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Surviving a highway accident in Mexico

Allan Cogan

This was intended to be a straightforward article on driving to Nogales from Guadalajara and back, with information on tolls, distances, hotels, restaurants, etc. However, a young Chicano in a brand new truck changed all that on our return journey. Hence, the use of the word "accident" in the title of this piece. Our little escapade has been a salutory learning experience and perhaps I can pass on a few things we learned to people who might face similar difficulties some day.

I suppose when we Americans and Canadians set out on a long drive through Mexico, there’s always the fear in the back of our minds of what might happen if we have an accident. Added to the trauma of the accident itself, is the extra element of being in a foreign, and sometimes unpredictable country, and of not being fluent with the language.

Anyway, it happened to us on Highway 15 at 7.45 a.m. on September 23 heading south from Los Mochis towards Culiacán, on the west coast of Mexico. Hurricane Nora had passed close by the day before and the evidence was apparent in the muddy streets of Los Mochis and the flooded fields all around us. The evening before, when we checked into our usual stopping off place, Colinas Resort Motel, the building was in total darkness because of a power failure. So we drove into the town, where mud and water still lay about the streets. However, when we wakened the next morning, even though it was raining, there seemed no reason not to resume our journey. We had 500 miles to go and wanted an early start.

The other signs of the recent storm were the literally hundreds of pot holes in the surface of the toll road, some of them dangerously deep. They were enough to make us slow down and try to stay away from other traffic so we could negotiate the spaces between the holes more easily. Most other drivers were progressing in the same fashion. My wife was driving and there seemed to be no problem. I was doing a crossword puzzle. We had been away from our home in Mexico for almost seven weeks and this was the last day of our trip. Spirits were high. We couldn’t have been more relaxed.

About 100 kilometers south of Los Mochis the driver in front of us slowed down, because of another minefield of pot holes, and we slowed down, too. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a red truck appeared behind us, travelling fast, hitting our Dodge Caravan squarely in the rear. In those few seconds, a whole lot of things got abruptly changed.

No one was seriously hurt, although my wife had a bad cut on the back of her head which bled rather dramatically in the early stages. Both cars were badly damaged - ours much more than the truck that hit us. There was a lot of damage to the rear of our van. There was incredible turmoil inside the van.

Several things happened in the next few minutes as we all tried to get our heads around the brute fact of the accident and what we were supposed to do. My wife, Cecilia, who has a 30 year background in insurance, was concerned about two things: the cut on her head, which was bleeding freely, and calling an insurance adjustor from the list of adjustors which came with our insurance package. In addition, she was fighting a feeling that she was going to faint at any moment. It was then that a Mexican, who spoke English appeared, drove up and offered to take her for medical attention in Culiacán, which we didn’t realize was a good 100 kilometers down the road. His name was Rubén Arel. He was a resident of Los Mochis and he was going to pick up his wife at Culiacán airport. From the clínica Cecilia would be able to call the adjustor and tell him about the accident.

It seemed like a good idea at the time and Cecilia drove off with Rubén. In actuality, it wasn’t such a great thing to do. As a matter of fact, a policeman or a lawyer in a more uptight country than Mexico would call it "leaving the scene of an accident." However, we weren’t thinking straight and that’s what she did.

When Rubén got to the first toll booth he told them of the accident and things happened fast. In no time at all there were two officers from the Policia Federal de Caminos, two toll road officials, two tow trucks and an insurance adjustor on the scene. Photos were taken. People started writing reports.

There were two young men in the truck that hit us. The driver and owner, Rubén Rodriguez, 28 years old, was a resident of Arvin, California. He was on his way to Michoacán. He was the only one on the scene who spoke good English and Spanish. He had just paid $23,000 for his shiny new red Ford F125 truck. Unfortunately, he had committed the stupid error of bringing it to Mexico without spending a little more money to buy Mexican auto insurance.

In very short order both vehicles were towed about 12 kilometers to the police pound in the nearby town of Guamuchil (pop. 75,000). The rain continued to pour.

In that first hour or two there was much to do. The inside of our van was a horrible mess. The tow truck had hitched it up at the rear end and, on the ride into town, the tow truck’s back wheels sprayed water and mud through our broken back window, soaking and soiling everything. It wasn’t only our stuff: we were carrying a few bags and suitcases for friends who had just cleaned out a storage locker in San Diego. Also, a lot of things were smashed or damaged. Plastic bottles of gooey items like sun-screen were ripped open. Packages of foodstuffs we had bought in California were torn apart. The impact of the accident had mixed everything together perfectly. Bits of broken glass were sprinkled throughout. The nice new computer I had bought was covered in wet mud. It was one of those moments when you’d just as soon be dead.

In between clean up chores I checked at the police station next door to see what was happening. It was there that I learned one important thing I never knew before. I’ve since found out that a whole lot of people aren’t aware of it and - and it’s well worth knowing. When you have an accident on a toll road in Mexico, you automatically have accident insurance. You buy it when you pay your toll. That at least explained why a toll road insurance adjustor arrived on the scene so quickly, taking pictures and making notes.

As I understand it, most - but not all - toll roads in Mexico have this insurance benefit through Commercial Mexicana. So far I haven’t been able to find out which ones do and which ones don’t. I suppose you could always ask when you pay your toll. And there’s a catch. You only qualify if you have insurance of your own in the first place. The benefit is that the toll road insurance takes care of the initial problems, like medical treatment, towing, and repairs. Then the two insurance companies - the toll road’s and yours - settle everything at a later date. This was some comfort, at least in the early going, because we weren’t sure how everything was going to work out.

There’s one other very tangible benefit to all of this: namely, the toll road company pays the deductible on the repairs. As the deductible in our case is U.S. $500, or about 725 Canadian pesos, that’s a considerable benefit.

Ironically, it was Rubén Rodriguez, the man who ran into us, who told me about the insurance. As a matter of fact, he was the only person I met in the early going who spoke English. The other thing he told me was that he wasn’t covered. First because he was clearly the one who hit us. Second, because he didn’t have insurance of his own. Needless to say, he wasn’t a happy camper.

Rubén was also the one who was translating our side of the story for the police and the insurance adjustor. Naturally I was uncomfortable with that. A more neutral party would have been preferable. After all, Rubén at one point was trying to say that we were stopped on the highway and he couldn’t avoid us. However, the two cops and the adjustor obviously weren’t buying it. After all we were travelling on a wide two-lane highway. And why on earth would we stop in the middle of a major highway? Rubén, in fact, got a pretty stern talking to from the police chief and the adjustor. One didn’t have to be a linguist to understand what they were saying. They were sympathetic to his personal plight, but he was on his own.

One of the problems in those first hours was that my wife had disappeared with all of the papers pertaining to our car. In her desire to call an insurance adjustor she had taken everything - permits, policies, licences, passports, visas. When we’re travelling we keep them all in the same plastic envelope and she had taken the whole package. This naturally presented a problem as policemen and insurance adjustors don’t do anything until they’ve filled out a raft of forms and inspected a lot of documents. Also, Cecilia was the driver. They wanted to talk to her and not to me. It was clear there would be no progress until Cecilia showed up - and no one knew where she was. Also, Rubén was a very worried man because if Cecilia had serious injuries it was going to add another bunch of complications to his life.

Sometime in the middle of that rather confused morning Cecilia finally phoned. I have no idea how she got the number. However, as everyone seemed to be equipped with mobile phones I imagine the link was made from the clínica where she was being treated. She had a few stitches in her head but she was okay. I told her where we were and she arrived a couple of hours later, driven by Rubén, the man who had taken her to Culiacán, and his wife, Patricia.

All the police and insurance procedures began at that point and Rubén and Patricia hung around long enough to make sure that there would be no problem for us. In all, Rubén devoted quite a few hours that day to Cecilia’s well being when he clearly didn’t have to. To us, it was yet another example of the kindness of Mexicans that we all run into from time to time. He even left us his address and phone number in Los Mochis, just in case we needed further help. One wonders how many American or Canadian drivers would offer that kind of assistance to a couple of Mexican drivers who had had an auto accident on the other side of the border.

Once the forms were filled out we were all free to go. We hired a local man to load up his truck with our belongings. We had 21 boxes and bags and suitcases, most of them wet and muddy and we went to the Motel York on the edge of town. Yes, that’s right - the Motel York, in Guamuchil. Everyone said it was the place to go and they were right. It’s at least a four-star establishment. There, despite our bodily aches and pains (which, surprisingly, were to continue for three more weeks) we spent the next forty eight hours cleaning and drying the contents of our bags and suitcases and running up a sizeable laundry bill.

The next day we found our insurance adjustor, the man Cecilia had gone looking for in the first place. To our surprise, he lived a mere five minute drive from the Motel York. His name was Hector and, although he didn’t speak English, he soon returned with an English-speaking friend - possibly the only English-speaking person in that town. When Hector took over, the toll road adjustor bowed out of the picture. Our car had already been taken to a body shop and we had estimates. We weren’t comfortable with them; they seemed low to us but we persuaded ourselves that labor charges are much less than in the U.S. In any event we didn’t seem to have a lot of choice. We had to go along with Hector’s recommendations.

It still took three days and nights in Guamuchil to get the whole thing settled - all at our expense. The repairs were estimated to take two or three weeks, depending on the availability of parts. Then there was nothing else to do except hire Hector to take us and our belongings in his truck to Culiacán, about 110 kilometers down the road.

Incidentally, the free road was in infinitely better condition than the toll road. There were no topes, no pot holes, no villages, and no trucks along the whole length of it. The residents of Guamuchil think people are crazy to actually pay to drive on the toll road, which is in disgraceful shape. Frankly, I hold the toll road company responsible for our accident. I know we gringos go on about the great toll roads in Mexico but maybe the libres aren’t always as bad as we all think.

Our initial plan was to rent a van in Culiacán and load it up and drive home and then leave the van at Guadalajara airport. Little did we know that what sounds easy in the U.S. or Canada isn’t so simple in Mexico. Before we could rent a vehicle we had to go through a character check, which involved Hertz phoning our friends in the Ajijic/Chapala area to find out if we really were who we said we were. Once that was completed, we were informed that the cost of picking up a van in Culiacán and leaving it in Guadalajara would be U.S. $350. That’s because they would have to send a man from Culiacán to Guadalajara to drive it back. In Mexico they just don’t exchange vehicles between offices the way we do further north. If we agreed to that, then there was the car rental, the gas, the tolls, the mileage. The total bill was heading up towards the Cdn. $1,000 mark at which point we decided to leave our belongings in our hotel and take a bus.

Fortunately, the management of the Tres Ríos Hotel in Culiacán agreed to look after our considerable collection of luggage, including the computer, while we went back to Ajijic. Weeks later, when we hired a friend to take us back there to collect it, everything was safe and sound.

During the first few weeks we were told that the repair shop in Guamuchil was waiting for a door to be delivered from the U.S. Mexican doors don’t fit Canadian and U.S. vehicles. However, the only way we ever got any report was by repeatedly phoning Guamuchil. A major source of frustration for us was that no one at either insurance company ever called us back to give us a report in the first two months of the accident. The lack of communication was total and complete. Even when someone would promise to phone us on a certain day or at a specific hour, we were never called, ever . We felt trapped between two insurance companies. In fact, our local insurance agent got quite testy when we even mentioned the subject to him. He said it was the other company’s responsibility.

My wife has years of experience handling insurance claims. As far as she was concerned, one’s agent is the first person anyone calls to get answers or action. Our man just didn’t seem to see it that way.

Eventually, however, after eight weeks – surprise! - we did finally get a call from our insurance company’s supervisor of adjustors in Leon to say that the company was getting frustrated with lack of progress in Guamuchil and had decided to bring the car to Guadalajara and have it repaired there in a much more professional shop. However, again, it still took another two weeks of waiting and phoning to confirm that this had even been done. In fact, we were so mistrustful of everyone by this time that we went into Guadalajara to see the car for ourselves. That turned out to be a very depressing experience.

My wife had a good cry when she saw the car in Guadalajara. Not only was it absolutely stripped to the metal throughout the interior, but a lot of things were missing. We had been told to take everything we could when we left it. We didn’t imagine that included the back seat, the carpets, or all the mirrors, which were all gone. Also missing was a rack that held the towing bar, which had been welded under the rear of the van. Somebody had been determined. The insurance company’s reassuring response was that the car would be restored to the way it was before the accident. I think we can be excused for finding that hard to believe.

# # #

 

Well, it took another five weeks before we returned from a trip to Mexico City and found a message waiting for us – come and pick up the car.

That essentially is the end of the story. To our surprise, we were delighted with the repairs to the vehicle. Our back seat had even been found although we never did retrieve the rack for the tow bar. We decided not to make a fuss about that. The gas tank had been sucked dry. Somebody had obviously been around with strong lips and a long rubber tube.

More serious, however, was that our sideview mirrors were also missing. We refused to sign the insurance release until they were replaced. After all, who but a crazy person would drive in Guadalajara without mirrors? Ignacio, the very personable manager of the repair shop, phoned our insurance company and got their agreement to pay for the mirrors and Ignacio took us to buy some. That turned out to be an extremely interesting experience. He drove our car and we thought we were going to a Dodge dealer. Instead, we ended up on Calle Los Angeles in Guadalajara, a neighborhood crammed with hundreds of small auto parts shops. In fact, it’s the place where all stolen and used car parts end up.

If one day, you find that someone has removed your headlights and rear lights and antenna and hub caps and anything else detachable, you go and buy them back on Calle Los Angeles. A friend whose Chevy Blazer was very efficiently stripped of everything removable did exactly that. You can buy anything there for a car, including under-the-hood computers.

As a matter of fact, even while you’re there, waiting for service, you can lose parts of your car. While we were waiting we saw the club being lifted from a 1997 Grand Marquis whose owner had driven into a shop to have his stolen headlights replaced.

"What’s the point of taking a club and not having the key?" I asked.

"It’s no big problem," Ignacio said. "It will just slow him up for a little while, till he makes one."

On that street, you drive along slowly and there are lots of teenagers who eyeball every car that goes by and see what’s missing from it and then call you over to give you their price for replacing the item. We weren’t there a minute before we had four of these kids running around looking for mirrors for our Dodge Caravan. They could only find one and a deal was struck for 200 pesos, which Ignacio paid. Finding the second mirror took another hour and another 250 pesos. Then we were on our way, with our two "hot" mirrors installed.

So, after 15 long weeks, we have our vehicle back and I guess we’ve learned a thing or two from the whole experience. The most important thing is to keep a sense of perspective about it. It all could have been much, much worse. We were rather impressed with all the people we came in contact with.....the police, the adjustors and other individuals who helped us on the day of the accident. We may fear having an accident – and quite rightly so - but there are professional people out there to help you and the system works.

The insurance worked, too. Everything was paid for and the car was restored to its original condition. According to Ignacio, the total repair cost was around 15,000 pesos. In addition, the deductible was paid, as well as the cost of hauling the car from Guamuchil on a flat bed truck to Guadalajara – a long day’s journey. We were very angry at times with almost everyone we had to deal with because of lack of communication and lack of trust, but in the end we have to admit that our insurance did the right thing. Their decision to take the car away from the repair shop in Guamuchil was correct. The job was probably beyond that shop’s capabilities.

I think, oddly enough, that we’ll both be a little more confident about driving in Mexico in future. It’s as though we faced one of our worst fears and found it isn’t that bad. However, if we set out on a long journey, I believe we might take a look at the list of insurance adjustors in the various towns we expect to pass through each day, just so we can get in touch with them faster. In our panic, we were looking for an adjustor in Culiacán, 110 kilometers away, without realizing there was one in Guamuchil, 12 kilometers away.

Another thing I would advise is to take a few photographs of the exterior and interior of your car, just in case you have to prove someday that it did have this or that feature. We had a lot of worries and concerns about parts that we thought were missing. Some photos could save a lot of argument.

Also, I think we might ask at the various toll booths if there’s insurance on that particular road, although I don’t know what we’ll do if there isn’t.

Apart from that – burn a candle or two and pray that it never happens to you.

Published or Updated on: February 1, 1998 by Allan Cogan © 1998
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