Monday, January 20, 2014

The Myth of the Mexican Driver

article from April 20, 2011
By Jamie Douglas

For years, there has been a myth, in the USA primarily, that Mexican drivers are the worst drivers of them all, a myth born in the 1940s and 50s, when few people in Mexico had cars, the trucks were held together with bailing wire and had barely, if any, brakes, and were always overloaded, belching black diesel exhaust while going uphill at 2 miles per hour.

Those days are long gone! In local rural traffic, you may still encounter some of those dinosaurs, but other than that, things have drastically changed, and I feel very qualified to elaborate on that subject.

Having driven well over 100,000 miles in Mexico since the late 1960s when the above conditions existed, until relatively recently, I am still amazed at the rapid changes that were made in the infrastructure and in the quality of the vehicles. Most long-distance trucks are as modern as their US counterparts because, for the most part, they are Freightliners, Volvos and other world class brands are well maintained.

Drivers of both passenger cars and trucks are well mannered and careful because, under Mexican law, in every accident, there is a culpability involved, and the party who is responsible, even in a single car accident, will be hauled off to jail and the vehicle impounded.

Of course, you occasionally hear of that horrific bus crash where many people died or were injured; but we hear the same on the news from the USA. With increasing frequency, there have been bus crashes with multiple fatalities, where it was found that the driver was intoxicated or fell asleep or that the cause was just simple mechanical failure. A recent crash in New York state serves as the most blatant example.

Without going into the details of the horrific crash that killed a half a busload of Chinese gamblers on their way home from an Indian Casino, what is truly frightening is that those casino junket buses, along with church buses, have accumulated a very scary statistic as being the most unsafe vehicles on the road. In the aftermath of that New York accident, the New York State Patrol set up safety checkpoints where all the buses were pulled over for driver and safety inspections – and the results were staggering.

Out of 61 buses checked, 60 failed, either mechanically or the driver’s logbook had been falsified or was just incomplete. Over half of those had to be towed away, while the rest were driven away by substitute drivers.

And considering the amount of bus miles driven in Mexico vs. the United States, I would venture to guess that travel by bus in Mexico is far safer than in the USA.

As for regular passenger cars, I rarely encountered the rudeness or incompetence as I did in two specific locales: Santa Fe, New Mexico, and South Florida. In Santa Fe, it seems that myopia is a prerequisite for getting a driver’s license. As you are approaching someone getting ready to pull out of a parking lot, they seem to always squint at you until they can see you, and then they pull out right in front of you, causing your passenger’s feet to go to the dashboard. Drunken driving is also a part of New Mexico’s cultural heritage, causing untold misery to victims and their families every year.

Then there is South Florida, where you have overcrowded expressways and recent immigrants from third-world countries who feel that the cell phone is an integral part of driving. These drivers drift all over the road, changing lanes without signaling because their hands are holding the phone, even if by some rare chance they know what that lever behind the steering wheel is for. Easy credit allowed them to buy large SUVs and pickup trucks, but being as this is really the first time that many of these recent immigrants are behind the wheel, it’s like setting a drunken soldier driving a tank down a suburban street. To experience what I am describing, I (don’t really) recommend an outing on the Palmetto Expressway on your next visit to Miami.

Mexican drivers by comparison are courteous, often giving you the right of way, and stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks. Mexico City’s taxicabs are the exception, and they seem to be exempt from all rules, as you will quickly discover if you are ever a passenger in one. They will do anything to get you to your destination in a hurry, including racing down one-way streets backwards, as happened to us.

We have also crisscrossed Mexico in our own vehicle as well as on buses, covering every single state in the country, and never experienced any outlandish problems, such as the lore of yesteryear claims. In fact, I feel safer driving in Mexico City than I do in Miami or Santa Fe, having become comfortable with the level of aggression that is expected of all drivers. The biggest problem is that I just can’t breathe as easy in the DF.

So in closing, I urge all of you to slow down and smell the diesel exhaust of the truck in front of you. I hear the particulate matter in that exhaust is really good for you, (if you are in the funeral industry).

Jamie Douglas
Patagonia, Argentina

[Image of Mexico City via Wikipedia]

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.