Rob’s Ramblings: Topes, Turn Signals and Other Oddities of Driving in Mexico

If you have driven in Mexico for any length of time, this article is not for you. You will say it’s just the “same-old”. For those here on a short trip or those planning a drive into Mexico, here are a few things that may seem rather strange to northern drivers.

The first thing you will notice are the topes (lane wide speed bumps). Sure, you will find these north of the border as well, though not as many as you will find in Mexico. They can be anywhere. They may or may not be at the entrance to a town, on an approach or leaving a bridge or curve in the road, probably in front of a school or government building, at a major intersection and they certainly will be located wherever you see someone standing in the middle of the road selling something or begging for spare coins. If the entrance to town posts a speed limit of say, 60 km per hour, keep your eyes on the pavement. Some of these topes, depending on what you are driving, will launch you no matter what speed you are going, even under 5 km/h. Some people think they need to bring school supplies into Mexico. Maybe a better idea would be a can of bright-colored paint and a brush. A sad outcome that could be attributed to topes is most Mexicans will only do the minimum maintenance on their vehicles. So, after a number of years of topes, their close sisters vibradores (individual speed bumps) and cobblestone streets, that car coming toward you might literally be on its last days for ball joints and other suspension items.

Up north, we are all familiar with the left turn signal procedures for making a left turn. In Mexico, a left turn signal means please pass me now. It doesn’t matter if you are on the crest of a hill, in the middle of the curve or on a double solid line; because his eyes are ahead of yours he thinks it is safe for you to pass him. Of course, he doesn’t know how fast you are driving or what your car is capable of, and it seems judging safe distances for this move are a lot different in Mexico than we are used to up north. For example, if you are the number 2 car in the line-up that is rapidly forming behind you, you will soon see in your mirror that the number 10 car is passing the line-up with a grand distance adequate for only passing one or two cars. This means that someone in your line-up is about to get cut off or forced off the road. Probably both. To really drive this point home, just think of this case we heard of last year where a driver decided to pass a row of cars, cutting in behind a motor home. It just so happened that the small car being forced off the road by this passing vehicle was under tow by the motor home! No matter what you are driving or what speed you are going, the length of the tow bar isn’t enough space to stuff a car into!

This problem may also be tied to the sometimes-heard-logic that you are not drinking and driving if you are only drinking beer. Imagine Sunday afternoon traffic after the boys have been at the beach all day. You can see where this is going. If I am in the number 2 or 3 spot, I try to use the rule-of-thumb of passing the slow truck as soon as possible to get away from this explosive scene.

Mexico has enjoyed a rapidly growing middle class over the past number of years, hence more vehicles and new drivers on the road. Just because the guy behind the wheel is in his mid-thirties doesn’t mean he has 15-20 years driving experience behind him. He may have just purchased his first vehicle and only been driving a short time. Driving a cool car? That just means the noted passing procedure can get even more exciting. Just remember at the end of the day, the biggest bus/truck/car, has the real right-of-way.

I keep hearing topes are required in Mexico as nobody obeys the posted speed limits. This really flies against the statement that police forces are run on a shoestring budget, yet the Transito (town) police force could bring in a mountain of pesos every day if they thought of enforcing the speed limits with a valid ticket, and it wasn’t simply called a mordida (bribe).

You will likely see some real gems on the roads that frankly a police officer up north would love to pull over. No windshields, or one so badly broken there is no chance of seeing out of it, are very common. Tires? That’s simple: do they hold air? Yup, good to go.

With the lack of passing lanes or pull-outs, truckers and slow moving vehicles don’t have a chance to get out of the way of other traffic. This just adds to the exciting passing procedures. Couple the topes entering a small town with trucks, and you find a perfect spot for the rest of the traffic to speed up to clear past the truck. Police cruisers here quite often drive around with the emergency bar or flashing lights in operation. Up north, that means pull over or the police cruiser is exceeding the posted speed limits, while in Mexico that simply means the lights work.

Riding in the back of a pickup truck is something most of us lived through while growing up. For some reason, Mexicans riding in the back of a pickup seem to have the need to sit on the tailgate or edge of the box, and never in the bed. Tie this with topes and passing procedures and one really has to wonder how often this leads to disaster. It’s rather interesting to pass a Cinturon Obligatorio (seat belts are mandatory) sign, while seeing a bunch of guys standing in the bed of the pickup, so the sign means nothing to the Transito police. I guess that sign was meant for someone else.

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4 Reviews on “Rob’s Ramblings: Topes, Turn Signals and Other Oddities of Driving in Mexico”

  1. :

    Hey Rob... The lead-in/link for your essay says: "If you have driven in Mexico for any length of time, this article is not for you." So I resisted reading it until just now. Sorry for the trespass, but I really enjoyed the read. I would like to add one point and expand on another. The Addition: Over the past years, people have written to me asking about renting a vehicle and driving in Mexico during their upcoming vacation. I have consistently advised against it. Not because it is so terribly dangerous, but because doing so is just about the only way a vacation to our area could become a nightmare. And it is expensive. And because hiring a driver and their vehicle is so inexpensive, for short jaunts and for day-long adventures. The Expansion: About turning left... If I am on a two lane highway and need to make a left turn onto an auxiliary road, if there is no oncoming traffic, signaling a left turn can be very dangerous. The following driver, seeing no oncoming traffic and not noticing the, perhaps obscure left turn you are intent on, might see your left turn signal and agree that this is a good chance to pass you. If you do not see that you are being passed, you can easily be broad-sided. Instead, (remember, I said no oncoming traffic) I move my vehicle into the oncoming lane, and then signal my intent to turn left. As I slow to make my turn, it becomes more obvious to the following driver, what I intend to do and they usually pass on my right as I prepare to turn off the highway. At any rate, they have no chance to broad-side me as I make my turn. For safety's sake, if I want to make that same left turn, but there is oncoming traffic, instead of slowing way down and risk being rear-ended (the bad kind) I continue to a place where I can pull off to the right, and when traffic allows, make a U turn and come back to my turn-off where I can more safely make a right turn off the highway. Thanks for a fun and informative post, Rob. May I presume to add one more thing? Driving at Night... There is plentiful and old, sage advice against doing this. Many old timers will have their own tales and reasons for backing up this caution. Chief among mine, are the occasional vehicles you can encounter, perhaps climbing grade at impossibly slow speeds, displaying not a single tail light or even headlight, to let you know they are there. There are many other reasons. Try to plan your trips so that you just do not do it. If you must, do so with extreme caution and an ultra clean windshield. Thanks again, Rob. Tom

  2. :

    Good article Rob, really enjoyed it! Linda

    1. :

      Linda... I clicked on your name and viewed your Quadra Island cottage. WOW... such a perfect little cottage. I just love it. And the photo of Bert (or Ernie?) gazing out the window... could have been real kitschy... but imho, is not. You must be very proud. Tom

  3. :

    Very enlightening...answers a lot of my curious observations of Mexican driving habits. I have always been intrigued and amused at observing the Mexican drivers. I for one as a Canadian will opt not to take my chances driving in Mexico...Love it as we do. 30 years of Mexican expriences...Hope I have 30 more. Julien

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