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Of corruption, tired bus drivers and the killer highway

I saw them run as fast as they could to cross Commonwealth Avenue, a 12-kilometer road tagged in my country as the ‘the killer highway’. They were two little boys, perhaps aged three or four, barefoot and in tattered clothes. In fractions of seconds, they went from one side to the other as hulking buses and cars sped through the highway.

I was on the other side, waiting for a ride under the scorching heat of the midday sun. I watched in bated breath and in utter disbelief. How could these kids be crossing the road where hundreds if not thousands have been killed by speeding drivers or drunken motorists?

But the little kids were lucky. And so were their parents. The two boys made it to the other end of the road, no near-miss or even the slightest scratch.

Chit Estella, a 54-year old veteran journalist, was not so lucky.

Last Friday, 13 May, Chit died in a car crash when a commuter bus rammed into the taxi she was in. It was on the killer highway, the road I pass through every single day to get to work, where Chit died.

Police call it ‘the killer highway’ because, as reported last year on the ABS-CBN new website, three to five accidents happen here every day. And the accidents aren’t minor ones. There was a time when 10 people died on the highway in just a month. Police said that the highway’s wide lanes – there are nine lanes in all – and the reckless driving of public bus drivers are the usual culprits behind the accidents.

But it’s not just because public bus drivers are adrenaline junkies who want to drive fast. While reckless drivers should absolutely be held criminally liable for deaths or property damage, the story behind the problem is deeper.

A public bus. Photo by moyerphotos under a CC licence.

Age-old corruption in government agencies such as the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board, the state-owned office that gives out permits and operating franchises to public transport operators, is largely to blame. The Land Transportation Office, another regulatory agency which issues driver licenses, is also widely known in the country not just for bribery, but also for inefficiency.  

In this agency, money talks. If you are applying for or renewing a license, for instance, and want the process expedited, you have to put grease money in every step of the process – from the medical exams to the practical driving test.

This simply means that anybody can bribe their way to have a driver’s license without necessarily being familiar with the road regulations or passing the practical examinations.

Public transport drivers also operate in extreme working conditions. Some of them, especially those plying the provincial routes, admit to taking drugs and prohibited medicines just so they can stay awake during long drives.

The greed of bus company owners and operators is largely to be blamed for the harsh working conditions of public transport drivers.  

Bus in the Philippines

Photo by Cristian Bortes under a CC Licence

Public transport drivers in the Philippines work on commission basis and not on a fixed salary. This means that they have to do everything they can to earn. They will have to race against each other in a bus stop to get as many passengers and possible. (Authorities said the accident that killed Chit happened because two buses were racing against each other for still unclear reasons.)

Unfortunately, transport officials turn a blind eye on these harsh working conditions, thanks to the deeply entrenched corruption within the country’s transport agencies. Indeed, there’s only one reason why Commonwealth Avenue is the killer highway that is known today: Corruption.

Yes, our dear government officials and greedy bus operators, it’s corruption that kills.

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