A photo from Paala’s traffic monitoring activities. Photo via Mirick Paala

“Kapag bata ang biktima, iniisip ng karamihan na sila ‘yung mga pumapasok sa school,” Mirick says. “Pero ang nakita ko sa Recto ay ‘yung mga batang barker—‘yung nagdi-direct ng traffic—not necessarily ‘yung mga pumapasok sa school. Pag may hinahabol silang taxi, bigla silang tatawid. ‘Yun ang nagbibigay ng vulnerability sa kanila.”

Socio-economics has a huge effect on road safety, he continues. “Hindi lang siya about disiplina o road infrastructure. Pati ‘yung socio-economic condition ng tao—it informs kung ano ang uri ng mobility nila, which informs kung vulnerable sila sa road. Hindi naman magbubuwis ng buhay ang mga bata sa Recto kung hindi nila kailangan ‘yun gawin for their livelihood. Dapat nga hindi sila nagtatrabaho ‘di ba?”

Mirick Paala’s monitoring setup. Photo via Mirick Paala

This observation is just one example of the depth of Mirick’s thinking about road safety—these incidents may well be the perfect example of how inequality kills, and an indicator of the urgency of this nation’s income inequality situation. Some other discoveries were counter-intuitive or unusual-sounding—such as his observation that no pedestrian lane is an island.

“Zebra crossings can actually be a safety hazard,” Mirick says. “Lalo na kung zebra crossing lang siya—because it gives a false impression that it’s safe to cross. It gives confidence, which is great, di ba? But if the cars don’t see any signal that there’s a zebra crossing ahead—dahil walang traffic light or whatnot—that’s the kind of combination that can result in a fatal crash.”

Mirick says the pedestrian crossing sign is not enough. “Dapat may traffic calming. Ang model ko for a good pedestrian crossing ay ‘yung tinatawag na Wombat Crossing—mas mataas siya from the ground. Maganda ‘yun dahil forced bumagal ‘yung sasakyan, kahit nagmamadali siya.”

A wombat crossing in Australia (labeled for reuse via Flickr [Philip Mallis])

Road safety involves so many intersecting disciplines, which means that reducing the 12,690 annual death toll will take a lot of work on many different fronts. But are there things that we can do tomorrow that can make a dent on this number? Mirick’s answer is yes.

“Majority of fatal crashes happen on national roads,” he says. “Maraming head-on crashes na nangyayari doon during attempted overtakes. Ang isa sa mga pwedeng gawin ng DPWH ay maglagay ng audio tactile markings para maramdaman na agad ng road user na ‘bawal ako dito’.”

Sidewalks help, too, Mirick continues. “Cost-effective pa ito. Ang usual thinking kasi is that crashes happen because there are no crossings. But if you look at the data, at least for some areas of the Philippines, maraming nafo-force maglakad sa gilid ng daan. Sila ‘yung nasasagi ng mga speeding na sasakyan.”

There may be doubters about how quickly we can actually enact these things, but a number of reformists in government are intent on accelerating the pace of reform—beyond its usual speed limits. This includes Anton Siy’s team in Pasig Transport, who acknowledges the problem, and is doing something about it.

“We’re working on revisions to the speed limit ordinance in Pasig to enforce generally lower speed limits,” says Anton. “The goal is for everyone in Pasig City to drive no more than 30 kph on urban roads, either through enforcement or engineering.”

His group is also designing programs to emphasize the value of road safety in traffic enforcer training. “We just procured bicycle racks and bike lane barriers to create more safe and protected bicycle infrastructure—while also procuring technical assistance to make our streets more accessible for users of all ages and abilities,” says Anton. 

Perhaps one of the reasons why it was so easy to ignore the 12,690 people we lost in 2016 is that these deaths happened separately from each other. Our sorrow was no less sorrowful, but it was retail sorrow, and not wholesale. And the solutions that we see—sidewalks, wombat crossings, speed limits and audio tactile markings, among others—also seem like retail solutions. It isn’t a traditionally dramatic undertaking, but our fascination for pyrotechnics is not a good excuse to ignore around 10,000 deaths a year. And those numbers should make us feel duty-bound to direct a little more attention and support towards the heroic work done by people like Mirick Paala and Anton Siy—and believe me, if we want to help, there is a community waiting for us.

AltMobility, for example, is an organization of transport experts, professionals, and academics, who have been campaigning for the Commuters’ Bill of Rights, which would—among other important provisions—require cities to provide safe sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and roads. ImagineLaw, a non-profit law organization, has been working with the government to help enact and enforce speed limits laws. The recently formed Move As One Coalition, whose logo is a Technicolor pedestrian lane, has united diverse organizations around the common interest of safer, humane, and more inclusive transport.

Especially in the age of Covid, Filipinos have learned to do so much accepting. We adjust to whichever quarantine is in effect. We adjust to nonsensical recommendations, like placing barriers on motorcycles despite warnings by their manufacturers that it would be unsafe. We adjust to midnight press briefings from our Chief Executive. We imagine there is no cost to accepting these situations as fact. But there is.

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Accepting 10,000 deaths a year costs 10,000 deaths a year—and hundreds of thousands of injuries. Perhaps someone can argue that this number will never be zero. After all, people die in road crashes all around the world. But even some degree of harm reduction would be amazing. Based on the World Bank data, if we match the success of the Netherlands, we could save 6,000 lives a year. If we reach the level of South Korea we could save 1,700. And really: What does failure look like? If we try and fail and save only fifty lives in the process, wouldn’t that rival the work of even some of our best surgeons? There aren’t many advocacies where you can fail your way into saving a life.

The good thing is that the voices calling for safer and more dignified transport are rising in volume. But having voices is not enough. These days, it isn’t just pedestrians who have to abide by the age-old wisdom. All of us have to stop. All of us have to look. All of us have to listen.