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James Deakin on the traffic ‘disease' and driving as a privilege

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If there’s a subject that’s both as stale and yet as perennial as the ground beneath our feet, it’s the problem of urban traffic — and James Deakin, host of CNN Philippines’ “The Service Road” and “Drive,” is one of the most articulate voices detangling the multi-layered knot that makes up for the sorry state of our roads today.

Deakin is an awarded motoring journalist who once co-founded a Philippine car enthusiast magazine. He has transformed this passion into a running advocacy for a myriad of road safety issues, one of which is concretized through a service to help combat drunk driving, called “Driver On Call.” He maintains an active social media presence, where people flock to him to submit complaints on erring drivers and cars parked on the road. He has become a motoring adviser (or celebrity) of sorts, which he feels is a responsibility he owes to his audience. “This has really been good to me, this job,” he says, “and there’s a responsibility around motoring — there’s a responsible way to use it, and that’s where I dedicated a lot of my time, my voice — to the advocacy of road safety, responsible motoring, road courtesy, and things to make it better for everybody.”

The way Deakin sees it, a sensible, no-nonsense approach on changing driver behavior, along with a few changes on road etiquette, is the way to go in beginning to ease the gridlock that has captured the city. In light of the diverse solutions offered to solve the transportation crisis, CNN Philippines Life sits down with Deakin to ask him why he thinks building a strong foundation on discipline and education is indispensable, in a few edited excerpts below.

"The roads are the most democratic space we have," says Deakin. "So that’s where we should be really focusing our efforts right now." Photo by JL JAVIER

You are very steadfast in your advocacy to make dash cams mandatory to solve traffic. Why is this important?

The only reason why I want it mandatory is it forces people to understand that when they’re out the street, they are being watched. When you change a person’s mindset, you tell them you are being watched — there’s no question of if — we’ll behave better. Because you walk into an airport or a bank, you know that the CCTV is watching you, you’re not going to do anything stupid. You have to be really world-class dumb to do something stupid in an airport or a bank where it’s guaranteed that you have CCTV. So if we could guarantee to have that same mindframe for people, once you get in your car, behind the wheel, you are being watched … it’s as simple as that.

Based on your experience, how does traffic bring out both the best and worst in people?

Well, it definitely brings out the worst. No shortage of stories there. [But] every now and again you get real nice stories of hope. There was one recently, a motorcyclist who had a video, he had a helmet cam, he passed this elderly couple in the middle of the road. They were in the center island. The husband was trying to help the wife, they looked like they were in their 90s. They were so frail. He [the motorcyclist] stopped at a U-turn, and then he blocked the traffic for them and let them pass. The way he did it was so … wala lang, it just restored your faith. So it does bring out the best in people. But sadly it also brings out the worst, and that’s a mindset we’re trying to change.

So it’s really a problem of mindsets?

Yes. You know why? I understand the complex solutions we are proposing: mass transit, decentralization, road widening … these are all important things, I get that. But my campaign and advocacy is, it all starts with discipline and education. Those two alone, you can’t build anything unless you have that solid foundation. If you give people a new MRT, a new road, they’re just going to treat it the same way that they’re treating it now. And in a year’s time, six months’ time, who knows, it will be the same problem. So you need to change the mindset of people. You need to change your discipline.

It all starts with discipline and education. If you give people a new MRT, a new road, they’re just going to treat it the same way that they’re treating it now. You need to change the mindset of people.

Number one, that driving is a privilege, not a right. You have to drum it into people’s heads. A passport is your right. Voting is your right. Driving is not your right, it is something you need to earn. It’s a privilege and must always be treated as a privilege, so that way, when you get your driver’s license, you have really worked hard and sacrificed hard and you will protect it. And that comes as the mindset if you do the right investments in getting your license. Make sure that you go through all the proper education for it. Make sure that there’s some value to it. If you go there and you pay P200 and you get the answers and you don’t need to take a test, what value do you place on this 200 bucks? It’s not worth anything. Whereas people in other countries, my God, when they lose their license, it’s like they lose a leg. One of the worst things that could happen to you is to lose your license. So they drive better. They have a different mindset.

Do you think there are enough steps being taken to address this issue on mindsets?

Everyone talks about traffic like it’s [our most pressing problem], but they’re not treating it like the absolute disease that it is, or with the urgency that it needs. I don’t want to compare so much, but if you could apply the same effort as you’re putting on the campaign on drugs, you apply that to traffic, we would be winning right now.

I know that [the war on drugs] is really important, but if you want people to really feel something? Traffic. From the richest to the poorest, to the eldest and youngest, female, male, gay, lesbian, bisexual, doesn’t matter. We’re all road users. At some point our paths are going to cross in the road. If you can make a change there, every single person feels it.

If you come in and you say, you know what, we’re gonna change this, and [you introduce] radical steps … I had the idea of state of emergency last year pa, I remember people thinking I was crazy when I suggested it. But it is a state of emergency. You need to treat it like a pandemic. You need to treat it like an enemy. If there was an enemy facing the Philippine government and its people, costing us P2.5B a day, you would throw everything you had at it.

How much more serious does it need to get before we decide the country is not going to be worth anything in economic gains, if we can’t move? You’re only as strong as your weakest link. If you gridlock the city, we gridlock Manila, no one can move around, this is the national capital, the financial capital, the political capital … sayang all the political gains. We can’t move. We’re going backwards.

The roads are the most democratic space we have. So that’s where we should be really focusing our efforts right now.

A sensible, no-nonsense approach on changing driver behavior, along with a few changes on road etiquette, is the way to go in beginning to ease the gridlock that has captured the city, according to Deakin. Photo by JL JAVIER

How is the traffic problem symptomatic of a cultural problem?

It does speak a lot about a culture [on] how we treat each other on the road. It’s a direct reflection of culture and how we treat [each other], right? There’s a problem there. You’re trying to teach your kids manners, values, and principles, and then they see you counterflowing, cutting this guy off, not lining up. Why? Why are we different once we close the door and get behind the steering wheel? Why is it any different?

It’s because there is a certain anonymity there. Once you feel this anonymity, it’s like the keyboard warriors, they’re jerks behind the keyboard because no one can see them. Another thing is, there are a lot of frustrations out there, and when people get to the car, all of a sudden, we’re all equal in a way, because nobody knows who you are. So all these frustrations come out, they treat each other like that, and it’s wrong.

Do you think this is reflective of an inherent Filipino trait, the way we don’t have discipline on the roads?

A Dutch anthropologist, Neil Mulders, published a little book, where he depicted the Filipino mindset. According to him, the main reason for the lack of social cohesion in the country is Filipinos make a very deep distinction between two spheres: the public and the private. The private sphere belongs to the kin and friends, and utang na loob obliges one to reciprocate help, support, favors, and even money. The public sphere, on the other hand, becomes the jungle where anything is valid in order to bring commodities to the private sphere. Therefore, Filipinos tend to distrust other Filipinos in public spaces, lack of courtesy is the rule, and the much-touted bayanihan is blatantly absent.

It struck a chord in me because it’s very true, we’d do anything for our family and friends. But once we’re outside, it’s a jungle where it becomes valid to bring commodities into your private [sphere]. That’s the mindset, that’s the cultural thing that we really need to change. This is not a raping ground.

You’re trying to teach your kids manners, values, and principles, and then they see you counterflowing, cutting this guy off, not lining up. Why are we different once we close the door and get behind the steering wheel?

Having said that, if you really want to go deep into the problem, how can you blame the Filipino if in the public sphere, he’s always being raped himself? Chicken and the egg? I’ll stop raping if you’ll stop raping me? And the public officials are the first ones gangbanging the country, raping the resources, stealing from the coffers. That’s why there’s a genuine distrust.

So it becomes this, oh, I’ll protect myself, once I step outside of private sphere, it’s a different [environment] … this is why counterflow, getting ahead … it’s every man for himself now. I don’t care what I do to offend that [public] sphere, anyway I don’t have to deal with it, I’m behind tinted glass…. For the same reason, that Filipino will not do it overseas. They won’t do it also face-to-face. Like if you go to church, for example, you’re lining up for communion, [you say peace be with you] … as soon as you get out of the church, [makes angry driver sounds] what happened? It’s because somehow now, that we’re back in our private sphere, this is us against them. It’s a jungle out there. That needs to change.

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"The Service Road" airs on weekdays 5:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. and livestreams on www.cnnphilippines.com/video, while "Drive" airs every Sunday at 9 p.m. on CNN Philippines.