Do they really exist?
Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.
Give one example of an oxymoron. You guessed it. But just when you think you’re 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 won’t 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.
Let’s start with the premise that this particular local government employee isn’t paid all that well, and therefore has limited “resources,” in the multiple sense of the word. I’ve 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.
I’m 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 you’re 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 the law…nor what will keep you out of trouble. But over the past fifteen years I’ve only been pulled over three times…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 aren’t clearly or at all marked, and lights aren’t always working, at least for one direction of traffic. When you see two or more transito directing in an intersection, do not assume that they’re working in unison. I recently saw one officer clipping his fingernails while apparently directing traffic. If it’s sunny and hot, a lone officer might seem invisible, and your only indication he’s around will be the sound of his whistle blowing…he’ll 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 don’t 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 it’s a matter of learning over time which street is which, what constitutes a big or major one, and even once you’ve done so, being cautious upon entering every intersection because you don’t know if the other guy knows. At traffic lights, green has the right of way, but not immediately. You’re probably accustomed to driving in a jurisdiction where there’s 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…it 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.
You’re not supposed to turn right on a red after stopping if it’s safe to do so, unless there’s a sign with an arrow. Breach this one and you’ll 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…there’s 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 you…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 they’re in, and because they’re 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. It’s 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?
You’ll 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 you’re 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 there’s no chance of you getting clipped. You’re not supposed to do it, but most often it’s overlooked. However, if you’re close to the corner of a street onto which bus traffic turns, watch out because the bus won’t be able to make the turn, and transito will do whatever he can to remove your vehicle. Don’t 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 they’re pretty hard to see. In parking lots, take note of early closing hours.
I don’t 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 they’re marked and sometimes they’re 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 I’ve 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, you’d better have cash on hand, and recall that there’s 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.
Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978. After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, thereafter embarking upon a career as a litigator until 2004. Alvin now resides in Oaxaca, where he writes, leads small group tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sites, is a consultant to film production companies, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) .