Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Brent Co, Arvin Lim | posted March 14, 2016 12:49
Balancing speed and law enforcement on the tollways
Choosing your poison
For those who enjoy driving, choosing between trips that cover 20kms. in 3 hours and 200kms. within the same amount of time, is a no-brainer. Even if you don't enjoy driving, being tethered to a desk all day, 5 days a week only to be momentarily released to be again tethered to a steering wheel, with nothing but rear bumpers and tailpipes as scenery, the choice is fairly obvious.
Escape from urban Alcatraz
As it is on our ever-expanding tollway network, once we are exposed to wide open spaces in the country we do get carried away. As scenery and kilometers pass by in minutes, this refreshing ideal — an escape from the prison of the humdrum and the congested — has, if you don't watch it, a downside. That cruel reality is signaled by a wave of a patrolman's hand at a terminal toll gate. A traffic violation ticket for "Reckless driving", the LTO's catch all violation for exceeding the speed limit, besides many other things, awaits you.
Greed is good!
"Speed is good," say that like the Gordon Gekko of the motoring world and those who will bless you will be as many as those who will curse you. But all will agree that toll expressways are value for money, if you value time and convenience. The problem is that, even if these roads are designed for high speeds, many of us drivers are not designed, much less trained, to drive at such high speeds. So Big Brother decided that to keep us all safe. The minority that know how to drive well will have to yield to the majority of the mediocre, including a quite healthy proportion who do not care to drive fast. Hence, the raison d'être of speed limits. But we all know that defining what is fast has 7 billion different interpretations. Ultimately, a situation where everyone drove at the speed he/she pleases, democratic as it may be, is a recipe for disaster. This multiple variance in speeds is what designers of multi-lane expressways are trying to avoid.
The easy way to avoid
To cut to the chase, the quickest way to avoid getting a speeding ticket is to do what the Germans do. Make sure your driver's education exam includes required minimum number hours of training at genuine high speed driving and apply only an advisory speed limit of 130km/h on some stretches of Autobahn. Despite a respectable portion of our driving populace content with the current 100 km/h speed limit, many motorists who take tollways as their daily commute have expressed their fear of the driving monotony of 100km/h. Steady speed induces or hypnotizes drivers to fall asleep behind the wheel. In fact, in some countries like Australia, accidents caused by sleeping behind the wheel account for far more fatalities than driving over the 100km/h limit. Motorists regularly traversing the long empty stretches of STAR Tollway, TPLEx and SCTEx are no strangers to these sleep induced dangers. This is why Swiss and Austrian highway authorities are tinkering with variable speed limits on select sections of Autobahn to keep drivers alert.
The Autobahn experience
Barring the German experience, it wouldn't take rocket science for our authorities to raise the local speed limits to 120km/h, the speed limit of almost all dual carriageway expressways around the world. Or even 130km/h, the speed limit applied to many Central European countries bordering Autobahn land Germany. Most local tollway operators do not oppose raising such speed limits as they are proud of how well maintained, well designed and well policed their tollways are so they can definitely take on higher speeds. Raising speed limits, though would need changes in the law.
Over the past 2 years, a Baguio City resident started a change.org petition to raise the speed limits on tollways. In the previous Congress, Rep. Mark Cojuangco and Rep. Jack Enrile were sponsoring a bill to raise speed limits to 130.0km/h, along with mandatory ETC [electronic toll collection] interoperability on all tollways. Unfortunately, that change.org petition never gained critical mass, quite unlike the fate of the bus speed limiter petition which started at the same time but ended up being passed into law. Perhaps raising the speed limit would have better chances if championed by CNN Philippines "Drive" TV host, James Deakin, who successfully shepherded the bus speed limiter petition to become a piece of legislation sponsored by Sen. J. V. Ejercito, a man who is no stranger to fast cars and fast driving.
Don't exceed the limit
All things considered, the best way to avoid getting a speeding ticket is not to exceed the posted speed limit, specifically in the speed monitoring zones of the expressway. In practice, Class 1 or cars are given a bit more leeway by some tollway operators to exceed the 100 limit by 10km/h to 18km/h over, though the 80km/h limit is strictly enforced on buses and trucks. Tollway operators resort to speed monitoring zones where the mobile speed cameras are situated in randomly variable locations because it would be hideously expensive to install end-to-end speed cameras for the entire length of the expressway. It also doesn't make sense to install end-to-end speed cameras for expressways as short at MCX or SFEX.
Freeway radar detectors
Radar detectors like those used by private motorists on US Freeways usually do not work with LIDAR [laser radar] used locally. If they do work, the radar detector only discovers the LIDAR with very little time left to slow down. This is because the LIDAR equipment used here are not always "on" as they only go "on" when it detects the approach of a suspected speeding vehicle. In practice, driving at a speedo indicated 118km/h, will trigger the detector alert but braking hard to decrease speed to 100km/h needs deft reflexes.
No contact policing
Make no mistake though, some Gulf States apply end-to-end speed cameras, which shoot at the rear license plate to prevent the camera flash from blinding the drivers during night time ops and to also capture the rear license plates of speeding bikers. This is a recent development triggered by the rising number in traffic accident fatalities caused by high-testosterone idle rich youths: usually male and privileged members of the ruling royal clan doing their rendition of Hollywood stunt high speed chases on the expressways at night. But then, end-to-end speed camera coverage works in countries where traffic violations are mailed to the vehicle owner's address and penalties are based on photographic footage of the vehicle plate number with LIDAR speed monitoring real time data as evidence. Confiscation of the driver's license is not a prerequisite for the issuance of a speeding ticket.
Our just ways
In the Philippines, moving traffic violations require that the offending party be accosted and in case of serious traffic offenses like "reckless driving", the driver has to be positively identified and his/her license confiscated by the proper deputized authority. Though administratively and logistically more cumbersome, the Philippine system is just because it would be unfair to the vehicle owner, as evidenced by the registration plate number, to be presumed guilty of the driving offense without verification of the actual driver. One may infer that ownership is "command responsibility" i.e., why did the owner allow the use of his/her car by someone patently irresponsible, but then the "command" begins and ends on who is pressing the pedals and holding the steering wheel at the moment the violation is committed. This system prevents the government from being "reckless" in charging vehicle owners with guilt based on arbitrary, incomplete and inconclusive evidence.
Tollway operator's burden, LTO's gain
Tollway operators are required by government agencies like the TRB to conduct speed checks as part of their O&M (operation and maintenance) franchise. Some banks like the ADB, who lend to tollway operators, even require it under the loan agreement. Despite being the ones who foot the bill of enforcing speed limits, tollway operators do not derive any income. Thus they will not be inclined to spend too much money on end-to-end speed cameras and ballooning expenses of skilled man-hours of the LIDAR tracking team and arresting officer posses at exit toll gates, just to collect fines for the LTO. Tollway operators' speed monitoring strategy are focused on the last few miles of expressway before the terminal toll plaza. There, speeding offenders are accosted under the full glare of stadium-like illumination and full coverage CCTV cameras to monitor any wrong doing like handing grease money through an open window. Take note though that the CCTV camera network on our tollways are not configured to measure speeding as they are not LIDAR equipped.
The no-speeding zones
For example: for Manila bound traffic on the NLEx, speed camera zones are anywhere between Sta. Rita and Bocaue. In this case, both the main toll plaza and the Bocaue town exit toll gate are manned with officers who are informed by text and radio as to the ID of the incoming speeding offender. On the rare occasion, usually during long weekends, outbound/Northbound speed monitoring occurs between Mexico and Dau toll plaza with a subsidiary posse of arresting officers at Angeles toll plaza. This is bound to change when the Dau toll plaza is removed by April. At SCTEx, the monitoring zone is between Luisita and La Paz, Tarlac bound; and between Dinalupihan and SFEx approach, for the Subic bound. TPLEx is known to operate its outbound/northbound LIDAR team near Carmen while arrests are made at the temporary Urdaneta toll plaza.
At the STAR Tollway, Batangas bound speeders are checked by LIDAR between Ibaan and the Batangas toll plaza, while Manila bound traffic is monitored for speed just past Tanauan. In both cases, arresting officers are stationed at the main plazas. At the SLEx, we have not seen speeding arrests at the Ayala toll plaza but most outbound/southbound speeders are hauled at Calamba toll plaza and Eton City toll gate after the arresting team receives speeding reports from the camera team situated south of Santa Rosa.
More LIDAR hot spots
Manila bound speeders are usually accosted by the Skyway posse on the wide apron where the old Skyway A and B toll plazas used to be. Skyway elevated speed camera teams are usually sited on the median just past Dr. Santos. It would be easy to conceal LIDAR teams between the Skyway columns on the at-grade Skyway and do the arrests at the Nichols toll plaza, but we have not seen this of late. License retrieval, fine payment and mandatory seminars are usually at the LTO main agency in East Ave. QC, though STAR tollway violations are processed in Batangas.