Mexican driver's ed, a Monterrey perspective
I can think of nothing more torturous than driving in Mexico. A free for all with life-threatening vehicles is not my idea of fun or adventure, but Mexicans seem to love it. When I first started driving in Mexico, I nearly died every time I turned the corner. It was petrifying. I was as careful as could be, and yet, whoooooooom! A car would always come flying out of nowhere like a bat out of hell and I would slam on my brakes, barely avoiding ending up injured, mangled, or worse.
Everything, from the way the streets are set up to the traffic laws, seemed to be different from back home. I thought I would be ok in Monterrey since Boston drivers have one of the worst reputations in America, perhaps after New York City cabbies. But "returnos" (turn arounds), frontage roads, a general lack of urban planning, and an extreme reluctance to be in the right lane for highway exits create an environment so adverse to safe driving that even Boston has no comparison.
My first month in Monterrey, I witnessed some of the most gruesome traffic accidents I had ever seen. I saw a car sandwiched between two others, all three parallel to each other. The cars on both sides of the middle car had changed lanes at the same time, and both had not seen the car that was already where they both wanted to be. Impossible, I thought, for someone to drive that carelessly, but the poor car in the middle knew first hand that this is, in fact, possible.
At 7:00AM every morning (and regularly throughout the day) Monterrey is treated to a run-down of all the accidents in the metropolitan area by the " Reportero del aire." This is my least favorite thing to hear on the radio when I am in my car. But at least it does inspire me to slow down and drive as safely as possible.
However, perhaps the worst thing for me has been the change in my driving. I used to be an extremely responsible driver. I drove the 5 miles over the speed limit that the police allow you to get away with, and that was it. I respected traffic laws and always made a complete stop at stop signs. And yet now, after just 7 months of driving in Monterrey, I drive horribly. To some extent, this transformation was necessary. If I had continued to drive as I did back home, I would also be in danger. You need to learn to become somewhat aggressive here or people run all over you, also creating danger. You need to be extremely aware here, always expecting that if people can cut you off, they will. You need to predict the movement of the cars around you. But I have unwillingly become as indifferent to traffic laws as the rest of the cars around me. Mexican behavior tends to rub off on you after a short while.
This obviously needs to change, but it's hard to be the "anal" American who heeds traffic laws when no one around you does. You end up exasperated and angry all the time. So you have to learn to let go a bit, but herein lies the dilemma. Should you try to change Mexico by setting a good example or should you resign yourself to the culture and not try to impose a culture of consciousness?
I suppose that is for each individual to decide, but in the meantime, here is an impromptu Mexican driver's ed manual to help you with your driving. You might want to try praying as well…
- "Stop" Signs are easily recognized by the familiar red octagon, with "alto" written in the middle in white letters.
- The Spanish word "alto" means "stop," except while driving your car, where "alto" means close your eyes and floor the accelerator just as you cross the intersection.
- A complete stop is not necessary at an "alto;" Just use peripheral vision to check if someone is coming.
- If, out of your peripheral vision, you do indeed spot an oncoming car, remember to accelerate. You will probably beat that car through the intersection anyway. It's all about not backing down, just like a good game of chicken.
- "Yield" Signs are upside down, white triangles with a red border. Inside it says " cede el paso" in miniscule letters.
- Yield signs might as well not exist. They mean the same as stop signs - nothing.
- Should you be a member of the traffic with the right of way, do not let anyone with a yield enter the traffic. After all, YOU have the right of way. They can wait all night…
- If you have a yield and are trying to merge with the flow of traffic because you were absolutely unable to "red rover" your way over into the oncoming line of cars, you should roll down your window and ask someone with the right of way to let you in. If they refuse (they will), swear angrily at them and cut them off anyway. Hey, at least you tried to be polite.
- Traffic lights are the most respected form of controlling traffic. Most drivers do stop at a red light, although not until the last minute of course.
- Before turning red, the green light flashes for 3 seconds, turns yellow for an instant, and then changes to red. That one second-yellow light means accelerate while you still can…
- Always check for oncoming cars when your light has just turned green. There are usually a few stragglers that need some extra time to clear out of the intersection.
- On the other hand, if you accelerated at the yellow light, you should check for those on the other side that are gunning to go even before their light turns green. Mexico is replete with overanxious drivers.
- As a pedestrian, cross whenever and wherever you can; if you wait for a crosswalk, you will get where you're going when hell freezes over.
- It's perfectly ok to cross major highways on foot at a snail's pace, especially if you are wearing dark clothes. It's even more fun than Frogger on your old Atari!
- If you are in your car and there are people jaywalking, toot your horn numerous times, swear up a storm, and swerve around them at the last minute.
- The speed limit is almost never posted.
- The speed limit is strictly enforced when, and only when, traffic cops (Transitos) feel the need to supplement their income.
- Any speed is acceptable as long as you can get away with it. If you didn't get away with it, pull out your wallet, smile sweetly, and say, "There must be some way we could take care of this, Officer?"
- One-way streets are not strictly one-way. If it is easier to get where you are going by using the one-way street, by all means go ahead; traffic laws aren't meant to inconvenience anyone. Just cede the right of way to cars going in the correct direction.
- One-way streets are not often labeled as such. So how do you know if a street is one-way? The direction of parked cars may or may not help. Therefore, just watch for cars honking wildly at you.
- Some streets may suddenly change from two-way to one-way without more warning than a feeble little sign indicating you should turn off onto another street.
- The law of the jungle applies to parking in Mexico. Parallel parking skills are a must. If you do not know how, practice before driving in Mexico or you may be forced to drive around for all eternity looking for a place to park your car.
- Handicapped parking signs are for decoration only.
- Sidewalks are great places to park.
- Double parking is no problem. The others can wait. You are probably busier and more important than they are anyway.
- You may pass on the left or right. It is not necessary to use a directional to alert other drivers of your intentions. They should be looking where you are going.
- Weaving in and out of traffic is allowed only if you are the owner of a bright red Corvette. Do not attempt such maneuvers in any other make or model.
- It is fun to pass a line of traffic, cut in front of the first car, and then go excessively slow. It makes traffic back up for miles!!!
- If you are in the high speed lane and want to pass the geezer in front of you doing 30mph, flash your lights at him. If he still doesn't clear out, try the horn. As a last resort, pass him on the right and shake your fist at him as you drive by.
Changing lanes (see also passing)
- What lanes? When there are no lines painted on the street, make your own space!
- Four lane highways are actually wide enough for five cars.
- Yes, every car has a blind spot, but a quick glance in the trusty rearview or side mirror is enough to justify a lane change at 70mph. Don't bother to look over your shoulder. You could pull a muscle.
- Seatbelt laws have finally made it to Mexico. However, seatbelts are worn more to avoid tickets than to provide protection. Back seat passengers do not wear seatbelts. Ever.
- If you are re-entering Mexico from the United States, make sure your seatbelt is fastened on the American side. As soon as you reach the "Welcome to Mexico" sign, rip off your belt. You are freeeeeeeeeeeee again!
- Obscene numbers of people can pile into compact cars. There may be more people than seatbelts, but it's not like you were going to use them anyway! Just duck if you see a "Transito"!
- It is common practice to cradle a small child in your arms if you are sitting in the passenger's seat. After all, accidents never happen to you, and your loving grip is tighter than a seatbelt anyway…
"La Mordida" (Bribes)
- Corruption runs deep. You can buy your way out of ANYTHING in Mexico.
- But then read this Forum Thread about the changing attitudes and ways of dealing with this
Driving in the Rain
- Due to the fact that Mexico skimps on road materials, driving in rainy conditions can be treacherous. In fact, even dry roads often present miserable conditions.
- Leave 100 car lengths in front of you when it is rainy. You can brake easier on ice than on wet Mexican roads.
- If you liked Slip 'n' Slide as a kid, you might enjoy driving in the rain.
- Maybe you can't afford a boat ride down the Amazon, but you can go for a free simulation in Mexico when it rains. Don't be surprised if even major city avenues are flooded as high as car windows.
Getting to know your horn: six uses
1) "Get the HELL out of my way!"
This is useful on a daily basis. There is always someone in your way in Mexico. Just give a long, forceful beep until the car in front lets you by. If he refuses to move, you can complement the blaring horn with your high beams, simultaneously flooding the enemy car with blazing light and grating sound. The jerk is sure to surrender.
2) "Watch out! I'm passing you, and you'd better not cut me off, buddy!"
Due to the fact that no Mexican driver can be trusted to be responsible, horns are often used to warn slower cars in other lanes that you will be passing them. Given the refusal to acknowledge blind spots and a general apathy to checking for other cars before changing lanes, tooting your horn as a warning of your whereabouts makes sense. It could save your life. So go ahead! Lean on that horn!
3) "Oh my God, we're gonna crash!"
This one's universal: when in danger, lay on it! Mexican reflexes are remarkably fast, so you may be able to save yourself from disaster after all.
4) "You aren't bothering me, but you're an idiot anyway!
The moron on the other side of the road may not be in your way, and he might not be putting your life in danger, but he sure is driving like an idiot. Beep at him! Let him know how you feel! If you don't beep at him, someone else will.
5) "You are hot stuff!"
For men: horns are a wonderful way to show the sexy woman in the car next to you that you think she is HOT. Let her know; she will surely be flattered. Maybe she will even stop so she can meet you.
6) "Hey! I know you!"
Toot toot, a friendly salute! This one's not that rare, but the light "beep beep" tends to get drowned out by longer, louder, more forceful "BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEPS."
NOTE: This manual was going to include some offensive language commonly used by Mexicans while driving, but at second thought, I thought it was just too offensive. I don't want anyone actually using the words to involuntarily find himself the target of a street brawl…Besides, you'll pick it up fast enough on your own just being here!