Driving in the Philippines: Coding, Convenience, and Corruption

They have a coding system in Manila to limit the number of cars on the road. There is one day a week when you cannot drive your car, and that day is determined by the last digit of your license plate. This much I knew, as even people who don’t drive know that much about the system. But it’s proven very difficult to find out the details.

When I bought my car, on December 30, 2010, I didn’t initially have license plates. I had to wait until they arrived at the dealer from the Land Transportation Office (LTO). During the five and a half months (yes,we have bureaucracy!) that I was waiting for my license plates I was not subject to coding. According to some people I was also not supposed to be driving in Manila, because I had no plates. I rejected that notion. After paying tens of thousands of dollars for a vehicle I’m supposed to wait 5 months before I drive it? That cannot be correct. In any case, I didn’t have any problems.

In late May I went to the Toyota dealer in Batangas, because my plates had finally arrived. I asked them about the coding. The saleswoman told me that because my plate ends in a 2, I cannot drive on Tuesdays. I asked if there was a sheet or a booklet that explained the rules. No, nothing like that. I asked the customer service people, they had never heard of such a thing. I asked where I could not drive on Tuesdays, the saleswoman said it was a rule for the whole country.

Further investigation showed that to be untrue. I asked a policeman in Tagaytay and he said, no, they do not enforce coding in Tagaytay. Nor in Batangas. Only, apparently, in Manila. Fine, so I won’t drive to Manila on a Tuesday. I went to the LTO Web site, trying to find out more details, but none were available.

This all worked fine until last Monday, when I needed to go to Manila. At 3:20 pm I was stopped along a major highway in Manila, EDSA, by the police for a coding violation. It turns out the information the saleswoman gave me was completely wrong. License plates ending in 1 and 2 are prohibited from driving in Manila on Mondays between the hours of 7 to 10 am and 3 to 7 pm. 3 and 4 cannot drive Tuesday in Manila, during the same hours. 5 and 6 Wednesday, 7 and 8 Thursday, 9 and 0 Friday. According to one of the 3 cops who stopped me, the system has not changed in 10 years.

The experience of being stopped changed my attitude toward corruption in the Philippines, basically from hopefulness to despair. In the moment of course I was a bit stressed and was just trying to comply with what the police wanted. I explained what I was told by the saleswoman to the cop. He asked me, as if it was a question, I’ll write you a ticket, OK? He must have asked that five times. I asked him how much the ticket was for, he said 500 pesos (about $11). I asked him if I can pay it by mail, he said yes but kept asking me the same question. Finally I said, you want me to pay the 500 now? He said yes. I looked, and told him I don’t have 500, I have 1000. I didn’t have a 500 peso bill or enough smaller bills. He said That’s OK. He asked where I was going, I told him I am going to the Mall of Asia and then back home to Tagaytay. He had one of his colleagues escort me on a motorcycle so I wouldn’t be stopped again, but explained that I would have to stay at the Mall of Asia until 7 pm, about 2 hours later than I had planned. Of course I got no change from my 1000 peso bill.

Only when I got home and talked about it with Dindin did I realize I had paid a bribe. Apparently what you’re supposed to do, instead of giving the police money, is to get a ticket, and the cop will confiscate your license. (I was given no ticket, and was given my license back.) You then have to go to the LTO office, wait in one or more lines, pay your fine, and get your license back. And if you get stopped again before retrieving your license, you show the cop your ticket.

This is tremendously inconvenient. Why should I waste half a day going to LTO because some saleswoman gave me the wrong info? I’m glad I paid the bribe. But what’s depressing is that the whole system is designed to make corruption your only reasonable choice.

In the US a cop will almost never confiscate your license. However, in the US the cop will go back to his car before writing your ticket, where he is able to find out if you have any prior tickets, if you are wanted for a crime, if your car was stolen, etc. And then if he does write you a ticket, he usually tells you to wait until you get something in the mail before paying it, because, lo and behold, he uses a system that knows where you live!

In the Philippines the cops have no such systems. They confiscate your license because otherwise they expect you’ll just throw the ticket away, and no one will ever know you didn’t pay it.

Needless to say, I was quite angry with that saleswoman. I had been breaking the law for months without even knowing it! I decided that the next time I go back to Batangas I’m going to go to that Toyota dealership and demand that they reimburse my 1000 pesos, and train their staff better.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. The next time I was in Batangas was yesterday, Friday. And it was raining. And on the way to Batangas we went through another town, Lemery, where the road was flooded. This was the deepest water I’ve ever driven in. The flooded area was about 1/10 of a mile long. Soon after I entered it I had a thought. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that? Maybe I should turn around?

The water was at times up to the top of the tires. We passed a couple of trucks, and the wakes they made in the water probably made the level as high as the engine (which is a bit higher on my minivan than on a regular car). And the water was full of broken coconuts, which I was afraid might get stuck in the wheels.

Well, we made it through fine. Apparently no damage to the car, it runs fine since. Of course, this delayed us a bit. I gave up my plans to go to Toyota that day, because a) I didn’t want to take the time, and b) it was hard to be mad at Toyota now, I was at that point very happy with the car.

I guess the good part of this is that I now understand the situation better. I had naively thought that it would be easy to not participate in corruption. Silly me.

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  • robin yates (@robinyatesph)  On August 6, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    when in Rome, do as the Romans do, is something I learnt many years ago. What ever applied in your own country may well not apply in the country you are now in,.In Thailand, if a police motor cyclist stops you for not wearing a helmet, pass over your licence with a folded bill inside and away you go. Why buck the system ?

  • Barry C. Saiff  On August 6, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Thanks Robin. Your view is one shared by many here, and one I can appreciate more now than I did before this experience. However, despite the fact that I don’t have a better answer yet, this is deeply unsatisfying to me. Corruption costs the Philippines $2 billion a year in lost investment. As an entrepeneur who is about to start a business here, I understand what this means. People, and especially businesses, don’t want to deal with corruption. It’s illegal, for one thing. And it hurts the whole nation, because investors go to other countries instead. I don’t want to be part of the problem, which I am now. Yes,I’m an idealist, but not based on nothing. I know that individuals can change the world, because I have done it myself. (See, for example, http://www.thp.org) But at the moment I’m not feeling too hopeful about having any positive impact on corruption in the Philippines.

  • David Kogelman  On August 6, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Patience, Barry. Once you know how things work, you can make them work for you … and then change whatrever you are willing to put the effort into changing.

  • Ben Kritz  On August 7, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    I don’t drive here, or rather, only do so very rarely and only in remote areas (and usually on a motorbike instead of a car). I don’t need the expense or the hassle, or for that matter, the high b.p. brought on by everyone else’s driving behavior. I stick to public transit (which is adventure aplenty, thanks), and at need, I’ve got a guy with a van at my disposal.

    Part of this is just eliminating sources of stress, but a big part of it is my personal feelings towards the environment, and the fact that I’m supporting various eco-transport projects around the country. Gotta practice what I preach.

  • Barry C. Saiff  On August 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Ben. Yes, I can understand that. For me, overall, I would say driving reduces my stress. Despite the unique challenges of driving in the Philippines, it’s one of the few activities that is very similar to my life back in the US, it reminds me of home. And it’s a lot more convenient than having to always rely on public transit here. I love my Toyota Innova.

  • Grace  On August 8, 2011 at 6:34 am

    Hi Barry, I’m sad to read your blog about your experience here in the Philippines. Sad to say, there are still some crooked people out there and usually foreigners like you are considered easy target.

    Just for the record, the fine for taking your car out during coding days is only P300. Further, there are some areas where there is no window – this includes Makati and San Juan. This means that you can only drive along EDSA and not in the inner streets from 10am-3pm otherwise, you will be fined.

    The proper process should be, they issue you a ticket (MMDA enforcers) and you pay the fine at any Metrobank. Just make sure you keep the ticket so that you will not have a problem when renewing your license. In some cases though where the apprehending officer is not an MMDA but a local enforcer, then there’s another process. Like in Quezon City where you need to get it from the Mayor’s office.

    Bottom line, would suggest that you just ask for mercy and let the guys know that you know your rights and they will not ask for the bribe.

  • batacham  On August 8, 2011 at 9:04 am

    anything we can do to help, any information you need, send us a holler. Medz of the Philippine Action Group for Social Responsibility, Batangas.

  • Barry C. Saiff  On August 8, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Thank you for your kind words. First of all, an update. Today I went to Toyota Batangas and spoke to the saleswoman who had given me the inaccurate information. She is also the person who sold me the car. I explained to her what happened. She asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted 2 things: 1) Better training for their staff so they no longer give out inaccurate information, and 2) Give me my 1000 pesos back. She asked me to wait. 5 minutes later she returned. She said the management of the dealership were all away at a training event, but I could come back next week and talk to them. I said OK. Then she handed me 1000 pesos, and she said, “I’m very sorry.”
    So I am at this point very happy with Toyota Batangas. I know people make mistakes, and I respect a businessperson who can own up to their mistakes and try to make things right.
    However, regarding the police, I am still unclear on how things work. What are my rights, and where are they documented? Are the police allowed to confiscate my license for a minor traffic violation? The inconvenience of that is far more costly than a fine, and allowing them to do that seems like a way to encourage corruption. Where are the rules written down? Is there a Web site that has them? I couldn’t find any rules on the LTO site.

  • Medz Cajanding  On August 12, 2011 at 4:19 am

    “What are my rights, and where are they documented? Are the police allowed to confiscate my license for a minor traffic violation? The inconvenience of that is far more costly than a fine, and allowing them to do that seems like a way to encourage corruption. Where are the rules written down? Is there a Web site that has them? I couldn’t find any rules on the LTO site.”

    No, the police is not allowed to confiscate your license for a minor traffic violation in the Metropolitan Manila Area. You should be issued a ticket, though. In other areas, they get your license and you use the ticket as a temporary license until you have paid the fine. I am afraid some of the rules of the autonomy under the Local Government Code (separate rules per municipal and city ordinance) had many people confused. For more information : http://www.pnp.gov.ph/main/ and http://www.pia.gov.ph/ for the Philippine National Police and the Public Information Agency. Thank goodness they’re up and running.

    An example of confusion is that a person apprehending you might not even be a policeman from the national organization, but a Traffic Enforcer from the city or municipality. Then, when you go a little further, it is another city already – with their different ordinance and a new set of traffic enforcers.

  • Barry C. Saiff  On August 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Well, thank you, Medz. You are a breath of fresh air. I am happy to get some reliable information, confusing though it may be.

  • Barry C. Saiff  On September 6, 2011 at 4:36 am

    I was looking for something else and found this page, which has some good detail on the coding rules:

  • Barry C. Saiff  On October 29, 2011 at 1:49 am

    This article has a brief explanation of the whole coding schema: http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=742366&publicationSubCategoryId=63

  • pearlyjeanne  On March 31, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    I’m a Filipino and I feel bad, Law enforcers here are called BUWAYA ( crocodile ), not everyone though, most Filipinos are kind ( and I’m not saying this to defend us ) and I’m sorry its not high-tech here in our country. Hope you enjoy your stay here though. 🙂

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