Top Gear Philippines

How many times have you found yourself sitting in traffic all because there's an old, dilapidated vehicle that conked out somewhere down the road? As you slowly pass the vehicle in question, you notice that its external appearance clearly indicates it has no business being on a public road in the first place. Its body is covered in rust. Its paint job is duller than a Pinoy soap opera. Its weather strips are already jutting out in every direction.

The vehicle's owners wear a facial expression that says they intend to hold on to this jalopy for as long as they live. That expression is usually one of indifference: They don't give a care that they're holding up two kilometers' worth of traffic behind them. They're not bothered by the fact their vehicle always breaks down and inconveniences others. As far as they're concerned, they have a motor vehicle and they have a right to use it.

All of this raises the question: Why don't transport authorities ban vehicles that are no longer road-worthy? Not only are these cars a lot of trouble when they decide to stop running in the middle of the road, they're also mostly unsafe since their components are already past their ideal operating condition. And so you read about fatal accidents involving a really old car and some brake failure, for instance.

I suppose aging cars will always be a serious problem in a poor country like ours, where car owners tend to keep their vehicles for as long as they possibly can for financial reasons. Last year, the auto industry sold about 120,000 new units all across the country. You know how many vehicles were registered with the LTO? A total of 5,891,272 vehicles. When you consider that our car industry also sold just a little above 100,000 new units in 2006 and 2007, the calculator will tell you that about 5.5 million cars on our roads today are at least three years old already.

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Not only that. Even more telling is this statistic: The total of "new" vehicle registrations last year was 884,376 units. But only 120,000 units of that number were bought brand-new from official car distributors, with a few purchased from the gray market. This leaves us with the conclusion that a large part of that total consisted of secondhand cars imported from other countries. Most of those used imported vehicles required conversion, since they were originally right-hand-drive. So not only is the Philippines receiving an influx of old used cars, we're also being exposed to the dangers of unsafely converted vehicles running in our midst. News about steering columns suddenly snapping made numerous headlines in the past. If we hear about it less now, it doesn't mean the problem has gone away. It only means the incident has become so common it doesn't make for exciting reading anymore.

And now that we're still working our way out of a lingering recession, expect more car owners not only to hold on to their vehicles longer, but also to scrimp on their vehicles' maintenance and repairs, begging the question, "Is everyone supposed to enjoy unrestrained freedom in acquiring and operating a motor vehicle?"

My answer to that is no.

For some reason, we're convinced that just because we have in our bank account an amount that will cover a car's down payment, we already have a right to own a car just like everyone else. The thing is, many of us barely earn more than a typical monthly amortization for a new car. Yet many of us insist on owning a car-or a scooter for that matter. What happens is that we're able to make the down payment, but we always struggle to make ends meet just to keep up with the monthly installments. As a result, absolutely nothing is left for the car's proper maintenance. I see a lot of cars that look and sound much older than they actually are, and my best guess is that they have not been getting the prescribed care that they should be getting. Imagine what kind of state these poorly maintained cars will be in after just five years.

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When sizing up our capacity to own a car, our estimation should not be limited to the immediate cash outlay. We need to take into consideration maintenance and parts expenses. It's easy to buy a car, sure, just as it is easy to bear a child. The problem starts when the kid has to go to school or be confined in a hospital, so to speak.

You can always say: "I bought this car and it's not anyone else's problem how I intend to maintain it." That would be okay--if you were living on an island. But since you're not, you have to be sensitive enough to consider how your car might affect other motorists. Every time you take your car out of the garage, it has to be with a sincere conviction that your car is road-worthy and that you will reach your destination without being a hassle to other people.

To put what I'm trying to say in a nutshell: Not everyone should be allowed to keep a car. It seems unfair on the surface, but many of us will be better off taking public transportation. Those who force the issue and try to own a car without the wherewithal to do so are like a typical Filipino family that borrows money just to prepare a lavish banquet for a town fiesta. There's no shame in not owning a car.

The government needs to devise a way to get rid of really old and problematic cars on the road. These cars are a source of vexation and road danger. We should make it truly expensive and difficult to register a very old car, such that it's more sensible to buy a new car instead. Having said that, I also think the government needs to improve public transportation so that people will not mind not ever owning a vehicle.

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Vernon B. Sarne
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