Quick, what are the top three most common 4-wheeled motor vehicles on the road, over the past, say 15 years? You may not have noticed but its the Mitsubishi L-300 - sold locally in many guises since 1984 - the Isuzu Elf - sold new and reconditioned since 1979 and the Toyota Tamaraw FX - though sold only from 1992 to 1996, it is one of the most numerous and most readily recognized passenger vehicle anywhere there are paved roads in our 7,000 islands.

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By being so popular and blessed with staying power, in whatever shape or form, these top three, also top accident statistics. Witnessing several upside down ones on wet slippery highways in the course of some 20 to 30 years of their popularity, it can't be denied. Because of their age, it would tempting to label them as not being up to global safety standards.

Staying power

To be fair, there is something to be said for their staying power. The engineering behind these three models - late 80s for the Tamaraw FX, late 70s, for the Elf and L-300 - were, from drawing board onward, compliant with the safety standards of the world market of the day. It's easy to presume that those standards are obsolete today until one appreciates that the basic mechanical structural standards for passenger cell crash survivability are still current today but greatly enhanced with the annual addition of what modern technology can offer.

It's not just about bags

Thirty years ago, technology for inertia reel seat belts, airbags and variable density hydro-form steel were still in its infancy. For example, since variable density steel was not yet available when the Tamaraw, L-300, and Elf were designed, the engineers used the thicker gauge and heavier steels of the day. They had to if only to pass international crash safety standards. Safety then and now is the survivability of the passenger cell post-crash and not just about the number of side-bags, curtain bags and the like. But it doesn't mean that the vehicle design was deficient in safety-ness from inception.

Accident prone?

So besides sheer number, why do these three very common vehicles figure in most accidents? It's easy to say, poor maintenance, and by golly, you're right. By being cheap, these three models are bought for 101% pure commercial utility, the bottom feeder of the motoring class. Like a refrigerator, these vehicles are treated as a workhorse to be driven to the ground, tires polished to a balding slick and to avoid maintenance as downtime costs money. Do you ever see family enterprises assigning their favorite top-notch driver to the lowly commercial van? Owners will not even think of spending on additional safety enhancements to these neglected breadwinners. How many L300s, Tamaraws and Elves of small enterprises do you see illicitly parked, exposed to the elements on the side streets of any middle-class subdivision? Hardly will you find a Tamaraw FX, L300 or Elf subject to TLC. And if cost-cutting is the management trend spouted by Starbucks habitue business analysts, it's the L300s budget that will get the pruning scissors. Accident damage? Insurance? Not for the company service vehicle. No experienced Elf, Tamaraw or L 300 owner would even consider going to a shop that can do a proper chassis alignment and TIG welding to restore structural integrity post-accident.

It's the fuel's fault!

Smoke belching? Ironically, despite the age and state of tune of the old pre-chamber design of these three vehicles' diesel engines, they are the perfect mate for the high sulfur content of Philippine diesel because their valves need the sulfur to cushion the closing and opening of valves onto valve seats. The same high sulfur diesel has required all CRDI-engine suppliers to re-engineer their Euro III and Euro IV compliant engines to avoid the sulfur corrosion of the injectors before being sold here. Still, you will see that the moment a roadside ASBU [anti smoke belching enforcement unit] spots any of these three types of vehicles, along with the backyard assembled mongrel AUV-Jeepney, they are immediately pulled over for "smoke testing". True, older pre-chamber design diesel engines tend to belch black smoke on acceleration, but the newer CRDI engines still do too, though with less frequency and density, at least to the naked eye. This is not the fault of the engine technology but because of the high sulfur fuel we have.

Bottom feeder driving

Then there is, of course, the driver. Most owners of these 3 models don't even care how their driver drives. Since these three vehicles can safely fit 2 passengers and a driver up on the front bench, no attention is given to the driving space. Its as if drivers know how to sit properly behind pedals and steering wheels angled at the horizontal on the Elf and L300. Granted that the range of adjustment of the seat and steering wheel is geared only for 90% of the average humanoid's dimensions, there are aftermarket pillows and cushions that can be bought to improve the driving position. But does anyone bother? It won't surprise that the average L300, Tamaraw, and Elf driver have formed habits around their unique driving contortion because these vehicles have the space to indulge them in their dangerous habits. Put the same driver in a precision driving seat like the RECARO seats of a Mitsubishi EVO X, where there is only one way to sit - the correct way - and they would be afraid to drive it. Which is better since driver's who don't know a proper driving position shouldn't be allowed to drive anyway.

Positioned to drive badly

With a bad driving position comes bad driving. Full Stop. Ogle unladen Elves turn turtle on a wet expressway as they speed merrily along. Watch them lose all road holding as the cab-over crosses a hump, front tires airborne and the rear tires trying to race ahead of the front. Watch the headlight and taillight-less Tamaraws scrimmage with Urvans and HiAces for the next GT-Express victim, err, commuter. Watch L-300 drivers pump the accelerator pedal, grip the steering wheel rim hunched, determined to deprive the V-8 Expedition to the next overtaking slot, even if the L300 takes half a minute to get to 100km/h from a standstill. There are enough concerned advocacy group driving modules in schools and enough driving school clinics to correct driver behavior, but are their bosses willing to spend time and money to retrain these dangerous high mileage drivers?

The mongrel as the killer

Compare a common sight on our expressways. Giant mongrel AUV-Jeepney "loses" its brakes, loses control, bolts the median into the opposing path of a small sedan. In the aftermath of the crash, the sedan's metal is crushed but its occupants, though shaken, are alive and one piece. The Jeepney, now upside down, looks whole, but its roof posts are like split bamboo poles and fatalities are strewn all over the road. The Jeepney driver never usually survives as his chest is impaled by the steering wheel column. All the sedan's crushed steel absorbed the crash energy. In the Jeepney, it was the passengers that absorbed the crash energy. It's not a pretty sight. With this track record of some mongrel AUV makers, it is indeed a sad thing as properly engineered L300s, Tamaraws and Elves are dumbed down and enlarged to highly inferior and suspect mongrel AUV standards.

Taking the engineering out of the engineered

That's a problem of erroneous modification. Think of it: if the factory didn't fit, it means the design wasn't made for it. But many LCV owners think they know better than the Japanese engineers. Despite the proliferation of dealers of excellent reconditioned and converted used Elves, some owners resort to doing their own backyard modifications to increase cargo capacity. They use oxy-acetylene to weld and stretch chassis members in order to carry more cargo. Next, they add more leaf springs to raise the payload. These two modifications unbalance a typical Elf, making it lose its road holding. These badly modified Elves are prone to turning upside down at the slightest hint of rain or a bump.

No way out

Even at 60km/h, the driver has no choice. Whether he executes an evasive swerve or hits the brakes to slow down before a bump, he will produce the same result - a spinning and overturned Elf. You also have truck operators reducing the double tired rear to make the Elf skirt the truck ban. But this silly idea is dangerous as it makes the tiny wheel bolts of the outer wheel rim, instead of the axle proper, support the weight of the truck. Imagine the shearing forces those 6 picayune wheel nuts are subjected to.

Street legal

The Isuzu Elf light truck configuration is still street legal in Japan as Isuzu, Hino and Fuso still supply them. But you will never see those JDM trucks look like or drive like the way our local versions look or drive. The L300 versa van continues to roll out of Mitsubishi's Cainta factory and it's still very popular. The Tamaraw has moved aside for the REVO and Innova, but it doesn't mean that the Tamaraws should all head for extinction. It doesn't matter if the entire country runs on old Elves, L300s, and Tamaraws for so long as they pass the annual MVIS - Motor Vehicle Inspection System.

MVI what?

During the Marcos era, a foreign commissioned study recommended the institution of an MVIS, a system of state motor vehicle inspection stations with the aim of reducing the number of road fatalities due to badly maintained and badly made home-grown vehicles. It took a while before money was found to finance it and twice over the past 15 years were there fits and starts. By the time former Asec Bert Suansing was reassigned from the LTO to the LTFRB, the MVIS stations, with their European and Japanese equipment were all undergoing testing, raring to service the public utility vehicle and trucking sector. Nothing happened. Up to today. In the meantime, expect more of those top 3 best sellers to figure prominently in the accident statistics.