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Rules for Driving in the Philippines: Unwritten Road Regulations

Howard lived and worked for 20 years in remote parts of Indonesia and the Philippines.

Jeepneys are a common means of travel in the Philippines. This is a typical load.

Jeepneys are a common means of travel in the Philippines. This is a typical load.

Those who have lived in the Philippines for any length of time will recognize the characteristic rules of driving described here. Those yet planning a trip would be advised to take notice, as understanding local customs always makes travel more enjoyable. Intending to be more serious than satirical, please forgive me if I lean toward the humorous side on occasion.


Traffic is an adjective rather than a noun, as in, “It is very traffic.”

In metropolitan areas, the sooner you enter the intersection, the sooner you can get through the traffic jam there. Oh, don’t forget to lean on the horn repeatedly. It encourages someone to unsnarl the traffic.

Traffic on a Highway at the Outskirts of the City

The traffic flow outside major metropolitan areas follows the path concept. This is a traditional rural Asian travel pattern derived from walking on paths. Paths are single-file, well-worn in the center, and require slowing down and edging into the rough in order to pass. Drivers in the Philippines who learned first to walk on paths naturally drive in the center of the road unless giving way to pass, so hold the center of the road when you can—that’s where you’re supposed to travel. When meeting oncoming traffic, bear right—remember that if it is not your natural inclination.

The larger vehicle has the right-of-way. My motorcycle looked quite small tucked under the front of a truck once. Fortunately, it was barely moving by the time I hit it.

Signals and signaling

Right turns must cross the center line at both the beginning and completion. Approaching the intersection, one first swings left to straddle approximately one-half lane. Similarly, an extra half-lane is occupied on the cross road. This puts less wear on steering and suspension components. Tires last longer too if they do not have to scrub back and forth as much. Don’t forget to signal the right turn as you swing to the left, lest your intent be misunderstood. You don’t want someone trying to pass on the right.

Left turns are indicated with the left blinker and crowding to the center of the road. Crowding the center is absolutely critical in order to prevent someone from passing at that point, which would be unsafe. If they want to pass, it should be done on the right.

The left turn signal is also used to indicate pulling over to pick up or drop off passengers, especially at an intersection. It cannot be confused with a left turn, however, which would begin by crowding the center. Don’t confuse this with a similar custom in some countries that is used to indicate an impending U-turn.

Stop means Yield; Yield means Stop. The red octagon means yield; the yellow triangle means stop. How else can I say it?

You don’t need to obey traffic lights unless there’s a Filipino policeman blowing his whistle and waving at you like he's practicing martial arts. In that case, just follow his unwritten “suggestion,” not the light.

Driving etiquette

The vehicle’s horn is like the Filipino smile; it is used to convey emotion, any and all of them without differentiation—impatience, recognition, embarrassment, anger, joy, reminder, boredom, excitement, etc. When driving in the Philippines, be polite and smile at everyone with your horn on every occasion.

Taxis without a fare should slow to 5 mph when passing a taxi stand. The unwritten rule is that someone standing there might prefer the taxi out in the middle of the street to one of those lined up at the curb.

Maintain a safe following distance from the vehicle in front of you equal to the length of that vehicle, not your own. If the diesel bus you’re driving is 12 ft wide, 16 ft tall and however long, the proper following distance from a haphazard three-wheeler with ten people clinging to it is the length of the motorbike from which it was constructed.

At dusk, there is no need to blind oncoming drivers with your lights as long as you can see the road. It would waste battery power anyway and contribute to global warming. If the moonlight is bright enough, you can leave your lights off most of the time.

When a vehicle approaches from the opposite direction at night, turn off your headlights so the glare won’t bother the other driver. Besides, you know where the road goes now; it’s where he just came from.

Vehicle capacity is determined by the size and shape of potential cargo. Sometimes cargo needs to be rearranged, but nobody’s in a hurry. There’s always room for one more person as long as they can find one foothold and one handhold. Aromatic durian fruit as cargo is always the last to be loaded, as few will board after that; it sometimes requires chartering the vehicle. A vehicle carrying durian will never be rear-ended or followed too closely.

Foreign Tourist Destinations

We Meet an Oncoming Vehicle

Batong Buhay jeepney near the start of its 5-hour journey to Tabuk, capital of Kalinga province.

Batong Buhay jeepney near the start of its 5-hour journey to Tabuk, capital of Kalinga province.


Used vehicles bought in remote areas usually started life new in a more affluent area, which is logical enough. Also logical is that they were sometimes stolen from there.

If you’re overtaking another vehicle and see you won’t complete it before reaching oncoming traffic, just keep going. Maybe the oncoming driver will think of something. If not, it sometimes works to swerve at the last moment onto the shoulder. That way, if the vehicles collide off-center, it is the drivers who might survive. Good jeepney drivers are scarce.

Ultimately, accidents can’t really be avoided. When it’s your time to go, that’s it. For example, if a dog darts out in front of you, be sure to avoid the dog at all cost! If you don’t share that same fatalism, beware of those who do, e.g. the truck coming towards you in your lane. There is no such thing as defensive driving; it’s just bad luck.

Damages are paid by the wealthier party. This too is so obvious it needs no elaboration. Who else could pay! Follow these unwritten rules of the road when driving in the Philippines in order to have safe travel.

Tricycle taxis are built-up from a motorcycle.

Tricycle taxis are built-up from a motorcycle.

Disclaimer for my Pinoy followers: The rules of the road described here are anecdotal and in no way formalized. Some may be followed by nearly everyone, while others are based on isolated incidents. Before you attempt to apply any of them in practice, you should confirm them with locals whose experience driving in the Philippines is more current and authoritative than mine.

© 2011 Howard S.

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