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Strobe and Sirens December 2, 2009

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Ramblings, Show and Tell.
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When I was in college, I had a friend who bought a police strobe light for his car.

It was a simple yellow job sans the siren, big enough to look official (notwithstanding the color) and small enough not to be taken seriously. I don’t know if he ever used it to get ahead while stuck in traffic, but I do recall having some fun with it riding with him through empty parking lots late at night — lights aglow — or getting some extra fanfare when I’d bum a ride and he’d jokingly turn the light on when we’d reach the vicinity of his house or mine.

That yellow strobe light stayed on his dashboard until it disappeared one day. I thought it had gotten broken, but was told instead that he had to put it away after getting in trouble since he didn’t have a permit for it.

That conversation stuck with me because it made a lot of sense. Not everyone can nor should have strobe lights or sirens in their car (especially not for laughs), and so it’s important to police their use (pun intended) to maintain the integrity of what they stand for: a means to alert others that a vehicle must get by because of an emergency. Any other use for them on the road is either abusive or simply designed to draw attention to the user. Thus, in my values system, the only justifiable use for such things is by an official government vehicle responding to an emergency. No more, no less.

Today, however, I find it distressing that the use of strobe lights and sirens has become so debased as to represent a privilege that the wealthy, powerful or would-be important lay claim to.

Manila drivers know this all too well. On any given day, one comes across examples of their blatantly indulgent and irresponsible uses. In many instances, it’s as obvious as private vehicles (those without red plates) making use of sirens to bully their way through traffic. Sometimes government vehicles are guilty of the same, too, as when a vehicle with red plates can be found, strobe lights ablaze and sirens blaring, zipping its way through traffic despite the absence of an apparent emergency.

These do violence to one’s sense of propriety. Logic dictates that private vehicles, whether or not owned/used by public officials, have no business using sirens or police lights; that’s why there are hazard lights in cases of emergency, which do not preclude getting assistance from local law enforcement if necessary. For their part, government-owned vehicles should be subject to one simple rule: use only in cases of emergency. A traffic jam does not constitute an emergency. If the rest of the populace can go about its business despite metropolitan traffic, there’s no reason to expect anything less from our politicians and bureaucrats.

It’s a breakdown of norms, to be sure, and enough to make one question the legitimacy of any siren, even on vehicles with reason to have them. I can no longer count the number of times I’ve looked suspiciously at an ambulance trying to make its way through heavy traffic; after all, who’s to say if beneath the heavily tinted glass is some guy just out on a joyride? Yet for all that, I still make way when I see flashing lights behind me.

But I can’t say this will always be the case. Driving to work the other week, I was alerted to some flashing lights and a commotion behind me. Insinctively, I began to pull aside to let the vehicle through — until I looked at my rearview mirror and saw the conveyance in question was a piece of crap, tackily painted 1980’s-era Mitsubishi Lancer. I’m sure there’s no way that car could’ve been on any official business to merit such sound and fury.

To my mind, that disconnect embodies everything wrong with the Philippines’ strobe light and siren regime, and maybe other things besides. Although a small issue, it’s telling that what little social capital there is in this country, on the road, can be eroded by some douchebag in a piece of crap, tackily painted 1980’s-era Mutsubishi Lancer who selfishly wants to get ahead.

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