By: Buena Bernal
Fred Estonilla, then 28, was tired from a night of work driving a container van carrying some 6 tonnes of ready-to-wear clothing from his boss’ warehouse to the what is called Pier 15 at the port in the Philippines’ capital Manila.
But he couldn’t just rest or sleep right away after hours of work on the road. The workers’ quarters he stayed at provided by his long-time employer was in Cavite, south of the capital, still an hour or so drive away.
Trucks are usually only permitted to pass through Manila’s roads late in the evening, so Fred starts his work in the supply chain industry at 10:00 pm. He finishes his trip in the wee hours while everyone else is at home sleeping.
From Manila, he drives home to his quarters in Cavite in a motorcycle, one he’s proud of for having bought using money from his backbreaking labor.
Estonilla has been driving for a living since his teenage days. At 19, he started earning by driving passengers using his boss’ jeepney, a type of public transport vehicle in the Philippines.
Estonilla is now 43, still driving for a living, only this time for a media company.
As a driver, Estonilla is always alert and remembers roads even in the dark, even when it’s his first time in the area. The moment he returns to the same once-unfamiliar set of roads, he’s known it like the back of his hand. One visit is all it takes. It is part of his hard-earned wisdom as a driver.
He has spent most of his adult life on the road. There was a time he felt like its king, like everything was within his control.
But the year 2002 changed his life.
On his way home from a night of work as a truck driver in Manila, while on his beloved motorcycle at full speed in Cavite’s roads, Estonilla hit one of two cows running after each other in the middle of the street seemingly out of nowhere. The impact of the crash was aggravated by the speed at which Estonilla was driving.
“The road there is like many in the provinces. You can see the road is clear as far as your eyes can see,” he explained in the vernacular in an interview with Workers Of PH.
The next few scenes went by too fast for him to even recall now. Just a second after realizing the four-legged animal ahead of him was too close as he attempted to pull the brake lever, Estonilla’s vision went pitch black. Everything was a blur from there.
He spent 3 days at the intensive care unit of the De La Salle University Medical Center in Cavite, unconscious. His loved ones were about to pull the plug on him. On the third day, he regained consciousness. He had vowed on that day to never drive a motorcycle again.
In the Philippines, road crashes claim some 27 lives a day. Globally, it is the 9th top cause of human deaths, accounting to an estimated 1.24 million lives yearly.
The 2004 World Report in Road Traffic Injury Prevention revealed that head trauma is said to be the main cause of road crash deaths and morbidity, accounting to around 75% of the deaths. Estonilla said he was wearing the helmet that came free with the purchase of his motorcycle. Imagine where he’d be if he didn’t wear one.
These tragedies on our highways and streets are rarely caused by a single factor.
Road safety advocates explain that ensuring crashes in our roads don’t end up as fatal incidents is always a multidimensional challenge.
“There are a lot of factors. There is no single roadblock,” explained Dr. Ronaldo Quintana of the World Health Organization.
“There’s no road safety silver bullet that will solve this problem,” explained lawyer Sophia San Luis, executive director of the non-profit Imagine Law.
Imagine Law is a law organization specializing in public policy development and research on topics including road safety and public health.
San Luis says the challenge starts in changing perceptions.
“When you call it an accident, that is what you are perpetuating. That it is unexpected and unexplainable… It is very rarely unexpected,” she says.
A tire failure, for example, is linked to vehicle overloading and tire underinflation.
In the case of Estonilla, he admits he had thought the road was all his as no other vehicles were in sight.
He also admits letting his guard down and being a little too confident, as it’s the same highway he’s been traversing in the dark every night after his work shift ends.
But San Luis says there are also common myths about road crashes that need to be debunked.
“It’s very rarely just the driver who is at fault,” she says.
“The owners didn’t secure the leash of the cows,” Estonilla also explained.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more deaths and economic costs caused by road crashes in low- to mid-income countries than in developed ones.
WHO’s Quintana says low- to mid-income countries usually do not have enough road safety legislation, have less strict implementation of existing road safety laws, have poorer road conditions, and may have more vehicles with questionable road worthiness.
San Luis explains that motorists in low- to middle-income countries like the Philippines are still in the process of acquiring vehicles.
“These countries are still developing, which means they’re still going through rapid motorization,” she says.
She also explained that holistic interventions that need to be strictly enforced are the key to preventing fatal crashes.
Among these laws is one pending in Congress, a measure mandating child restraints in all vehicles with children on board.
“While there are robust road safety laws, it doesn’t show in the data…. Because enforcement hasn’t kept up,” she added.
But the Philippine government says it is working to beat these problems.
The Philippines is taking a leaf from the playbook of Singapore, ranked by a 2017 World Economic Forum report as second out of 137 countries in terms of road quality, next only to the United Arab Emirates.
The Philippines’ transportation department says the country signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise for the inception, design and realization of an Intelligent Transport System (ITS) in the regional capital Metro Manila.
This will include intelligent traffic lights and signs as well as a traffic control center for integrated traffic management, among others.
Greater use of technology in managing Manila’s roads is expected to avoid human errors in flagging road policy violators. It is also seen to combat widespread corruption in the form of bribes to enforcers during apprehensions.
Currently, there is a technical working group coordinating with Singapore for the finalization of the feasibility study on the planned ITS.
A pending law also seeks to ban bus terminals along the region’s intercity thoroughfare, EDSA Avenue, as well as create so-called friendship routes that private vehicles can pass through in gated villages and subdivisions.
Beyond the use of technology, one Philippines City, Pasig City, is seeking to prioritize pedestrians over cars in its road policies — subsidizing bike-sharing, providing greater incentive for the designation of bike parking spaces in commercial buildings, and constructing elevated crossways in crucial road intersections to ensure efficient passage and mobility of pedestrians.
State figures show 22% of road fatalities in the Philippines are pedestrians, second only to riders of two-wheelers such as motorcycles at 66%.
As for Fred Estonilla, he did return to driving a motorcycle five years after the collision but this time with much more caution and wisdom on the road.
“To be more alert and know that anything can happen,” he says of his greatest lesson from his life-altering crash.
Estonilla says he now steers the wheel with more mindfulness, patience and humility compared to his younger years.
He has since fathered two children, with another one on the way. (END) – WorkersOfPH.com
This story was produced under the Bloomberg Initiative Global Road Safety Media Fellowship implemented by the World Health Organization, the Department of Transportation in the Philippines and Vera Files.