The (Nonexistent) International Driving Standard

They say if you can drive in Manila, you can drive anywhere else in the world….

A fellow blogger commented on one of my recent posts, saying that “Folks always let you move on over to their lane and are much more patient than in big cities” when driving around Guam. A self-professed bad driver, she confesses to loving Guam because “it’s where [she can] drive the best.” Inspired by this comment, I’m finally writing my thoughts on driving in the Philippines (and Guam. And some other places. But mostly Philippines).

I’ve seen some crazy driving in Italy. I’ve seen some in China. But nothing compares to what I’ve seen in the Philippines. Note: I’ve heard it’s crazy in India, but I haven’t been yet, so Philippines is my basis for now.

In Manila, for instance, a five-lane road instantly becomes eight. At that point, you’re no longer even sure where your lane’s boundaries are…if, indeed, they exist. Cars crisscross in a game of hopscotch, pulling beside each other so close that two people from neighboring cars can high-five without effort. It’s not unheard of for a vehicle to knock off your rearview mirror and continue driving as if nothing happened. It’s not unheard of to turn left at a “No Left Turn” sign. It’s not unheard of to bribe the police officer that pulls you over if you are caught. Ah, Philippines, where traffic regulations are merely suggestions. Philippines, where street peddlers walk between cars, selling snacks and gum and cigarettes (among other things; the strangest I’ve seen are brooms for the home and shammies for your car) as though they aren’t risking their lives making a living wading through traffic on a daily basis. This, and more, it at its worst in Manila, but you’ll see it all over the country. In fact, there are rural provinces known for letting passengers ride on the roofs of their jeepneys.

There is at least one mountain province in Northern Luzon where it’s customary to exchange lanes when rounding a curve along the winding roads. I’ve seen a Ferrari speed by on a such a road between Nice and Cannes. I’ve spent time in Positano, where the two-lane roads are really just built for one vehicle (actually, this applies to much of the Amalfi Coast); but local drivers there are courteous and patiently give way. I’ve been in a car through the narrowest streets of Seville (major props to the residents in those districts where the “streets” can get as narrow as a wide sidewalk – as in there are literally mere inches between your rearview mirrors and the brick walls of the surrounding buildings…and someone unaccustomed to maneuvering those streets can get stuck making a right turn. Yup, myself included.) But Philippines takes the cake because, in addition to such circumstances, there is the broad disregard of traffic rules.

None of this exists on Guam. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the speed limit is 35 pretty much anywhere on island. Sitting in “traffic” really only adds a few minutes to your travel time. If you need to get into the next lane because you’re about to miss your turn, there’s a 97% chance someone will let you in shortly after you turn your signal light on. (If only this were true about everywhere else!) Perhaps the most curious thing about driving on Guam is that nobody uses street names, addresses, or cross-streets to give directions, yet nobody uses a GPS. Trying to get somewhere? You’ll be asked if you know a major landmark or two, and be guided from there with a succession of smaller landmarks. A friend and I –neither of whom are in-the-know about the local nightlife because neither of us are locals– recently tested this. These are the actual directions we were given:

You know where Outrigger is? (Yes.) You know where The Plaza is? (Yes.) Pass the signal light and turn left.”

And that is how nearly all directions are given on Guam. Hey, I’m not complaining. It’s better than fearing for my life on a high and dangerously narrow mountain roadside with an oncoming bus and no barricades against the perilous drop below.