NCAP: Retain, Junk, or Fix?

When various Local Government Units (LGUs) started establishing their own NCAPs, many rejoiced. No, we don't mean the NCAP where you crash cars to test safety systems like Euro NCAP or ASEAN NCAP. What we're referring to is the no-contact apprehension program.

Many saw it as a means of fixing the problem of traffic discipline in our daily motoring lives through CCTV monitoring of key intersections. Committing a violation like running a red light or stopping at a pedestrian lane or making an illegal turn will be caught on camera, and the registered owner of the vehicle will be sent a love letter from the LGU sometime later.

It's not working out as expected though. Reports of motorists being ticketed (virtually) and fined under questionable circumstances started circulating on social media. And there are probably more to come as there is a significant lead time for an incident to make its way through the NCAP process before a violation notice is issued.

There are many good aspects to this program. Yes, it allows the traffic offices to monitor key intersections even when there is no enforcer present, allowing them to reallocate manpower to more problematic locations that could better use the manpower. Yes, it can prevent the possibility of corruption because there's no officer to reason with on the spot and/or bribe. If run well, the system can be efficient and truly act as a deterrent to enhance traffic discipline among motorists.

There are, however, some very big pitfalls that we need to be aware of.

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1. It's a PPP

Our governments -whether national or local- have a tendency to get into public-private partnerships (PPP). That's actually normal. They do this to help move forward and fund major infrastructure projects that otherwise wouldn't have pushed through under regular budget constraints. One of these is NCAP; actually in the last statement made by the Metro Manila mayors and the MMDA is that they have been urged “to get into more progressive and beneficial Joint Ventures and Public-Private Partnerships”.

That is actually where the potential issues start. It's perfectly OK to have a PPP for infrastructure projects like toll roads which are optional for the public (apart from the high toll fees), but there is a very tricky line that may be crossed when it comes to having private entities participate in law enforcement duties. Let's put it this way: a government is about delivering basic services and maintaining order, but a private company is about being profitable.

We can argue the semantics of that (the government does like a good BIR collection report) but there are fundamental issues that arise from having private funding handle any law enforcement aspect of government services: there may be a conflict of interest. Or interests. Just look at the issue of privatized prisons in the United States. The longer the inmates stay, the merrier. It's actually surprising to know that there's a term for it now: the prison-industrial complex.

Is NCAP also a case of the more violations, the merrier? We sincerely hope that's not the case, but only ones who really know are the ones running the show.

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2. Who is watching?

The fact that it's a PPP brings up another concern: who is actually watching and monitoring the cameras?

When the LGUs were launching their respective NCAPs in the last two years, we saw a lot of media coverage of unveilings of CCTV cameras and street signs saying NCAP is now in effect or on a trial basis. What we didn't see are the people monitoring the camera feeds at a government facility or command center.

Is it a traffic enforcer attached to the LGU or LTO? Is it a police officer with the HPG? Is it just a regular government employee told to sit down, watch, and report? Or is it a private employee that is pressured to find as many violations as possible?

Some would ask: Is there a difference if it was an enforcer or policeman versus a rank-and-file government or private employee? I would argue that yes, there is. 

Think about it this way: When we go through the airport for an international flight, we always end up with a professional and sharply-dressed immigration officer who asks us where we're going, for how long, so on and so forth. There's a certain respect that you convey because you're dealing with someone who knows what they're doing and is dedicated to the job. Now imagine if they put a regular employee or even an OJT there.

Would you be comfortable about getting a Notice of Violation (NOV) not knowing who was watching and what their training level is? Actually, would you be comfortable with the decisions made if the person watching the screen doesn't know how to drive or hasn't even been to the intersection that he/she is monitoring?

It's a matter of credibility. At least on a physical ticket issued by an MMDA enforcer, the name is actually written there, but on the NOV I didn't see the name of the person who watched the CCTV and recommended the violation. Correct me if I'm wrong on that one.

Are they traffic enforcers dedicated to the job, or someone who's watching whilst enjoying a Wintermelon Milk Tea?

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3. Detached from the ground

As the program revolves around the principle of detaching the enforcer from the motorist, that also leads to a problem: being detached from the situation.

Some would argue that a CCTV camera sees all, but that's not true. A camera shows you a two-dimensional view of what's going on, and the people manning the monitors only have road markings to go by or traffic signals to base their decisions on. And in a country where the lines and signs change seemingly at will (like when the government decided to slice a lane meant for a car to dedicate a space for bicycles) that's a problem. Driving here is not black and white; we are all adjusting to each other to make space and not get into a collision. 

Driving in a city or cities such as ours is very demanding on motorists, but a CCTV camera does not put you in a driver's seat or on a street corner to truly observe what's happening. Case in point: if there was a fire engine or ambulance behind you while you're at an NCAP-equipped intersection with no traffic officers to override it, would you exercise your judgment to move forward to let them through, or would you stay put?

Personally, I probably wouldn't move my car and risk a violation, but that's just me. 

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All these signs point to a system that has too many problems that weren't fixed or amended before full implementation. It's not the first time; actually, it's kind of systemic already. Remember the implementation of the distracted driving law and how ridiculous it got because the IRR was so specific? Remember the child seat law that didn't consider the cost for parents? Remember the PMVIC and the issues with the IRR's standard being outrageously stricter than foreign standards?

Birthing and/or growing pains are expected with any new program. Despite all that, I don't think NCAP should be junked. Actually, I don't think junking it is even on the table because too many have invested into it to do so. They're not going to do that and I don't think they should, but they have to work to fix the issues. That's the same with PMVIC, the child seat law, distracted driving, with everything motoring-related. 

I believe that NCAP is a potentially good program to augment traffic enforcement and truly improve discipline on the road. The key word there is potentially; it's not there yet. The implementors need to establish their credibility as a program, and that means they need to iron out the kinks and stamp out the issues.

Here's my suggestion: NCAP should be amended to remove the Notice of Violation and change it to a Show Cause order or some equivalent of it.

Such a change would give the motorist the opportunity to explain what happened and why. If the motorist cannot give a justifiable reason, then it becomes a violation with a proper ticket and fine. If they can, then it's dismissed or a warning is given. Such an approach is more reasonable rather than trying to overturn a questionable violation already handed down.

That's how you get motorists to cooperate and work together to be better drivers, as opposed to just handing out penalties and pissing people off.