Back Seat Driver:
It's Friday. Payday. Raining. You're inching through the tightly congested streets of central Makati, skirting the perimeter of the overflowing malls, glancing at your watch for the third time in the same minute; yes, its still 7:22pm, just like it was the last 2 times you checked. The multi-colored reflections of the city lights dance across the beads of water that coat the surface of the thousands of vehicles that are snaked ahead of you; if you squint, it kinda looks like the red sea of taillights. At this rate, even regional trial court cases are moving faster than you.
By the powers vested in her by her own mother, and her mother's mother before her, your wife had managed to convince/threaten/riddle you with guilt, that this is the exact moment you should be picking up that medicine for your daughter that the family driver forgot to do earlier in the day, which explains why you're here to begin with, instead of at home in your favorite chair trying to rip off tunes for your iPod from a website in the Ukraine. It all seems hopeless. The lines funneling into the car parks are as daunting as tackling an ingrown toenail with a set of rusty pliers and it looks like there's no form of relief within an hours drive from here.
Just then, someone waves you into a private lot – the one beside Isshin restaurant on Pasay road that is no bigger than that of a suburban, middle income home. He guides you in behind a group of cars. It's double parked, but hey, you'll only be less than ten minutes. “Sir, just leave the keys in case we need to move it,” comes the reassurance from the half uniformed guard. Dilemma.
Now, for a bona fide car enthusiast, leaving your keys, or having just anybody park your car is much like having someone chew your food for you – but there are always exceptions, right? What would you do? Honestly? With a heavy heart and soggy shoes, my brother decides that he'll go for it. He pays the 30 bucks and darts across to the drug store just so he can finally put an end to this ordeal and go back to downloading all the dance versions to Spandau Ballet's greatest hits.
Ten minutes later, he arrives back and sees a wall of professional bystanders gathered around the remains of what was once his precious, shiny car. The first brand new car he had bought in his life. As he pushed his way to the front of the curious mob, his worse fears were confirmed. The car was wedged up against a nasty old steel generator; the front bumper was hanging down and exposed the mangled radiator; a thin flute of steam streamed from the engine bay; there was smashed glass and expensive plastic shards scattered around the parking lot floor and the airbag had deployed. The impact had been so great, there was enough damage to cause the engine to seize. His one year old car was a total write off.
It was a scene right out of the Twilight Zone. What baffled everyone was how this much damage could have possibly occurred in such a confined space. Seriously, it would take a great amount of skill to drive that badly. The best explanation my brother could get from the car park attendant – once he mentally removed his clenched hands from around the lifeless man's scrawny neck of course – was that he mistook the gas pedal for the brake pedal. Eventually, he also admitted that he had never driven a car in his life prior to this. What a debut. He was, needless to say, also unlicensed. No animals were hurt during this incident.
Take a deep breath. Now, just think, this could just as easily have happened to you. And don't believe for a moment that this is something that is restricted to rinky dink car parks.
After doing a little digging, I found that there are a lot of valet parking horror stories out there – everything from the valet parker of an upscale nightclub having a heart attack in the car while trying to park it and smashing into a post; to valets smoking in the car; to my own recent experience of having my cell phone stolen from inside the car while having it parked in a top class hotel, to never getting the car back at all. There’s even one reader that wrote to me after catching a valet and a some girl ‘going for it’ in his car, while another had his car smashed twice by the valet of the same five star hotel only months apart. But there are lessons to be learned in all of this.
Be wary of places that have less invested in their place of business than what your car or time is worth. Take the owner of the parking lot that did their own NCAP crash rating test on my brother’s car. After making all the promises under the sun, she just reneged on her word and left him with a 600,000 peso repair bill. What the hell does she care if her unnamed carpark falls into disrepute? She still operates it today. And people will continue to park there while parking spaces around Makati becomes as easy to find as a pleasant towing experience.
Personally, I can't bring myself to get my car parked for me anymore. The last time I left my keys with someone it was with the manager of a large auto repair chain when I booked my car in for service. Believe it or not, the dude started running errands with it and made it as far as Malvar, Batangas, before smashing it. Seriously. Incredibly, it happened at the exact time that I was testing out a GPS tracking system that could monitor your car’s movements. The irony of it all was that it was fitted in this guy’s shop. That same weekend. The device tracked him at 163km/h just minutes before the big event.
Had this been Mang Doming’s service center and Videoke, I would have been left holding the bag. Or airbag in this case. But thankfully, because this was a company with a big reputation to protect, and the owners of the chain placed far more value on their good name, they offered to have it repaired completely without fuss. They even offered me a 10,000 peso gift certificate that could be used at any of their branches and would take it out of the service manager’s salary. I didn’t accept it, but I have to admit that the gesture was sincere. Besides, the thought of always checking for sugar in my fuel tank or frayed brake lines every time I pick up my car from service didn’t appeal to me.
But shocking as some of that may be, it doesn’t just stop with valets or mechanics. At the end of the day, there’s no point being fussy about who parks your car when you hire just any Juan off the street to be your family driver. And it happens. Funny, but my mom will move mountains and cross skyways just to have her hair cut by ‘her’ hairdresser because the thought of just anyone touching her hair is criminal. But when it comes to who drives her there, flipping a coin is already considered a tough screening process.
Then there’s the story of an expat of a prestigious car company that used to assign a gardener to wash his very expensive car while he was out at work. What he didn’t know was that this gardener would drive the car around the village to another home where his wife worked and meet her for lunch everyday. His drives soon started to extend out of the village until one day he ended up on the highway. His plan was to take it down south and sell it to a car-napping syndicate that would probably ship it off to Cebu or Davao. He would have probably made it, too. Except for the fact that he was coding. And, while he skipped the eagle eyes of the Makati cops, he drew a great deal of attention to himself when he missed his turn off on the SLEX and started reversing down the highway only to hit a concrete block and perch the rear wheels in the air, rendering it undriveable.
I guess what I’m driving at here is that having a car doesn’t end with responsible driving, but responsible ownership, too. Sort of like if you own a gun – you would keep it in a safe place and not just lying around. Think about it – your car is not just the second largest investment you are likely to ever make, but in the wrong hands, it could also be a lethal weapon.
On the same token, while it is important for every car owner to use common sense before tossing the keys to just anyone, I don’t think it is unreasonable for us to expect that if by paying money for a service, whether it be to park your car or have your car parked, that we are entitled to some kind of consumer protection.
Car parks have been trying to get away with this for years. And every time something happens to your car, or something goes missing, they just point you to a little clause in their ‘terms and conditions.’ Come on, fellas – seriously now, I know my hair may look like it some days, but I didn’t just get out of bed. Who you trying to fool? You can’t write your own immunity. Hello? No matter what is printed on your ticket, the fact that you charge money for something, means you do so with a certain amount of responsibility and accountability. Otherwise we would all have a piece of paper in our glove box that says, “In case of accident or injury, regardless how severe, the owner or driver of this car is not liable for anything. Including paying for parking”