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I was driving Sunday morning on Ortigas Avenue, going to Tiendesitas, when I absentmindedly crossed an intersection under a red light. Now, please know I'm not using the word "absentmindedly" here as an excuse. In all honesty, it violates my healthy self-esteem to be invoking that word since it really alludes to that pathetic state of forgetfulness that comes with age.

Like I said, I merely forgot to give the traffic light an attentive glance when I drove past a crossing. I now realize I sometimes have this habit when following another car. Anyway, a traffic officer in dark blue uniform--which meant he was from the Pasig City traffic management group, not the MMDA--emerged from a not-so-visible spot on the sidewalk and flagged me down. It was at this lucid instant that I was made aware of my unwitting misdemeanor.

So I pulled over and braced myself for another amusing exchange with a traffic officer. (For some reason, all my conversations with traffic officers had been royally amusing to say the least.) "Sir, you crossed a red light," he said. No complaints there; I certainly did. I pulled out my driver's license. If there was one thing I had been very proud of myself in all my 13 years of driving, it was that I had never bribed a traffic officer. Not a single time ever. And I wasn't about to break that streak now, not even if I was already late for my godson's birthday party.

I had been issued more than my fair share of traffic-violation citations, mostly for infractions of the number-coding regulation. Every time I'd been caught, I'd merely handed my license to the cop. No drama, no arguments, no pleas. Not the type to hang a media ID on the rear-view mirror. Not the type to introduce myself as the editor of this and the columnist of that. Not the type to whip out a signed calling card of a police general or a congressman. My stand had always been: I erred, ergo I should be penalized.

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Now, Mr. Pasig Traffic Officer--upon seeing I'd reached for my license instead of a P200 bill--quickly said: "Sir, are you aware I will confiscate your license?" His tone let me know he asked that question not so much to inform me as it was to make me grasp the inconvenient prospect of having to redeem my license back.

I just shrugged my shoulders. I wanted to tell him: "Er, isn't that the whole point of this? That you will get my license and inconvenience me, so that next time I will be more careful about ignoring a red light?" But I decided against it, thinking pearls of wisdom are lost on pigs. When he saw that I was still giving him my license, he asked me a different question, but with the same objective: "Sir, do you know you will have to redeem this at the Pasig City Hall? Do you know where it is? It's a bit difficult to find. Do you have time to go there?"

That series of questions erased any doubts in my mind that the guy was angling for a bribe. Normally, this would drive me to give a lecture designed to make the other person feel small. Then again, how much smaller could this man possibly feel? Again, I just gave the traffic officer a self-satisfied shrug, then silently applauded myself for being able to hold my peace.

The traffic officer had no choice but to grudgingly fill out a violation receipt. I imagined that such a writing chore was probably too much of a burden for someone who'd rather drink gin and play tong-its with his neighbors. The filling out took quite a while, so much so that I began to think the fellow had decided to compose a poem for me. When I finally got the receipt and saw the few parts he had to fill out, I thought only a nincompoop would have taken that long to accomplish the thing. I then suspected that he deliberately took his time in case I changed my mind about giving him an expedient payoff.

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I left the scene triumphant once more. Yes, I would then have to waste a significant amount of time to fetch my license back, but at least I didn't contribute to a vicious cycle of corruption. As sanctimonious as that may sound, it's really how I view the issue. If you think that's pretentious, then that's my explanation for why this country has long gone to the dogs.

As a matter of fact, I told this same story to a date the other night and her reaction was: "What?! Why didn't you just give the guy something so he didn't have to confiscate your license?" I said: "Um, because it's wrong?" She said: "But everyone does that. Hello? You did it merely on principle?" I said: "It's wrong, period." When it appeared she still couldn't comprehend what I was trying to say, I was convinced I wasn't going to see her again. Good luck to her future boyfriend.

Nearly all the traffic officers I've encountered have sent me a clear signal or two that they're for sale. They're out there not really because they truly care about traffic order and safety, but because they think of each passing vehicle as a potential ATM. Think about it: How come, with all the countless traffic patrols deployed along EDSA, reckless driving is still rampant? It's because motorists don't really care. They know they can get away with it with a crisp bill--assuming they'll get caught in the first place.

This has to stop. A small bribe given to an opportunistic traffic officer is sweet incense laid before the altar of corruption. It's no different from the kickbacks politicians get from contractors who win the bid to build poor roads. It's no different from the payolas journalists receive to communicate propaganda. It's no different from the huge payoffs customs officials enjoy every time they allow unscrupulous businessmen to undervalue imported goods.

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Wow, pare, heavy? Nah. Heavy, my friend, is the heart of a moribund person lying on his deathbed and looking back at a life riddled with bribes. I assure you that an image of yourself furtively handing a hundred-peso bill to a traffic officer won't look cute when you're moments away from heaving your last breath.

Vernon B. Sarne
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