Wisdom > Frankly

Warning: Metro Manila traffic can harm your marriage

And the sad realization that we probably cannot do anything about it

Our traffic is so bad that it can even cause harm to marriages, apparently. PHOTO BY FRANK SCHUENGEL

I’m writing these lines after the first real argument I have had with my better half pretty much since we met way over a decade ago. We never argue and love each other like the first day, but tonight we ended up shouting at each other in the car, and I’m blaming this megalopolis and its leadership for it.

Around these quarters, I leave most of the driving to her. Driving in Metro Manila simply isn’t fun for me, but she enjoys commandeering our little Suzuki S-Presso. She has fitted it with a ton of aftermarket parts, and really loves piloting her car. So, I’m usually happy to be a passenger.

To make sense of this story, I also need to mention that we spend a lot of time abroad in Britain, where she also drives, but the driving styles between there and here are very different, and that’s putting it mildly.

The author's wife drives completely different when going around the metro. PHOTO BY FRANK SCHUENGEL

When we’re abroad, she’s the most polite, courteous, and lovely driver you’ll ever meet. She stops at pedestrian crossings, lets other cars in at junctions, and religiously adheres to all traffic rules.

I honestly don’t know if the horn on our car there works, because she never uses it. I do know that the one in our S-Presso here works, though, because it’s the most used button in the cabin by a long mile.

The moment we arrive in Metro Manila and she gets behind the wheel, it’s like a switch is being flicked. Polite mode off, beast mode on. And with beast mode, I mean normal Metro Manila driving mode because it seems that things are getting worse and worse out here every day.

Not only are traffic levels still increasing, but the dog-eat-dog, get-out-of-my-way mentality that relegates any rules of the road to function as mere suggestions (to be freely disregarded by all drivers as long as no enforcer is looking) is also getting rougher.

For a small car like the Suzuki S-Presso, it's hard for the car to not get bullied. PHOTOS BY FRANK SCHUENGEL

I’m increasingly convinced that the Metro Manila Highway Code was written by Aleister Crowley, and in reality only exists in one sentence: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

To a degree, I have gotten used to that, but there are limits, and I found one of mine tonight. The evening started just fine, and after a lovely date night out in Makati, we were driving home to Mandaluyong. The traffic wasn’t too bad, and it could have been a relaxed journey, but it wasn’t.

In the usual style, our S-Presso was wrestling for every centimeter of roadway as well as its tiny wheels and jerky AGS gearbox would allow it.

I don’t know if it was the traffic, the alcohol (in my system, not hers), or a combination of things, but at some point, during this rodeo down Makati Avenue, I told her to “please finally stop driving like this.”

It was all getting too much, and there was no need for it. I don’t care if we arrive five minutes later, or if some Grab driver gets the gap in front of us.

Long story short, we ended up shouting at each other like we have never done before, and now I’m sitting here looking for the reason why this happened—and I think I found it already.

Sadly, people have learned to live and accept that driving in the Philippines is like this. PHOTOS BY FRANK SCHUENGEL

Like I said, I know from our time abroad that she can be the politest person ever, behind the wheel. So, why the Jekyll and Hyde transformation every time we step onto Philippine soil? The answer might lie in what she said when we argued: “But everyone here drives like this!”

To a degree, she’s right. Traffic discipline here is pretty terrible, and maybe a good bit of fault does indeed lie in the city itself and in its leadership. A leadership that, over many years, has utterly and totally failed to establish any kind of meaningful order or acceptable driving culture.

The way people drive in this megacity is neither normal nor necessary—never mind acceptable. It just isn’t.

Yet every day, it’s wheel-to-wheel combat out there, all while the people supposed to bring order to this chaos are dithering about and trying one idea after another in the desperate hope that something, anything, will work.

Some would go as far as saying that the MMDA is unfit for its purpose, but I think it has simply been left with an impossible task. Granted, some of their actions and ideas didn’t exactly help, but the problem they are trying to solve goes deeper and requires an approach way above their pay grade.

We're at a point where the president has to personally step in—as if he'll even be bothered to in the first place. PHOTO BY FRANK SCHUENGEL

The order to fix traffic here must come right from the top, and it must be a far-reaching culture change. It won’t be done overnight, but I am convinced it’s possible.

As long as everyone—from the top right down to the bottom—can freely partake in a state of two- and four-wheeled lawlessness, nothing will ever really change, and otherwise polite drivers are being sucked into the chaos.

It’s almost like a self-propelled death spiral, where we get more agitated because everyone around us is agitated, and so it continues until it goes bang.

Traffic in the Philippines is a problem of presidential proportions, and something that can negatively affect your relationship (among many, many other things) as I found out tonight. It requires a presidential solution.

Frank Schuengel

Frank is a German e-commerce executive who loves his wife, a Filipina, so much he decided to base himself in Manila. He has interesting thoughts on Philippine motoring. He writes the aptly named ‘Frankly’ column.