2013/06/27

How to deal with a minor traffic accident in the Philippines

tl;dr - go to short version below if you're in a hurry

This is more a story about what I see as a defect in the Philippine society than about my minor, insignificant, accident. I just use the accident as a vehicle to bring the defect to the surface, as it so clearly shines through in a situation like that.

So, I was in Angeles City today when a tricycle hit our car. This, I think, is quite normal. If you have an accident in the Philippines, there's a very high chance a tricycle or a motorcycle is involved, most likely the former. Whatever the drivers of these miscontrieved vehicles learn to get the drivers license (which is not much, trust me) is clearly immediately forgotten as soon as they leave the LTO (Land Transportation Office) with their brand spanking new drivers licenses - that is if they bother to take it in the first place.

Tricycles - a nuisance on the road!

Motorcycles and tricycles generally drive like there are nobody else on the road and as if they had stolen both the vehicle and the gasoline. They will overtake in a curve when they can't see if there are oncoming traffic, and even when they can see oncoming vehicles, just trusting them to give them enough space to squeeze by. Often to stop only a few hundred meters ahead. You only need one driver that is not 100% alert to create a bloodbath - because that's what an accident normally becomes due to the fact that they think being hard headed means they don't need to wear a helmet. They will overtake on the inside too, because usually there's more space there. As soon as an obstacle appears, they squeeze in between two other vehicles, 9 times out of 10 without looking at all, again just assuming that someone else will yield.

My life is worth... around 50 centavos (£0.01)

Given that few of these drivers make more than 30 pesos per hour, which is an average of 1.5 paid trips, and that it's very unlikely they manage to get to their destinations more than 1 minute earlier than they would if they drove like civilised primates, they're basically risking their (and their passengers') life or health many times per trip for an average saving of 0.50 pesos (less than £0.01) per hour. Even this is a bogus calculation, but regardless of that, they have a queueing system on the tricycle stations (equivalent to taxi ranks) and most of the time there are many more tricycles than there is a need for. In effect, when the tricycle drivers return to their station, they usually have to wait for half an hour upwards to many hours before he gets another passenger. So any time earned by driving like a maniac is a wasted sitting idle instead.

The accident

In town the chance of anything but a minor accident is slim, as speed rarely exceeds 20km/h. I was driving in a queue (that's really the only way) doing maybe 10km/h. I small gap appeared in the oncoming traffic and before anybody managed to turn their heads, there was of course a tricycle there. I kept driving 10km/h. A second later he decided we wanted my lane and started pushing himself in, bit by bit, like they normally do. There was an armoured van in the lane to my right, so I had no choice but to stay in my lane, and I kept the same speed. The fact that I was there didn't seem to upset this tricycle driver, so we went in anyway, accelerating in the process. His side wheel hooked on to the front bumper of our car, just in front of the wheel, and pulled in clean off. Plastic bumpers are easy to pull off that way - they're usually just fitted with a few small screws. We both stopped, and as soon as I got out he started to accuse me of bumping him. When dealing with stupid people who think they can fool you, there's only one thing to do - call the police. In practice this means talking to some of the numerous traffic enforcers (who by the way are not police officers and have no authority to do anything by stand in the middle of the road and wave their hands), who then called a real police officer.
Always get a real cop - otherwise you'll just be arguing and getting nowhere, and since tricycle drivers rarely knows a single traffic rule, trying to use reason and common sense to discuss the matter is hopeless. Discussions usually go in the direction of tricycle drivers have no money, and you have lots of money (because you have a car, after all, or because you're a foreigner), so you should pay.

Also, tricycle drivers are often very experienced in accidents. Their vehicles are inherently unstable. The side wheel is neither driven nor braked, leading to the side car pulling the vehicle to the right when accelerating and to the left when braking. The drivers don't know and/or don't care about traffic rules, and by default will force merge into traffic by blocking it with any part of their vehicle (or part of their body) or slowly pushing themselves into a gap that does not fit, expecting other vehicles to both see them and make space for them - all while not looking, or pretending not to look. So the chance is, they've done this before, and you are at a disadvantage because they know both the people and the procedure.

The police officer

Luckily the police officer was a sensible one. After listening to both of us for a few seconds, he told everyone to go away, so he could take two pictures, one from the front and one from the back. I knew this meant the tricycle driver was on thin ice, because the position of the vehicles was pretty revealing.
As you can see from my sketch, there's really only one thing that could cause this type of damage. Just to make sure the police officer understood the situation, I asked him politely, "Officer, you see the position of the tricycle and the ripped off bumper? How do you think that happened?" He then turned to the tricycle driver and explained in Kapampangan, "You say he bumped you, but that could not have happened, because if he did, the bumper would not fall off like that. When the nut on your side wheel hit his car when overtaking him, you pulled the bumper off. If he had hit you, he would have pushed it in." There was a short silence. "OK, Officer, I understand", he finally said. The officer turned to me and asked "So what do you want to do?". "I want him to pay for the repair", I said. "I can get my mechanic in Magalang (20km away) to look at it."

The mechanic

If possible, get someone you can trust to estimate the damage. My mechanic is as honest as the day is long. The police officer suggested going to a mechanic he knows that do body repairs, which is risky, but as I understand Kapampangan well enough and know how things work here, I figured it wasn't worth the extra time and effort to insist on my own mechanic. I could see it wasn't a huge job, but there were some plastic bits around the headlights that were now in a few pieces. The police officer asked me if I would show some consideration (for the poor tricycle driver) and pay for half of the damage, so if it was 4000 pesos in total, I'd pay 2000. If this happens to you, imagine huge warning bells ringing at this point.

I said no. I explained that it wasn't my fault so I should not be liable to pay anything. OK, he said, knowing I have no obligation to pay anything, let's go to the mechanic. I picked up the bumper and put it in the boot (trunk) and followed the tricycle driver with the police officer on the back.

One mechanic glued together the plastic around the headlight while the rest were fitting the the bumper back on. Eventually I heard it would cost 1500 pesos. That's about £25. I was asked one last time if I would chip in 500, but I repeated, no, if he didn't hit my car, I wouldn't be here and I certainly would't need to pay anything, plus I want him to learn a lesson and look before he turns.

The important thing is here, if it's not your fault, don't chip in, regardless of how sorry you feel for the poor sod that caused the accident. If you do, you'll probably end up paying for all of it, if not more. Don't believe me? Well, read on.

The official and the unofficial procedure

The police officer asked me if we would like to take the complaint to the station. This would mean we both would have to pay 750 pesos, because we caused a violation, and pick up the drivers licenses the next day. I asked why I would need to pay, considering I was not at fault. He said, that's how it is. I have been long enough in this country not to bother to argue this further. At least not at this time and on this place. I think in many cases that answer means "I don't know, that's just what I've been told to do, and I really can't be bothered to find out why - it's not in my job description."

Instead apparently, we could settle this between us, sign a paper the police officer, who had found himself a shaded desk in the car repair shop - likely much more comfortable than walking under the sun, had written. He said if you agree that the damage has been paid you can just sign, get your licenses back and that's the end of it.

"Is it legal?" I asked. Apparently it was. I was not convinced, but considering the officer was bright enough to understand who was at fault, I figured there's a fair chance he's telling the truth. I waited a bit, just to mentally torture the tricycle driver, before I agreed. I saw no point paying a fine, plus having to get my license at the police station tomorrow if not entirely necessary, not even to teach the tricycle driver a lesson. The money he had to pay was probably lesson enough.

The real price

After everyone had left, I returned and asked one of they boys working there, whom I had befriended while I was there, how much the tricycle driver actually paid. 500 pesos, was the answer... So, if I had agreed on the first deal 2000 each, I would probably be paying the mechanic 1000 and the other 500 each for the police and the tricycle driver, or maybe the police and the mechanic would split them, and give the tricycle driver nothing. In any case, he wouldn't pay, even if it was his fault. If I had agreed to the second plead for "consideration", 500 pesos, it's clear to see that I would be the only one paying, even if I was not at fault. So keep this in mind. Forget compassion, if you're right, you're right. Just be friendly but firm.

If you are at fault in an accident, and you don't know an honest mechanic, I would insist that you visit at least 3 random ones to ask for price quotes.
If you don't speak the local language (there are around 100 of them in the Philippines), you'll have a great chance of being cheated, and even if you do, you have to pay attention all the time to prevent any under the table deals being made. The mechanic is likely to heavily overprice you and split some of his profit with the police and the owner of the vehicle you damaged. Always, always bargain the price!

The Spaniards, the cheating culture and the Americans

Filipinos are so inventive when it comes to finding ways to cheat. I think if they used their imagination to producing something actually useful, they wouldn't be a poor country! It's the Spaniards they can blame for this mentality. They came a few hundred years ago and decided the Philippines would be a great addition to the Spanish crown. The fact that someone already lived there didn't seem important to them. Then they forced Catholicism on them, grabbed most of their land and got them to work on their fields and haciendas for a pittance, while they send the gold and other produce back to Spain. The only way a Filipino could gain wealth back then was to cheat the Spaniards in some way, steal from their crops, claiming the item they bought cost more than it really did, etc. Do this for many generations, and you get some pretty advanced cheaters!

Take away the Spaniards, which the Americans did at the turn of the century, and what you're left with is a people who's so used to cheating being the only way to get ahead. It's not the exception, but the rule. Add to that almost a century with the Americans, and their dirty political system - enough said! It's almost like a country full of politicians! Granted, there are exceptions, there are some people who are so honest and unselfish that anyone would feel ashamed, some just ordinary hard working people with no intention of cheating. But unfortunately they are surrounded by small-time cheats and opportunists. I think most countries have their fair share of potential cheats and opportunists, but a functional legal system and enough jobs that with decent pay makes it both too risky to base your life on cheating and not really worth it, given you can easily survive and thrive without it. But when people are paid 150 pesos (less than £2.50) a day, like the mechanics that fixed our car, then there's a great benefit to doing an occasional cheat, especially when the legal system is so corrupt and non-functional that people mostly avoid using it. This, I think, is what  makes a large portion of otherwise good people resort to occasional cheating and petty crimes. It is unfortunate, but that does not make it less of a fact. Such a shame because I'm sure this was not part of their original culture before the Spaniards destroyed it.
All that said, just because you know who to blame for a cultural defect, doesn't mean you shouldn't do everything in your power to fix it!

Short version

There's nothing stopping the mechanic from splitting the huge profit they can gain by overpricing with the police and/or the other driver at a later day, when you're gone, so if you're at fault and have to pay, make sure you take all of this into account.
  • First of all, be professional and respectful, even if you're not treated that way.
  • Unless it's not your fault and the other party offers to pay cash for damages and you're happy with the amount (this is as unlikely as snowfall here in the Philippines), call the police. Anything you say before the police arrives is generally a waste of energy.
  • Focus on the facts. The horde of bystanders with little or no knowledge about how vehicles work and how to repair them will surely offer advice and comments, which are safe to ignore.
  • Don't leave "the party". You then risk not finding the police officer nor the other driver again. If you have to leave, agree where to meet, and make sure you have written down the name and contact number of the police officer, the license plate number, phone number, name and address of the other driver. Test the phone numbers. Ideally, ask to meet in the other drivers house and get them to show you where it is. This way, you are sure you can find them. But much better, just stay until things are sorted.
  • If it's entirely your fault, agree to pay for the damage, but ask if it's ok that you select the mechanic. Any reasonable person would say yes to that. Ask the police if he knows anyone, unless he seems awfully biased against you.
  • If you are both to blame for the accident, agree to pay your share, but only if the cheapest mechanic is chosen. If it looks like both of you have about the same amount of damage or you don't care about the damage on your car, you can suggest that you just do the repairs individually and agree to pay for your own expenses. This is best for you, as the chance of being cheated is much less, and you get to drive away without any further delay.
  • If, as in my case, it's entirely their fault, don't budge - let them pay for everything - for reasons explained above. If you didn't read the above trust me, don't pay anything, even a single centavo.
  • If it fully or partially their fault, and there's no way they can pay, you have to be careful. I've never been in this situation, but I would insist on getting their vehicle impounded while they come up with the money, to make sure they can't run off. If their vehicle is in danger of impounding, I'm sure the money will appear quickly, as it's well known that the police will let (paying) looters strip all vehicles in the impound lot, including engines! If the damage is severe, you may also suggest you take their vehicle to cover your damage. In this case, make sure you get an independent estimation of its value. It's usually less than you think. I would not agree to much more than 2/3 of the lowest independent value. If you can find a buyer there and then, even better. If the seller doesn't like your price, tell them you're happy to sell it to anyone, if they can find someone willing to pay a higher price. If they end up selling their vehicle, a good idea would be to take the money the mechanic quoted it would cost in cash, pay them a small amount (like 500 pesos, depending on the amount quoted of course) for the valuation and say you prefer your favourite mechanic repair it. You'll surely get someone to do it for less than what they've quoted, and you'll come out on top. Of course, if your car is not drivable, you could ask the mechanic there to fix it just enough to be drivable, and doing the rest somewhere else. Asking the police officer for advice is also a good idea.
  • When looking for mechanics, tell each mechanic that you'll be asking for price quotes from other mechanics too and will give the job to the one with the lowest price. This way if only one mechanic is honest, he gets the job
  • If possible, ask some random people if they can recommend a good and honest mechanic. Preferably do this unseen, as not to agitate people (I know, that's hard - any minor accident normally attracts about 20-30 people with nothing to do but stand there and look - but of course you could ask some of them)
  • Explain you also don't have an unlimited amount of money. If you're driving a fancy car, this will be hard to believe though, but you could make up a story about it being given to you or something. I don't really recommend lying, but in some specific cases, like this, the white lie is just to save explanation, as it's all irrelevant in the first place. Some Filipinos (well maybe some people in general, Filipino or not) seem to have this twisted sense of fairness that people with money (or even people perceived to have money, often due to their skin colour) should pay even if it's not their fault. For me, people are people and you do something wrong you should pay for it.
  • If it's your fault , bargain with the mechanic, try to make them do it on the cheap. People here are used to it anyway, and they would definitely do it if it was their fault. They hardly ever replace any body parts here, just repair, be it broken plastic parts, dented metal or whatever. In industrialised countries the rule seems to be that the vehicle should be left in the same or better condition compared to before the accident, as not to inconvenience the innocent party. Here it's never better than before. So if you're at fault make sure you're not coerced into replacing parts unless absolutely necessary and make sure they don't fix anything that was already broken before the accident. Normally, everything is fixed doing a "remedio" - just a remedy, not a perfect fix. Use this to your advantage if you're paying and argue against it as much as possible if you're not and the result looks less than appealing.
  • When the repair of your car is done, test everything. Pull and push on all parts they have assembled to make sure they're properly fitted. Very likely, they're not. Test lights and anything else that may have been broken. 
  • Be in a hurry, and make sure everyone knows about it. Ideally then, if both vehicles need repairs, your vehicle has to be fixed first. When it's done and you're happy with it, shake hands and leave as quickly as possible. This way they can't invent new problems with their vehicle and get you to pay more. Alternatively, if this is not an option, make sure they don't start fixing something that you didn't break, at your expense. It's best to keep a close eye on the repairs and encourage them to stop fiddling with details by commenting on how beautiful the result is - as in "good enough - now finish it!" - not in those exact words.
  • You can bargain even after all work is done. Yes, I know it's pretty amazing, but you get used to it. Comment on how fast the work was completed and how little materials they used, hence why the price should be much lower than quoted. Take into account that some people are only paid 150 pesos per day  (yes, per day, that was not a misprint) for working for a mechanic, so their labour cost is minimal.

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