THE suspension of enforcement of the Anti-Distracted Driver Act (ADDA) on Tuesday at the behest of a few hand-wringing legislators was shameful and infuriating. One would have wished that the law had imposed some discipline on a population noteworthy for its unruliness on the road and its hopeless addiction to mobile devices. But this is the Philippines, and when it comes to public policy here, the old adage, “Wish in one hand, spit in the other, see which one fills up first” usually applies.
The whole drama over the ADDA, which dominated the news for a week until the attack on Marawi City by Islamic State wannabes bumped it off the top of most front pages, epitomizes why the Philippines cannot seem to evolve into a civilized, process-driven society and continues to have a reputation as a place where it is difficult to do business.
The specific complaint of the legislators who asked that the ADDA be temporarily suspended is that the Land Transportation Office allowed traffic enforcers to apply the law for potential “distractions” in vehicles, such as rosaries or other things dangling from rear-view mirrors, air fresheners or stuffed toys on the top of the dashboard, dashcams, and excessive window tint.
From a legal standpoint, it is a valid complaint; the law does not address those things, but confines itself to the “use of electronic mobile devices.” The only reference the actual law as passed makes to “line of sight” of the driver – the definition of which seems to be the root of the contention over the law now – is that permissible devices, those with hands-free or voice-activated capabilities, must not be within the driver’s “line of sight.”
This illustrates two fundamental chronic problems with policymaking in the Philippines: First, the rather lazy approach traditionally taken by the Legislature in crafting laws; and second, the reality that most laws are created after the fact of their passage through the lengthy, largely opaque process of developing the “implementing rules and regulations” (IRR).
That process is made necessary by the shallow way laws are written, which nearly always results in them being incomplete or vague. The ADDA (Republic Act 10913) purports to address the issue of “distracted driving” and the threat that poses to public safety, but does not even bother to consider other potential “distractions” apart from cell phones and other electronic devices. As passed, the law is barely three pages long; it defines a violation and establishes penalties for it, but gives no guidance on how the designated enforcer of the law (the LTO in this case) should assess whether or not the law has been violated.
Therefore, because the ‘law as passed’ was incomplete, the LTO was obliged to develop the IRR, which resulted – as the process does with almost every law that is passed here – in a ‘law as enforced’ that goes well beyond the scope of what was originally intended.
The ultimate result of this is precisely nothing but wasted time and effort; at this point, the measure, which took almost 10 months to be implemented after it lapsed into law last July, is not being enforced at all, and might not ever be.
This is just one law, and there are more than 11,000 of them in the Philippines. Many of them might not even be necessary if the population as a whole was better disciplined.
It is common sense, frankly, that one should not be “distracted” when operating a motor vehicle; using a cell phone, eating, drinking, smoking, fiddling with the stereo, or having one’s attention compromised by a dashboard covered in bobble-head dolls and religious icons all reduce a driver’s ability to recognize and react to conditions on the road, and raise the risk of harm for himself and those around him. The directions you are getting from that Waze app you simply cannot live without will do you no good at all if you drive into the back of the car ahead of you while you’re looking at it and not the road, no matter where your phone or tablet is mounted in the car.
But that sort of thing needs to be spelled out for the average Filipino, who already struggles to master behavioral refinements such as standing in line, urinating in appropriate locations, and using a trash bin. Having to legislate things that ought to be intuitive simply increases the complexity of any sort of process. As a result, it takes forever to accomplish anything; starting a medium-sized business, for example, still takes about eight months and requires more than 100 different signatures.
That would improve if the laws addressing the simple things were at least effectively written and enforced, because subsequent policy and process measures could build on changed behaviors, but the way things are done now, the country never moves from square one. Until it can figure out how to take that first all-important step, embarrassing and unproductive controversies like the ADDA will continue to occupy much of its energy, to everyone’s detriment.