Driving: USA vs. Philippines

I’m back in the USA for a 4 week visit, after living in the Philippines for 6 months now. The most striking differences I notice here in the USA relate to driving.

First of all, Filipinos, particularly in Manila, have a reputation for being aggressive and reckless drivers, which is only partially deserved. Before I ever drove a car in the Philippines, I was a frequent passenger in cars and other vehicles. Based on that experience, I was very afraid of driving there, as it seemed that all the drivers were very aggressive and ignored traffic laws. However, now that I’ve been driving in the country for about 6 months, I find I enjoy driving there very much. Driving is one of the experiences that remind me of my former life in the USA. Basically the driving experience is similar. And while there are many aggressive drivers, there are also many drivers who will give way. Yes, you will find cars on the roads doing things you would not expect in the USA – going the wrong way on the shoulder, turning left from the right lane, blocking 4 lanes of traffic to make a U turn, ignoring stop signs, and on and on. But Filipino drivers are often very skilled, both at executing maneuvers that foreigners may consider crazy, and at dealing with an environment where that happens all the time. They expect you to do whatever you need to in order to get where you are going, even if doing so breaks the rules. So when you want to make a U turn, they will often let you. And if you hesitate they may honk the horn to encourage you.

However, there are some very significant differences between the two countries. In the USA, almost every intersection that needs a traffic light or stop sign has one, actually it has several. Just about every road has clearly readable signs that tell you the name or number of the road, and in most cases that name or number is the same name or number that you’ll find on any map for that road. Further, most roads have signs telling you the name of the roads crossing it, and highways have exit numbers and signs that clearly tell you the name of the road and its direction.

You are unlikely to find any of this wonderful signage in the Philippines, and perhaps 10-20% of the needed traffic lights and stop signs exist. Yes, people drive (mostly) on the same side of the road as in the US (on the right). Yes, almost all the road signs are in English. That doesn’t mean they are helpful. Signs on roads almost never tell you what road you are on. They rarely tell you the names or numbers of the crossing roads, and when they do those names may not match the names on a map. Instead the signs tell you what city or town you can reach by taking a specific road. On multi-lane highways signs above each lane only show the name of a town or neighborhood or city, which theoretically you can reach if you stay in that lane. If you don’t know where these places are, your map won’t help you very much. And in fact, to reach one of those named destinations you will likely have to switch lanes several times. Not to mention the frequent signs admonishing you to “Stay On Your Lane” that contradict the signage telling you which lane you need to move into to get where you are going.

Everyone asks about GPS. I will have more to write about that in a month or two. I have a Garmin GPS unit in the US. When I moved to the Philippines there was no Garmin software available for the country. Now there is, so I plan to take my unit home with me and set it up with the software. I enjoyed using the Garmin in the US. We’ll see if it helps in the Philippines. Of course, now that I’ve been driving there for 6 months, it is much easier, as I’ve learned a lot of the place names and how to go to many of the places I need to reach.

Drivers in the Philippines routinely ignore the traffic laws, as there is almost no enforcement. If you get in an accident, you may then be charged with breaking a traffic law. And you may be stopped by a policeman for swerving. I’m not sure if swerving is a valid crime, or just an offense that cops use to try to extract a bit of money from you, in exchange for not confiscating your license.

So tonight, when I was stopped by a member of the Branchburg, NJ police force, it was refreshing to see some traffic enforcement in action. The cop introduced himself and was very respectful. He stopped me for going 40 miles per hour in a 25 MPH zone. After learning that I was a visitor to the area and unfamiliar with the roads, and (presumably) checking to see if I had any violations on my record while I waited for him to return, he gave me a verbal warning but no ticket. And then when I asked he gave me the directions I needed. All in English, of course.

The best part was that there was no expectation that any exchange of money would take place, because that is rather uncommon in such situations in the US. Because it is very common in the Philippines for money to exchange hands in these situations, it is always a possibility. It’s not that I mind spending a few dollars. Bribery is illegal, and corruption is a major force that retards economic progress and the elimination of poverty in the Philippines. Estimates are that the country loses $2 billion worth of investment per year due to corruption. The idea of participating in that, of being a part of that problem, is very distressing to me.

One more difference is the number of lanes in each country. Arguably, the highways in the US, taken together, have way too many lanes. In the Philippines they have too few. Some toll roads have only 2 lanes. Not 2 lanes for each direction, 2 lanes total, so if you want to pass you must use the lane for opposing traffic. The difference between such a toll road and other roads is the lack of entrances to businesses and residences along the road. Most roads serve the dual purpose of connecting distant towns and cities and providing access to local establishments and homes, as well as the frequent extra duties of hosting local festivals, funerals, marches, and other traffic-blocking organized activities, or disorganized activities, such as extended periods of road construction and excavation.

Being in New Jersey at the moment, and driving to various locations in the state to visit family and friends, I appreciate the excellent road design, great signage, ample traffic lights, largely law-abiding drivers, and ample supply of lanes. In particular I am in love with the road called 287 (formally US Interstate 287). A wonderful invention, that decades after being built still has freely moving traffic with lanes to spare, and along its circuitous route connects many of the places I need to go this week.

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  • Al  On July 12, 2011 at 2:10 am

    I enjoyed your comments about 287 in Jersey. When I worked for AT&T back in the “good old days” I believe that AT&T had an office at every I287 off ramp. I never thought it moved all that well though, at least not at Rush hour. I never did get used to Jersey’s “jug handle” turning lanes.

  • Barry C. Saiff  On July 13, 2011 at 1:15 am

    Yes, I probably haven’t been on 287 during rush hour. But I love the Jersey jughandles. It is a system that is so much safer than most others. The thought and care that goes into the design of those interchanges is extraordinary.

  • Steven  On August 15, 2011 at 12:45 am

    Hi Barry – re: the garmin maps, there is a very very good opensource map available at http://www.roadguide.ph. It is user updated and to get the most upto date map you need to be a contributor to it. There is however an older (its about a year old, but has all the roads you need on it) version which is free to download for everyone. Even that map is better than the garmin one now available.

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