Restoring trust should be the LTO's priority

The Land Transportation Office cannot seem to catch a break.

Anything they push forward meets with significant resistance from the public. License plate procurement, distracted driving, RFID registration tags, child seats, and vehicle inspection are just a few, but the resistance from the public has been rabid, to say the least. Why is that?

We can argue about the merits of those programs versus the costs. We can also argue whether or not its the fault of past administrations, but that really doesn't matter much now. We can also talk about how a lot of these programs are Republic Acts by lawmakers (e.g. CRS law) and agencies (e.g. LTO) are just mandated to execute.

Perhaps we can distill all that into one concept: distrust.

Over the decades, the LTO has earned an unenviable perception as one of the agencies of government least worthy of our trust. In the latest SWS survey I could find, the LTO was practically neck and neck with another agency (Customs) when it comes to the perception of corruption. Mind you, that "latest" survey I saw was in 2016. If memory serves, there were a lot of LTO issues back then like the lack of license plates and the lack of driver's license cards. Those are the two main frontline services of the LTO, and they couldn't even provide those with consistency at the time. Or even at all.

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As the then new administration rolled in, things finally started to change. They set up the plate making facility inside the LTO, and now cars are starting to get their plates sooner than before. License cards became a regular thing, and started to come in with 5-year validity. Just these two things alone changed a lot when it comes to the effectiveness of LTO as they worked to dig themselves up from the grave in terms of public perception.

Still, many issues exist. It doesn't help that there were still fixers outside of LTO branches, and that there were fixers operating online as well. It didn't help that some unscrupulous emissions testing centers were also faking test results using printed paper or photo editing software. There was also that lame excuse of a practical driver's exam in an LTO parking lot that was a veritable merry-go-round.

Improving as the agency's perception may be given the plates and the licenses, there are lot of things that need attention and work. In my opinion that's why the LTO finding a lot of friction when they tried to implement a law making child seats mandatory and requiring motor vehicle testing for renewal. They forgot to read the room: the public is already frustrated with the pandemic and the costs that it is incurring, and here comes the LTO with new programs that will make motorists spend more.

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Child seats aren't cheap, and there's also the issue that the seat has to be installed by the LTO which is weird. PMVIC are private businesses that invested tens of millions into their facilities with expensive equipment and training, and of course, they need to make that money back over time, which is why the initial fees were that way.

It would be fine if there was trust in the LTO, but not yet it seems. The issue is not what's on the surface, but what's happening under it. A lot of us don't trust the motives behind certain programs, and much of it comes down to the perception that someone, somewhere is driving it to make money.

Not too long ago, I was listening in on a Zoom meeting with the different LTO branch heads as they discussed with doctors the implementation of the 10-year driver's license. On the surface, yes the program is great. If you've been nice (e.g. no major or egregious traffic apprehensions) you'll be qualified for a 10-year license. If you've been naughty, you'll only get the 5-year license which in itself is already longer than the previous 3-year license.

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The MDs in the meeting weighed in that the 10-year license is too long. They said there should be measures to ensure that applicants for such a long validity license should be medically and psychologically fit and recommended periodic checks within the 10-year validity. It does make a lot of sense because driving a car -even a little one- is a big responsibility and can be very dangerous. Then one of the LTO officers asked how much it would cost to have a psych eval, and another doctor said PHP 2500. For a few of us that's not a big amount, but for a majority of the working class that is extremely painful.

Only then did I check the credentials of the doctors in the meeting; most -if not all- appear to be affiliated with (or possibly own) the medical clinics attached to LTO branches and license renewal centers. They were stakeholders and not impartial or disinterested third parties in the medical profession. Sound as the opinions may be at face value, those opinions cannot be trusted because they come from people who stand to lose if the license renewal intervals are extended.

It's not too late for the LTO to overcome this perception and distrust. To give credit where it's due, the LTO and parent organization DOTr are trying and working very hard to sort stuff out so that things make a bit more sense. Before the pandemic, there have been improvements in traffic, improvements at seaports and airports, and improvements in rail transportation. Yeah, they had a problem with the LRT-2 when that fire crippled the eastern segment, but the fact that the EDSA MRT isn't breaking down with horrendous regularity is a huge and welcome gain.

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The LTO is also making good strides even amidst all this. Assistant Secretary Edgar Galvante, the LTO's no-nonsense chief, is someone we believe can be credited for that, even though he personally doesn't seem to like the attention. A few years ago, we ran into Galvante at a nearby restaurant. We couldn't help but notice his car because he hopped aboard a humble and basic Toyota Innova with his wife. There were no bodyguards or hagad. If they was any kind of security or staff, they were definitely incognito.

It is expected that a person in his position with his credentials (he's a retired police general) would probably travel around the metropolis in something like a Mercedes, a Land Cruiser or a Patrol. And we would have expected it to have been armored to the highest level. But that's not Galvante's style. There wasn't even a hired driver. He drove.

Once the implementation of MVIS and child seats go into gear, we expect the LTO will get a lot of backlash again and we'll probably see Galvante in front of legislative oversight committees for another grilling, er, interview. That's the nature of his job. His agency has to execute, but often they find themselves as the ones facing execution.

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My opinion is this: implementing a new big-ticket program and hoping it'll fix the ills of the existing one is the equivalent of spraying a new coat of shiny high-quality paint over a rusty car. You just don't do that. You need strip it down, remove the rust and rot, then you start the painting process.

Before calling for new laws or looking at new programs that will incur extra costs on citizens that are already medically, financially, and emotionally exasperated by a pandemic, government should look at the real problem first: establishing credibility by enforcing discipline on the road.

Focus on getting motorists to respect the box at intersections, to come to a stop whenever a pedestrian puts one toe on the crosswalk, to obey the no loading/unloading signs, to understand what a solid or double yellow line means, to observe simple merging procedures and courtesy, vehicle overloading and many more. That's actually the LTO's job because the LTO is the one tasked with the enforcement of all road rules. All other agencies and enforcers that have to manage traffic and apprehend erring motorists are deputized by LTO. 

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Like mangoes, enforcement is seasonal. OPLAN-style checkpoints are good, but there needs to be consistent enforcement of even the most basic road rules by all levels of traffic management regardless of the color of their uniform. All too often traffic constables only apprehend based on what's convenient instead of enforcing a basic rule of road safety. Imagine getting pulled over for a harmless coding violation while another motorist that is dangerously overtaking on a double yellow line is overlooked. Why should a motorist trust or comply with an enforcer for a minor infraction while another far more dangerous violation is being ignored?

During the 10-year license meeting, one of the LTO branch heads wondered why Filipinos can obey basic road rules when driving in the US, in Europe, in Japan, or any other foreign country but not here. That was also the sentiment of MMDA (then) EDSA traffic boss Bong Nebrija when I talked to him two years ago. Subic is the exception and to a somewhat lesser extent, Clark. Why can't Filipinos have the same discipline in Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, or Metro Davao?

The answer is simple: the rules are being enforced consistently. Even something as simple as busted taillight can get you pulled over in another country, what more when it comes to disregarding a stop sign or a pedestrian lane? It can be done here if its enforced consistently, and we just have to look at Subic. Try ignoring the first to stop, first to go rule there and you'll see how it's no fun arguing with the SBMA enforcer in brown. It's just that black and white.

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There is a lack of respect for authority because there is a lack of trust in authority. It will not matter how well-meaning a new program is if the implementing office is undermined every day. It won't matter how many kilometers of bike lanes are painted or bus lanes are designated if motorists are not being taught through enforcement to respect those markings. It will not matter if road rules are taught in elementary school if -by the time those kids start driving or riding- they realize that the rules and road markings aren't even enforced even when there's a traffic enforcer present.

Some would argue the barangay is the most basic unit of government that we all interact with every day. I would argue that it's the LTO because to get to the barangay hall you'll have to either drive, ride, pedal, commute, walk on a sidewalk or cross a street. Those are all forms of land transport, and the agency tasked to oversee it needs to overhaul the public's trust and respect in their authority.

In many ways, this is also probably why many don't obey quarantine curfews, essential travel, social distancing guidelines, or wear masks and face shields properly. But that's a separate issue. Or is it?