of the Road in Oaxaca
one example of an oxymoron. You guessed it. But just when
you think youre comfortable driving in this city, apparently
without hardfast or enforced regulations, there you are, transito
(a traffic cop) waving you over, giving you a ticket, removing
your license plate or towing your vehicle. Watching and learning
what other drivers do does not provide any comfort or assurance
that you wont end up paying a fine, perhaps with your
car having vanished, or being honked at by other motorists.
All I can do is offer some understanding and explanation,
and the rest is up to you.
Lets start with the premise that this particular local
government employee isnt paid all that well, and therefore
has limited resources, in the multiple sense of
the word. Ive been told he earns about 6,000 pesos per
month, and also that he earns about 2,000 pesos per month
and relies on making the balance of his wages on the
street. Keep this is mind, or search for your own statistics.
One thing for sure is that he probably earns less than the
average Oaxacan (about 65,000 pesos annually according to
most recent statistics)
not like the law enforcement
officers we know who retire in their fifties with good pensions
to then start a second career in the security field.
Im convinced that no one knows the traffic laws and
that whatever is being enforced is done so haphazardly or
on a whim. The point is that even when you think youre
doing the right thing or know the law, you may still be pulled
over, fined or bear the wrath of irate motorists. What follows
is a smattering of assistance for would-be Oaxacan drivers,
constituting acceptable driving practices, not necessarily
nor what will keep you out of trouble. But over
the past fifteen years Ive only been pulled over three
once for a u-turn in a major intersection, another
time for driving without plates, and recently for simply not
knowing what to do in the middle of a weird-looking intersection
with even stranger traffic signals (to date not a single fine).
Keep in mind that frequently lanes arent clearly or
at all marked, and lights arent always working, at least
for one direction of traffic. When you see two or more transito
directing in an intersection, do not assume that theyre
working in unison. I recently saw one officer clipping his
fingernails while apparently directing traffic. If its
sunny and hot, a lone officer might seem invisible, and your
only indication hes around will be the sound of his
hell be out of the intersection,
watching and directing traffic from under the awning of the
building on the corner, in the shade.
WHO HAS THE RIGHT OF WAY?
Many intersections dont have yield or stop signs, or
lights. Most up and down big streets have the right of way,
as do most major cross streets, but its a matter of
learning over time which street is which, what constitutes
a big or major one, and even once youve done so, being
cautious upon entering every intersection because you dont
know if the other guy knows. At traffic lights, green has
the right of way, but not immediately. Youre probably
accustomed to driving in a jurisdiction where theres
a delay of a second or two between the other driver getting
the red, and you getting the green. No so in Oaxaca. Before
proceeding, edge out carefully to see how many drivers will
be speeding through the red. They say that semáforos
(traffic lights) are suggestive only, so at times there will
be drivers stopping and then proceeding through a red. Though
illegal, this is not an uncommon or unaccepted practice
just happens, and I bet those going through reds in this context
get into less accidents than drivers proceeding immediately
upon seeing a green, or those going through unmarked intersections.
Youre not supposed to turn right on a red after stopping
if its safe to do so, unless theres a sign with
an arrow. Breach this one and youll be honked at more
than for going straight through a red! Sometimes right lanes
are reserved for right turns only, so watch for them, or understand
why the guy behind you is honking when you obey the red light
probably a green arrow somewhere telling you to turn right.
The car on your left might also want to turn right. Regarding
left turns, the same holds true. But more often there will
be two or three lanes of traffic wanting to turn left, including
but before making your left turn, ensure the driver
to your left also plans to turn left, and not go straight.
Buses seem to be allowed to turn whichever way they want from
whichever lane theyre in, and because theyre bigger
than you, be careful, if you can see them through their exhaust.
Unless you plan to turn, the safest place to be and to avoid
angry motorists is the middle lanes. On occasion you might
even happen upon a far right lane reserved for left hand turns!
But wait. Beginning in May, 2006, road improvements
on the main east-west thoroughfare in the city, Niños
Héroes de Chapúltepec, started to reach completion.
Instead of there being the usual left hand turn lanes, we
now have, a block before an intersection, traffic signals
directing you to veer to the far left hand side of the roadway,
cutting across oncoming traffic lanes. Then, when you reach
the intersection where you want to turn left, there are additional
traffic lights. Its hard to explain the concept, the
chaos and the danger to both drivers and pedestrians. Think
of it as driving along a North American roadway, and then
all of a sudden you have to become a British driver, but just
for a block and a turn. The government placed officers at
these new intersections to familiarize drivers with these
new lanes, which is admirable
but these instructors of
insanity are now gone, after the powers who be decided that
Oaxacans are now familiar with the grid pattern, so what happens
to non-Oaxacan drivers, such as tourists. Will Hertz now double
its insurance premiums?
Youll learn to double park, even though you loathe those
who do so and create the traffic backlogs. Sometimes tranisto
blows his whistle, sometimes he starts giving you a ticket,
or removing your plate, and sometimes he does nothing. Pick
your spots, keep a passenger in your car who knows where to
find you, and be quick. The vehicle youre blocking will
on balance be patient, since the driver was probably double
parking an hour earlier. When parking close to a corner, the
key is to do so on a street where cars can only turn in the
other direction so theres no chance of you getting clipped.
Youre not supposed to do it, but most often its
overlooked. However, if youre close to the corner of
a street onto which bus traffic turns, watch out because the
bus wont be able to make the turn, and transito will
do whatever he can to remove your vehicle. Dont worry
much about barely making it into a parking spot, because Oaxacans
seem to have a knack for getting out of small spaces. Watch
for driveways since sometimes theyre pretty hard to
see. In parking lots, take note of early closing hours.
I dont know the city speed limits, nor do the vast majority
of Oaxacans. Topes (speed bumps) will dictate your speed,
as will the driver behind you. Regarding the former, sometimes
theyre marked and sometimes theyre not. Notice
the number of repair shops for tires and springs, and signs
for alignment and balancing. Attack the topes slowly, and
if possible on an angle. Highways often have speed limits
marked, but gauge your speed as you would in the city. While
the toll-road warns of radar in operation, the only place
Ive ever seen it is on the road from Acapulco to Mexico
City. However, you can be pulled over without radar, the fine
is very stiff, youd better have cash on hand, and recall
that theres no presumption of innocence.
In Oaxaca to get a drivers license there is no road
test or eye exam. You either take a written test or pay someone
a bit of money, a very common practice.
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