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Top Gear Philippines

At around this time last year, I went to an industry event and drank myself silly, as I usually did whenever I was in the company of colleagues. Being the "responsible" motoring journalist that I thought I was, I gave my car key to an officemate and asked him to just take my vehicle home for the night. I intended to just cab it after the party, not wishing to be a danger to others on the road.

When everyone had downed every drop of alcohol served by the host, we all called it a night. But not really. As I was preparing to get myself a taxi, a friend offered to give me a ride home. He was just as hammered as I was. But I said yes. I had ridden with him countless times before, and I knew he could drive "safely" even after a long drinking session (most Filipinos think they could). And so I, together with my videographer Marco, went to the basement parking and got in my friend's car.

Of course, the hopelessly heavy drinkers that we were, we passed by a watering hole before retiring. We had two more buckets of beer, the three of us. Four more bottles each. At that point, we were no longer drinking for the pleasure of each other's company. We were simply drinking for...come to think of it, I don't know what we were drinking for. Anyone who keeps drinking well past his alcohol threshold is just drinking for trouble.

When the male waiter was beginning to look like Marian Rivera, we decided to get the bill and go home. I was to walk to my condo--two stones' throws away from the bar--when my friend again offered to drop me off right by my doorstep. My videographer Marco, who was also about to walk back to our office--a single stone's throw away--likewise hopped in. I fastened my seatbelt. One good thing about me was that I always remembered to buckle up even when I was smashed. Marco, seated at the back, did not. It was just one U-turn, after all.

And then it happened.

Driving out of the compound, my friend stepped on the gas a little harder than usual because the exit ramp leading to the street was significantly elevated. When we got to the street, he let go of the accelerator and stomped on the brakes. Or so he thought. What he actually pressed after easing off the gas pedal was the same gas pedal. And so we gained even more speed. I heard the diesel engine roar wildly. It was just a split second but I swear I was able to tell myself: "Okay, this is it...I'm going to die right here." The feeling was that concrete. It was that certain. I didn't have that "life flashing before me" moment, but I stared death in the eye. I also held the overhead grab handle tightly.

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(By the way: When you're about to die, you won't remember your newly waxed car, your watch collection, your hot date, your glamorous career, your suffocating deadlines, your Facebook account. There is just this one heavy mass of collective regret about the things you should have done and those you shouldn't have. Trust me. Been there.)

Then...wham!!! We hit a solidly built steel gate head-on. The front of the vehicle--technically classified as a truck--was totally wrecked. The front wheels were mangled. The windshield crumbled. Both airbags deployed. The rear part, which didn't hit anything, was damaged. The impact was that forceful.

I was surprised I survived, but not before initially suspecting I was already a body-less soul hovering above the scene. I remember looking down in search of a torn limb or something. I felt my face to see if it was oozing with blood. Nothing. I seemed fine. Then I checked on my friend seated next to me. He, too, seemed okay. He was also firmly buckled up.

It was my videographer Marco who wasn't so lucky. Without a protective belt to keep him in his seat, he lunged violently forward at the point of impact. His forehead hit the shift knob between the front seats. The injury would require reconstructive surgery. My friend and I, meanwhile, suffered bruises that, in the next few days, would feel like the result of going three rounds with a middleweight professional boxer.

You would think I had learned my lesson, right? Hell, no. A month barely passed and I was back to drinking--and driving, to be honest about it. In fact, I drank even more. To the point where, by the second week of December last year, I had my first gout attack. Gout, if you haven't heard of it, is what gets you if you introduce too much uric acid into your system. Its known sources are red meat, peanuts, sardines, innards, broccoli and beer--most especially beer. It was so painful that my car accident a couple of months earlier suddenly felt like a caress. The physical torture--I got hit in the right wrist--was such that I swore off beer right there and then. Not touching that beverage again, I promised my severely swollen right arm.

In May this year, when it was officially announced by Malacañang that President Aquino had signed into law Republic Act 10586 (or the Anti-Drunk and Drugged Driving Act of 2013), I was happy for two specific reasons. First is that the Philippines finally has a law that says drunk driving is illegal. Hard to believe but it was technically all right to drive drunk in this country. Sure, if you got caught, you could be fined a couple of thousand pesos, but that was it. You couldn't be locked up in jail because there was no law that demanded it. Here is the Land Transportation Office's list of "Frequently Committed Traffic Violations Nationwide" in 2012:

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1. Not wearing seatbelt;
2. No certificate of registration;
3. Obstruction;
4. Student driver operating a vehicle without an accompanying licensed driver;
5. Driving without a license;
6. Invalid motor vehicle registration;
7. Reckless driving;
8. Driving with a delinquent or suspended license;
9. No brake light; and
10. No early warning device

As someone who used to drink and drive, I know in my heart of hearts that the most common motoring violation in this country is driving under the influence of alcohol. You need only to go to the parking lots of Bonifacio Global City in the wee hours to confirm this. Yet the LTO doesn't seem to have a record of this. It's because drinking-and-driving is very much a part of our culture. It isn't frowned upon here. It's just being one of the boys. In the US, if you operated your car in an inebriated state, they'd look down on you like you were some sort of a robber or a rapist. A criminal, in other words. Because driving drunk means you're willing to kill or maim somebody out there. It is that irresponsible and stupid.

The second reason I'm celebrating the new drunk-driving law is my current abstinence from beer and hard liquor. I'm totally alcohol-free now. I am so not because I want to be a law-abiding motorist, but because my health condition leaves me no choice. Not very admirable, I know, but at least I don't have to struggle anymore when the law is in full effect, which will happen when the government publishes the law's implementing rules and regulations.

The truth is that I used to be a drunk driver. A drunk-driving motoring journalist, if you want to picture me in a worse light. In 2005, I won a journalism award for an article in which I confessed to being a drunk driver and promised to stop being one. That promise was broken faster than Erap could finish a bottle of Blue Label. I kept doing the deed because I could. Because I knew it was all right. That everyone else did it. That I could drive safely even under the influence of San Miguel. But mostly, I did it because I knew I would't go to jail for it.

Other countries will spend this month to celebrate drinking. In the Philippines, every month is Oktoberfest. Filipinos are naturally gifted with an insane capacity to imbibe alcohol, and we use this capacity to entertain business associates, impress a date, compete with a friend, even settle a bet. We'd routinely beat the Germans and the Japanese for the gold medal if drinking were an Olympic event. And we're very proud drinkers. Many of us have that FPJ mentality when it comes to drinking: We should be the last to leave the table, and no one should be able to outdrink us. Imagine this very macho mindset among our drinkers, and then imagine them staggering to their cars afterward. Heaven have mercy on the other motorists cursed to share the road with them.

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I will cut the dramatic talk and stop right here, because I know that no amount of preaching can make a drunk driver change his ways. I tried it and failed miserably. If nothing else, know this: If you don't stop what you're doing now, you could soon be looking at a fine ranging from P20,000 to P500,000, and a jail time ranging from three months to several years.

But more than that, you could also soon crash into a solidly built steel gate, and you might not be as fortunate as I had been. I don't know if there's a bigger penalty than your own life.

Vernon B. Sarne
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Benigno Aquino III Anti Drunk and Drugged Driving Act car culture drunk driving law enforcement road safety
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