Traffic > Legal

Our cultural problem during car-crash investigations

A lawyer says our ‘padrino’ system is to blame

Are our police investigators and media reporters totally qualified to do their jobs? ILLUSTRATION BY MARCO RIVERA

In the wee hours of May 31, Friday, a small passenger car collided head-on with a bus in Davao City. Both the occupants of the car—the driver and her passenger—perished in the incident. The ensuing news coverage centered on the fact that one of the casualties was a 21-year-old fresh college graduate. In the TV report by GMA’s Saksi, the reporter began her narration with a heartbreaking line worthy of a telenovela episode:

Hindi na magagamit ang pinag-aralan at hindi na rin makakatulong pa sa pamilya ang 21-anyos na bagong graduate…

Not saying there was deliberate distortion on the part of the reporter. Just making the observation that our news coverage of car accidents (or most conflicts, for that matter) is almost always designed to appeal to the emotions—drama over facts. So the sympathy of the viewers automatically goes to a specific party even before a total appreciation of all information is available.

And it’s not just the media that’s constantly dropping the ball in such reports. The investigating authorities are also often at fault. In other countries, the initial news reports will always quote law enforcement personnel as saying that the matter is “under investigation.” Only in the Philippines do cops (or lawyers) irresponsibly tell journalists about a possible outcome of the case before the findings of a thorough investigation are in.

In an article on GMA’s website, it is reported that the bus driver could be charged with “reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide and damage to property.” In this report by Philippine Daily Inquirer, meanwhile, it is said that “the bus driver was held by the city police pending the filing of proper charges against him.”

Most (if not all) of those who read these reports howled in protest on social media. Why? Because the reports also say that the driver of the car didn’t have a license (just a student permit that expired on September 27, 2018) and that said driver and her passenger had come from a celebration “with drinks.”

Oh, and there is also a dashcam video of the incident showing the bus to be traveling at a normal speed and keeping to its lane when the car appeared out of nowhere and hit it.

Now, conversely, we refuse to conclude here that the car driver was in the wrong. That’s the job of the investigating team. But it is pretty dumbfounding to regular news viewers and readers to be served these bits of information in one go:

  • Car crashed right smack into a bus at full speed;
  • Car driver had no business operating a motor vehicle;
  • Car driver and her passenger had attended a party that served drinks;
  • Bus driver was in the proper lane;
  • Bus driver will be charged.

In Philippine society, if a person dies, someone has to pay for it, truth and justice be damned

So now people are saying: “Poor bus driver. It’s time to change or amend the law that determines culpability in a car accident.”

But is the law to blame here?

“There’s nothing wrong with the law—the law is fine,” a lawyer who is requesting anonymity tells VISOR. “It’s our culture that’s wrong, which forces the authorities to interpret and apply the law inappropriately. We have a padrino system. More often than not, in investigations like this, it’s not important which party is truly responsible. What usually matters is which party has the connections to influence the investigation. It could be the mayor, the governor, the congressman or the police chief who would be calling the investigator on behalf of one party. The investigator, fearing for his job, will just file a case to get them off his back.”

And then the media reports it.

Take note that, in this country, the media slant is always crucial to the outcome of the investigation. The more sensational the reporting is, the likelier the accused (though not proven guilty yet) is going to give in and settle.

In Philippine society as well, we have this “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” principle in settling disputes. If a person dies, someone has to pay for it, truth and justice be damned.

“We also have to ask: Do we really have qualified forensic experts in this country that specialize in car crashes?” wonders our lawyer friend, who also happens to be a motoring enthusiast. “Can they accurately assess all the factors involved in the accident—the speed of the vehicles, the angle and the force of the collision, the last-clear-chance rule?”

The lawyer then shares with us a past incident in which a member of his car club figured in an accident with a motorcycle. His friend had been driving safely; the two motorcycle passengers were underage and thus had no license. His colleague ended up paying substantial damages even if he had done nothing wrong—because both motorbike riders died.

“When you’ve been held in a detention cell for a day, you’ll eventually relent and concede to the demands of the other party’s family,” the lawyer admits. “The prospect of imprisonment or even a scandal tends to soften you up. That’s just how the game is played.”

That said, we also can’t discount the existence of corrupt cops, who will skew the investigation in favor of the highest bidder.

Just to be clear: This piece is not insinuating that the families of the casualties in the above-mentioned car crash in Davao City are trying to unfairly influence the investigation. We don’t know the full details of the case, and we have no idea how it will proceed and conclude. We’re just shedding light on why most news reports on (and investigations into) car accidents in the Philippines frequently sound as dramatic and incongruous as they do.

Vernon B. Sarne

Vernon is the founder and editor-in-chief of VISOR. He has been an automotive journalist since July 1995. He became one by serendipity, walking into the office of a small publishing company and applying for a position he had no idea was for a local car magazine. God has watched over him throughout his humble journey. He writes the ‘Spoiler’ column.