In the name of the law

You can tell that something is grossly wrong with the administration when Senators start making pronouncements and conjecture, and pretty soon, after a surge of press releases, the bureaucrats are hauled in for investigation, in aid of legislation. And ever since the era of Daang Matuwid, the Senate's favorite whipping boys are from the DoTC, LTO and MRT.

No plate, no travel

The latest fracas is about the "no plate, no travel" warning, corrected by the LTO to mean "no registration, no travel". Actually, it all makes sense. Your vehicle registration entitles you to use our national road network and lends ownership title to the vehicle. Without registration, the vehicle has no recognized owner, and has no right to use public roads. So beside the official receipt, OR, and certificate of registration, CR, the license plate is the outward visible evidence of registration. Validity, as in all things bureaucratic, is time dependent. So to evidence validity, annual sticker tags for both front and rear plate plus a windshield sticker are required. For law enforcement on public roads, the absence of a plate is the smoking gun evidence for the possible absence of registration. As for the conduction sticker, LTO diktat says it has a limited validity for use on public roads as it serves only for transit from distributor to dealer to new owner's home. What made the new guidelines harder to swallow was that the fines and penalties are now 4 figures, rising to 5 figures, inline with LTO's new found power to charge higher penalties for violations. If your dealer invoice is more than a week old, traveling with no plate/no registration will cost you 5,000.00 If you have plates but failed to install the cap screw attachment – making you a suspect in plate switching, and hence car-napping – 5,000.00 fine. Talk about raising the bargaining stakes base line for grease money to avoid license confiscation.

He said, she said

But for some reason, or whatever reason – whether owner, dealer or LTO's – payment of registration for new cars doesn't, in reality, automatically bequeath one instant possession of the plates. After some two years of muddle in bidding and awarding the new 7 character plate supplier, LTO announced that plates are now available. LTO now says that dealers do not go and collect the plates that are piling up at LTO agencies. Dealers say, sure if indeed the plates are there, but LTO does not and cannot release the plates because of the lengthy manual process of encoding – result of the change from 3 alpha 3 numerical character plates to 3 alpha 4 numerical characters for the new plates. LTO also blames customer's choice of ending plate number to avoid coding days. Owners say, we have a right to that even as the MMDA and some LGU's usurped our constitutional rights to 24/7 access to public roads. LTO counters by pushing owners to pay more for vanity plates. LTO tried to shame dealers by listing their unclaimed plate nos. Dealers countered by saying, that the plates are stuck there because LTO hasn't released them. Dealers have every incentive to deliver the plates as the countdown for vehicle financing amortization begins only when the ownership documentations, including plates are delivered.

In aid of legislation

All the above attracted the attention of Sen. Alan Cayetano and Sen. JV Ejercito. Sen. Ejercito also discovered that the 3.8B Peso contract to make the new plates, awarded to a foreign firm, was in violation of COA and budget guidelines. Halting payments to J. Knierem B.V., the world renowned Dutch supplier of license plates, were in the cards. Now Sen. Recto wants to know why owners of old vehicles are being required to replace them with new plates. For some strange reason, the LTO bosses did not answer Sen. Recto to his satisfaction, leading him to publicly suppose that the enforced plate change as an income fattening ploy. And he wants to halt these plate replacements and have LTO refund motorists and then focus on alleviating traffic.

Why change plate?

To answer Sen. Recto, - alleviating traffic is a daily on going task of many government agencies and not just the LTO. Changing plates doesn't side line traffic alleviation. But to return to the matter at hand; i.e. license plate change - the LTO did say that changing plates should harmonize the look of Philippine license plates as so many different plate styles and reflective sheet levels of security has accumulated over the years. Many of these plates were becoming unreadable and their reflective features dulled or worn out. Made of thin aluminum, many have also become dog eared and bent. To prevent car-napping and plate switching, plate attachment are by special cap screws and failure to install them are a violation. LTO has also mandated a service life of 5 years for the plates so owners will be required to replace them on year 5, for the not so princely sum of 450.00 Pesos.

Duplicate plate

We agree with the need to replace the old plates, especially if tattered. The Motor Vehicle Code requires that if the plate is not longer legible, the owner should apply for a replacement plate. The LTO has a procedure to do this. It takes more than a year, so in the meantime, you can have a handsome set of plates made by those Euro-plate makers in car accessory havens, then have it accredited by LTO as your temporary plates while you wait for your new "D" or duplicate plates to be ordered. Duplicate plates look like standard plates save for 2 features: the font of the alpha numeric series is condensed type – narrower than standard – and there is a small "D" stamped between the alpha and numerical series.

A history of tacky plates

But there really is a solid case to replace those old plates. Take the late 80's plates, the era of coups d' etat. Blackboard green backgrounds for plate numbers made private cars look like Army vehicles. Then it morphed into the early 90s plates with white raised letters/numerals with a thin layer of reflective material that soiled and dulled in a few years time. Later plates resorted to white backgrounds with cheesy slogans that one may hear as rousing cheers in police academy boot camp. One of the tackiest, and probably an exercise in nationalism, was the Rizal obelisk sited in the middle of the alpha-numeric characters. I often wondered what the Spanish ambassador thought of this phallic reference to our colonial history and Rizal's role [trouble maker or firing squad target practice?] on his blue and white "1000" diplomatic license plate. Later plates had double helix holograms for added security. Moreover, the rapid increase in vehicle population meant that we needed to increase the number of alpha-numeric elements on the plate number to more than 6 to avoid duplication. When Bert Suansing was LTO chief, the studies pointed to 8 character plates which meant longer plates. This meant we can no longer use the old 80's era stamping facility that limited our plate size of 390mm x 140mm, discarded Australian standards.

Ok, still, why change plate?

LTO has publicly stated that they are going to great lengths and expense to minimize car-napping. Hence, the new plates, with new and hard to fake security features could only be outsourced to a foreign supplier. Hence the need to apply the new plate standard to ALL cars, new and old. The problem with grand theft auto or car-napping is that the thieves are always several steps ahead. When they make fake plates, they're even of better quality. When they make fake registration papers, there are even less typos. LTO claims that with the cap screw system plate switching is minimized. What it also means that when it comes to your car plates, LTO and no one else – Police, deputized traffic aides, parking wardens, tow away gerbils – has a right to take out your plates. But it does pose a problem for some owners who have spent quite a tidy sum dismounting the bumper of their brand new car just to install the required cap screws, while some LTO agency brand new service vehicles don't even use the "legal" cap screws.

Windshield sticker or third plate?

If prevention of plate switching was LTO's intent, it had a pretty good system years ago. It used to be that the plate number's alpha-numeric combination was mirrored in the windshield registration sticker. That way the car's real plate number is what is found on the sticker. Switching was verified by just comparing plate number with the sticker number. But later on when LTO started muddling contracts of existing suppliers and trying out new suppliers, it ended up with annual validation sticker tags that fell off and windshield stickers that had one long registration number, with no relation at all to the car's assigned plate number. The latest plates does one better as they call the windshield sticker the "third plate".

RFID sticker 2009

In 2009, LTO tried to launch an RFID windshield sticker as the "third plate". The idea was to imbed as much info into the sticker so check points can just use a scanner to determine vehicle details. But it proved unpopular and so it was withdrawn. Frankly, we wonder why we needed such an RFID sticker to contain information that a simple OR/CR contains in one glance. Besides, our registration system is not like the old European style which uses a passport like booklet documenting the ownership and Motor vehicle inspection paper trail. The EU is moving away from storing information with the owner's booklet to the internet Cloud or at least to the vehicle registration agency main computer.

Preventing car-napping

If LTO does these things – security features on plate numbers, validating tag stickers, OR/CR, drivers licenses, etc. - it means business in preventing fakery of government issued identification tags of which plate numbers, validating tag stickers, OR/CR and drivers licenses belong. Which is why it carefully chooses the manufacturer of plates just as it carefully chooses the supplier of ID blanks for driver's licenses. Considered not applicable for our culture is the German style of registration where one pays the registration office for the plate number and goes to nearby plate makers to have the plate stamped. These plate makers, just like our local emissions testers and drug testing, abound around the vicinity of the registration office and the farther they are from the office, the cheaper their plate making charges. LTO used to control the premises of plate stamping, though with the new set up, we don't know for certain if this applies to the Dutch supplier. But if security is the concern of Sen. JV Ejercito, it is conceivable that local plate stamping security venue can mimic the printing of our Passports and currency; the foreign supplier prints such in Central Bank's Security Printing Plant – incidentally, not far from LTO's main East Ave. office. So this should also answer Senator JV Ejercito's concern why or if the plates are not manufactured locally. Not bad considering that in some states in North America, plate numbers are made by prisoners. Can you imagine if license plate making here is managed the way BJMP [Bureau of Jail Management and Penology] manages Bilibid?

The other half of the problem

Nice uniform plate numbers are only one half of the solution to prevent car-napping. There should be a current data base of car registration information for easy law enforcement or public access. For sure there is one, but it sorely needs constant computerized updating. And it should be readily accessible 24/7 – controlled access via internet, dedicated call center – no need for US style specialized police communication equipment to access. Its not just for police checking on stolen vehicles, but also for citizens investigating prospective used car purchases. LTO may probably have this already but it may not be well publicized or its access is still a work in progress considering computerization, major, universal computerization of the LTO has been a stalled project for close to 20 years.

Opportunity lost

We always point out that the rushed issuance of the new plate numbers, after half a decade in the doldrums, is an opportunity lost. First, we should have gone the full 8-character plates and used the EU 520mm x110mm size if only to mitigate having to reformat plate sizes again when we run out of 7 character alpha numeric combinations. Second, we also lost the opportunity to increase the size of motorcycle plates to the 2-line EU standard. Not only will it make the plates easily legible, but it also provides motorcycles a larger flat reflective panel for easier visibility in poor visibility conditions. To think, J. Knierem B.V supplies other EU countries with the standard 520mm x110mm plate. Adopting this size, along with the 2-line EU motorcycle plate size, could have saved us a lot in cost compared to the custom 390mm x 140mm size that we use now.


Pity the LTO? Or, should it be pity the people served by the LTO? There was indeed a time when there was none to pity. And even during trying times, like the past 5 years, we don't mean to disparage the hard working employees of this front line national agency, who work even during lunch time to deliver to us our precious driver's license. Or vehicle registration.

License renewed in 30 mins.

In another time, it was that simple and neat. You walked up to the window, paid your dues, and in less than 30 minutes – even during the days of mandatory drug testing – you drive away with your new driver's license. And since it was good for three years, you need not do this transaction annually. Moreover, as the years went by, the security features just got better and better.

The 3-year registration

Those who bought new vehicles, were just as lucky, as registrations are good for three years. And after starting with rather crude computer data bases, crude plate numbers – stamped in-house since the early 80s – crude security features on official receipts – they've gotten better through the years. Oh, the LTO had modernization plans then– universal Motor vehicle inspection, unified driver data bases, violation data bases, instant background checks on plate numbers, etc. Alas, many have been works in progress for decades, victims of fits and starts, depending on who rules the Palace.

Anyone but STRADCOM?

Even the simple and easy drivers license renewal hasn't been always simple and easy these past few years. LTO agencies frequently went off-line. License ID's faded in 3 months. Supplies of ID blanks were stalled because of LTO quarrels with suppliers and/or there were no bidders considering unrealistic terms of the new supply contracts. Temporary licenses are now valid for 3 years as there is no guarantee that there will be a supplier for ID blanks soon. And instead of working to fast track a return to license renewal normalcy, a callously anti-public convenience idea cropped up – an LTO plan to imitate DFA passport issuance for drivers license. Which means you have to wait for your license to be delivered to your registered address, instead of walking out of the agency with a fresh 3-year license in half an hour. Or was this just a ploy to get out of some STRADCOM related contract to favor another new bidding with unrealistic requirements, which is bound to fail? The LTO, like the MRT, cannot afford to lose mission critical contractors that will impair its day to day operations. Or the crisis we experience today with both – no bidders and no interested suppliers - is already a fait accompli because of the indecision and unnecessary regulatory tinkering by listless leaders of the recent past?

The brilliant and the mediocre

Yes, the LTO does gets it share of productive pro-active leadership internally and from the DoTC above once in a while. And its share of do-nothing duds or NIMBY [not in my back yard] know-it-all nincompoops. So no matter how good the corps of back room and front liners are, the LTO is still a typical top-to-bottom bureaucracy, totally dependent on the guy/gal on top of things.

Get the Job done!

What can we say of the past five years under the Pnoy administration? Well, like the rest of the DoTC, it has lurched from one crisis to another – some of it of its own making and some just relegated to the slow lane, smothered by reinventing-the-wheel types. Let's call it the Mar "gets the job done" Roxas era – as the President calls him in his recent pseudo-endorsement. Concurrent Sec. Abaya is merely carrying on with his predecessor's style and substance. We exclude the short term of Sec. Ping de Jesus as he was stymied by alleged Palace fair-haired-boys/gals who preferred to settle scores, sniffed corruption in any stack of papers that look like established contracts, ring-fenced turf and blocked "getting the job done".

Get the job done, properly!

Some say a Senate investigation gets in the way of bureaucrats "getting the job done". We say, a Senate investigation is probably necessary to "get the job done", properly. The LTO has seen better days. We will just have to wait and bear it if the next five years mean more of the same.