Is it our roads that are dangerous or our drivers? The recent travel season's headcount of families who lost their loved ones through road accidents is more than a statistical bump correlated to the increase in traffic. It brings out alarm and concern, and since lives are lost, a lot of grief and finger pointing.
Big fish hunt
Unfortunately, some of the public's reaction is to look for the biggest fish to fry. Last year, there was a bus-car-jeep encounter on the single carriageway section of the STAR tollway and many lives were lost. From the initial blame being laid on the road as "dangerous", the next step was to blame the STAR Tollway's operators and managers.
Inanimate object to blame
Right reasoning dictates that roads are inanimate objects. When they are empty, or when traffic passes through them without obstacle, there are no accidents and hence, no fatalities. Vehicles that are in unroadworthy condition are also to blame. If a vehicle in unroadworthy condition stays off the road, there will be no accidents. That leaves us with the driver.
Driving without brakes
You can drive a car without brakes for 100kms on sugar plantation roads, where you hardly encounter traffic and not get into an accident. Whereas you could be driving a fresh car from the showroom and in a moment of mobile phone inattention, hit the guy who stopped right in front of you. Logically, it is only when drivers make a mistake that accidents happen.
Minimum speed limits
By definition, a single carriageway highway, like the configuration of most of the country's National Highway system, legally allows overtaking. True, this kind of overtaking makes for disastrous results if distances and velocity are misjudged. Since impact collision speeds are the sum of the velocity of objects traveling in opposite directions, the results are fatal. You could have two opposing slow moving PU jeepneys, both driving at 40km/h - below the minimum speed limit on our national highways - hit each other, head-on at a total speed of 80km/h, presuming both their brakes "fail". Even if both are able to slow down to at most 30km/h, the impact speed is still 60km/h.
Terminal impact velocity
At a terminal impact speed of 60km/h, a modern car's front engine crash absorbing zone gets completely obliterated when hitting an unyielding roadside half century old Acacia tree. But cars have a rigid passenger safety cell and if the occupants wore seat belts and properly adjusted head restraints, injury and fatalities may even be nil. Brand new China made buses built to relevant EU directives and ECE regulations also save passengers from injuries and death better than locally built up bodies on reconditioned Japanese truck chassis.
Certain death due to poor construction
On the other hand, PU jeepneys do not have an iota of modern crash energy absorption engineering, seat belt restraints for all 25 passengers, progressive yield crash surfaces and roll over rigidity, hence the survival rate of driver and passengers will be very low to nil. In the case of the STAR tollway collision, it is not clear who did the overtaking - the Gasat Liner or the PUJ.
Double yellow, double trouble
So long as the overtaking was executed in the zone without the double yellow no passing center line, then it was perfectly legal. Of course, overtaking puts a lot of onus on a driver's judgement of velocity and distance. If his vehicle momentum is inadequate to power out of the opposite lane, he presents a problem to the on coming traffic. This is why the number of truck driver fatalities is high along the Cagayan Valley-Dona Remedios Trinidad Highway Truck route. And this is why the underfunded single carriageway TPLEx expressway to Gerona, Tarlac will have a high fatality and accident rate.
Three years ago, on November 01, a Spanish priest and his assistant were killed in their Revo because a Fermex bus overtook on a bridge with a solid no overtaking line. NLEx management was not remiss in proper signage and proper warnings, but there's no stopping drivers who are daring as to be stubborn or ignorant or both. After this, the NLEx management took a further step in installing abrasive double yellow lines and posted spotters with 2-way radios and digital cameras to have drivers who overtake on double yellow lanes arrested at the end of the NLEx.
The need to overtake
But why the need to overtake? Ideally, on any two lane single carriageway section with curves and double yellow no-overtaking zones, vehicles should travel at the legal limit but not any slower. At the NLEx Sta. Inez section, the limit is 80km/h with a lower limit of 60km/h. The problem is some drivers can't drive faster than 40km/h. Ideally, they should not be allowed on the highway as it is these slow drivers that build up long queues of traffic that also incite frequent and impatient overtaking. Or if their vehicles are incapacitated to run at the legal minimum, they should take to the emergency shoulder and keep their hazards flashing as is the practice in the EU. And as in the case of the MacArthur or Maharlika highway, they shouldn't be there at all. But in the Philippines, this is wishful thinking.
Of course the ideal solution is to build the rest of the STAR tollway from Lipa to Batangas City just like the older part from Sto. Tomas to Lipa - dual carriageway, 2x2 lanes plus paved shoulder. But then the STAR, like the Coastal road, could not invest in a proper dual carriageway extensions because the tolls were so low for so long a time that it barely paid for operation. Tolls, kept low by constant populist opposition from politicians and transport lobbies, who are no strangers to the danger a poorly maintained road could cause, considering the mediocre driving most of us do. The same low tolls made expanding the STAR and Coastal road unattractive to foreign investors as cost recovery was going to be a big risk.
Not in the stars
If one were to be just and honest, the blame for those travel season fatalities on the STAR was certainly not the road's. The STAR is a well engineered road and there are warnings where one can overtake and where one cannot. Easily it is the driver's fault, but we all know that mediocre driving is the rule not the exception. So how do we prevent mediocre drivers from hurting us and themselves? By making the road fool proof. Like the SCTEx and the NLEx. If you have a fool proof road, then it narrows down the cause of the accident, by process of elimination, to one last factor: the driver. Peruse the accident reports, and apart from alleged brake failure [euphemistically, the failure of the driver to brake in time] or busted tire and 99.9% of the causes is driver error.
So the next time you see signs or headlines labeling roads or sections of roads as dangerous, its not the road's fault. But for so long as we tolerate and side with politicians and narrow minded transport organizations pandering to the crowd who block toll rate hikes with alarming knee-jerk regularity, we will get the inferior roads we deserve, which will, in no way aid our mediocre driving and with it, comes the accident fatalities we dread but grieve for so often.