Driving your car in Manila

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Driving your own car in the Philippines

Many years ago I have heard that driving in the Philippines and especially in Metro Manila can be compared with driving in hell. There is even a saying that goes: If you can drive a car in Manila, you can drive everywhere in the world.

Metro Manila, or National Capital Region as it is called, counts more than 14 million people and is the most dense populated city in the world. All those people have to commute to work or school or otherwise every day. Most of them are using public transport like Jeepneys and Busses. From early morning until late at night, the roads in and around Manila are full with all kinds of vehicles and therefore often congested.

Driving is dangerous

Getting used to the Filipino style of driving a car, which is what I had to learn.

  • Filipinos blow their horn all the time for a number of reasons
  • They sign with their head lights
  • At crossings or changing lane, they sign with their hands instead of their (often not working) lights
  • Jeepneys, taxis, and busses stop on every place where a passenger is waiting or wants to get off
  • And on busy street corners you can see double-parked Jeepneys all the time and/or suddenly overtaking each other.
  • Sidewalks are used as parking space or selling space, pedestrians are forced to use the street.

Accidents happen

So one has to take care every second not to bump or being bumped. You can imagine that one needs six or eight eyes to see what is happening around you. People and vehicles come from everywhere: left, right, front and from the back. While driving, you need to be prepared that even the unexpected will happen. You do not have time to change radio channel; but you can see people using their mobile phone to call or compose text messages as if they are alone on the street and being parked, actually they are driving with a speed of 40 kmh or more.

Traffic signs are merely street decoration

Although officially there are traffic rules and traffic signs, there are only very few places where they are followed. Makati is such place. Police officers are very strict there if a driver does not follow the rules. Probably because most foreign businesses have their offices in Makati , so do many rich people.

In other places drivers do what they want: neglecting traffic lights, parking everywhere, overtaking over solid lines or on the right side etc. The so-called High Ways are used for all traffic. Not only cars and busses, but also the ‘everywhere stopping’ Jeepneys; motorbikes swerving from left to right and back, taxis trying to insert themselves from all directions, bicycles on the left side of the road, or just in the middle and even walking people crossing on every meter of the street usually without watching carefully. In addition, not to mention the tricycles, inserting themselves and driving slowly on the left side of the street or just in the middle. On one way streets don’t be surprised if cars and / or bicycles are coming towards you. If you blow your horn against them they even might get angry at you and block the road completely.

On a 2 lane street you can often see 3 or 4 rows of cars, tricycles, trucks and other traffic, all close to each other. At the same time people crossing the street and you’ll see a lot of double parked cars. There are also the street vendors who walk in between the rows of cars to try to sell their goods, sometimes bringing their small handcars with boiling stuff like peanuts, fish balls and so on. On the sidewalk you will find the street vendors with larger stalls, they have taken their place there, so pedestrians have to use the street as well. The result is that there is always traffic jam in the streets and sometimes you can go faster walking than driving.

traffic Manila

Traffic system

Add the bad roads, with potholes and cracks and on many street corners large concrete blocks to stop cars from going left or right. This has to do with the disobedient behavior of most Filipinos. They hate to wait for red traffic lights and they will never stop for orange. Even before the lights are turning green they start driving already. That is the reason the government has implemented u-turns. Roundabouts are also not the solution, because Filipinos are disobedient and pass the roundabout on the left side when they want a left turn – counter flowing.

After those closed crossings, there are usually U-turn slots. A one-lane option where a vehicle can turn and on the earlier mentioned crossing can go to the direction he wants. On busy u-turns, you see often 3 lanes blocking the rest of the street to take that u-turn. All other traffic has to wait -> more traffic jams.

Technical state of vehicles

The technical state of many cars is dubious. Tires do not have profile anymore, lights are not working, I even doubt if brakes are working well. Car engines are exhausting often black smoke, especially diesel engines from Jeepneys, busses, trucks and motorbikes (tricycles). Private cars mostly seem to be in better technical condition.

Even older cars are staying on the road. Sometimes they are rusty and have holes, or are full of dents and other damages. Picture this in combination with smoking engines; you can imagine that there is still a lot of work for the government to better this aspect of the Filipino society.


To reduce the traffic and the air pollution in larger cities, they have implemented “color coding”. Why they call it color coding is not clear to me. The system works as follows: every license plate has three letters and three or four numbers. The last digit is the one that says if the car is allowed to drive or not. Numbers 1 and 2 cannot drive on Mondays, 3 and 4 not on Tuesdays, and so on. Weekends and official holidays do not have color-coding. Some cities are very strict with the color-coding, other cities do not care. Manila, Makati, Mandaluyong and San Juan are very strict within the Metro Manila. In other cities, it depends on the mood and accuracy of the police officers. The 16 cities in the metro do not even have the same color coding schedules. Drivers from the provinces are often caught and given a ticket for not knowing the exact rules and regulations.

My Experience

I have been travelling through Europe and the US a lot, and always driving my own (or rented) car. Even big cities like Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Los Angeles, San Francisco and many others I did not have problems driving. Manila however is different. It really is hell. With an average speed of about 15 km per hour (or lower), it actually would have been better to take public transport. However, they are in the same traffic jam as me. The advantage of having your own transportation is that you can put the air conditioner on, drive with or without music and as loud or silent as you wish, and you do not have to carry your shopping bags all the way. Moreover, you are safer from snatchers if you do not drive with your windows open and your doors locked.

Rain, storm and typhoon advice

When there is a lot of rain falling, and it continues raining, big parts of Metro Manila will be flooded. Streets are flooded for sometimes hours, and no vehicle can go through. So if there’s lots of rain expected: stay at home (if you do not like to be stuck or get wet feet, or worse).


While waiting for a traffic light or in a traffic jam your car will often be approached by children or elderly disabled persons trying to get money of you. Sometimes they just beg for it, and sometimes the wipe your windows a little. It is up to you to give them something or not.

So think it over if you like to buy and drive your own car in the Metro Manila area.

Have a safe trip!

Lucky we also have dancing traffic enforcers in the Philippines

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