While driving in Mexico is very much like driving in the USA, there are some different rules & customs. Knowing these could save you from an accident.
On freeways and toll roads, driving is very similar to driving in the USA. You signal to pass and pull over to the ample shoulders in case of emergency. Speed limits are posted in kilometers per hour. Some police in Mexico, similar to those at home highway patrol (Policia Federal de Caminos) have radar and enforce the posted speeds.
In cities and on two-lane roads, the old Mexican rules of the road often still apply.
Driving in Mexico: Left turns
In towns and cities, you cannot turn left on a green light. Most of the time, you must wait for a green arrow. The caveat “most of the time” is important. Look at the traffic light. If there are four lights on it, one of them is a left turn arrow. If there are only three, then there is no left turn arrow. One of the few tickets I got in Mexico was for not knowing this rule. I always look for those arrows today.
On the open road, you generally should not turn left onto a crossroad. Look for a pullout on the right side of the highway. This is an often unmarked semicircle exit across from crossroads that allows you to pull over to the right, turn ninety degrees until you are able to drive straight across the highway you were on. It is very logical. Instead of a car coming to a stop on a busy highway waiting to make a left turn, it pulls out of the flow of traffic and safely turn when the coast is clear.
Driving in Mexico: Rocky Road
Even though drivers are sternly reminded not to leave their rocks on the road (No deje las piedras en el camino or pavimiento), not all comply. It’s a matter of politeness. Before cars had flashers and highway shoulders were uncommon, people who broke down parked on the highway and very considerately placed a line of rocks on the road behind them to warn oncoming traffic to avoid them. Unfortunately, in the jubilation that ensued when they fired up, many forgot pick up those early warning signs. Thus, you never knew when you might run over rocks on an empty highway. While this is much less common that it was twenty years ago, it is a good reminder to pay attention to your driving and watch for rocks. (I won’t even go into the idiocy of signs warning you to watch for falling rocks. Like what are you going to do if you see one? Perhaps those signs should say, “Watch for fallen rocks.”).
The most important road rules.
Always, and I mean always, check your side-view mirror before pulling out to pass. I have been amazed at drivers who sneaked up on me to pass. Below is one graphic lesson.
Left turn signals & side-view mirrors.
Politeness takes strange forms. Have you ever been driving down a two-lane highway when a semi-truck in front of you puts on his left turn signal? You see no possible side road for him to turn onto, so you drive on, baffled. Be baffled no more, my friend. The driver is politely telling you that it is okay to pass him. Since he can see farther ahead than you, he’s helping you out. Should you take his advice? This is a tough one. Most of the time, I answer with a qualified “Yes.” Don’t abandon common sense, but on a curvy mountain road, pass with care.
Now, here is an even more dangerous situation. If you are driving down a highway and, being the polite gringo you are, you put on your left turn signal before passing the vehicle in front of you, think of the contradiction in cultures. You are in Mexico and in Mexican driving tradition, you have just informed the driver behind you that all is clear ahead and have very graciously advised him to pass you. Oops!
I was a technical consultant for MTV when they filmed in Mexico (Cancun). The rule above was the one I vainly tried to hammer into their drivers’ heads. A “real world” experience drove the point home. The driver I was with was on a barren road when he came upon a slow-moving truck. He put on his left turn signal and pulled over to pass. A driver behind him had materialized from nowhere and had taken his invitation to pass seriously. Because the other driver was aware (and there was a shoulder), he veered to the left, all we lost was a side-view mirror. We could have lost our lives. From then on all our drivers checked their rear views before pulling out and left turn signals were never seen again.
These are the most important idiosyncrasies of driving in Mexico. Learn these and you will have a safe trip. Most importantly, leave your aggressive driving habits at home. As one U.S. bus driver told me after a week in Mexico, “I was amazed at how courteous Mexican drivers are. They look out for each other. Of course, you see some SOB’s, but fewer than back home. In general, Mexicans combine defensive and aggressive driving in a way that is not offensive.”
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