Driving through Mexico’s scenic countryside is a dream which thousands of American tourists partake in every year. Thanks to the government’s massive infrastructure expenditure, Mexican roads are now safer than they’ve ever been. American drivers need to keep a watch on differences in local driving habits and conditions to avoid making mistakes. Driving in Mexico can be a lot of fun, but know the rules and the culture.
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.
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!
Markings and Lighting
Road signs are present on most major roads in Mexico. However, driving at night or through provincial towns can be trickier since many of them aren’t lighted. Signs are only in Spanish and use the metric system, so you need to understand these.
Driving in Mexico Compared to Driving in the US: Pedestrian Behavior
While Mexico has an excellent highway system, the presence of cyclists and pedestrians on free roads makes these more dangerous to drive in. Most cyclists and pedestrians don’t wear any reflective clothing.
RV Driving in Mexico
Thanks to Mexico’s interstate toll road system, crossing the country in an RV isn’t that much different than in America — although it’s costlier. There are plenty of RV parks on Mexico’s Pacific Coast and some on the Gulf Coast, and Yucatan.
Driving in the City
New Yorkers might feel at ease in Mexico City‘s noisy streets but should still focus on some key differences. In Mexico, one-way street markings tend to be 10-feet high and are only about 5 inches tall. The right-of-way is signaled using a green arrow so streets going in the direction of the red arrow must yield. Intersections are tricky because, although left turns have 4-light traffic signals and left-turn lanes like in America, right turns on red are common even though they’re illegal.
Driving in Mexico Compared to Driving in the US: The Difference in Highway Driving
The biggest cause of road accidents amongst American tourists is the narrow roadways that have almost no shoulder. Unlike American 4-lane roads with wide shoulders, in most Mexican roads (even toll roads) the pavement and the shoulder are separated by several inches, so if your right side wheels drop off the pavement, it will most likely send the vehicle rolling over.
Speed bumps are called topes in Mexico and they are huge and they are everywhere. You’ll often see yellow signs with two black bumps on them warning that a tope lies ahead. Although, in rural areas, some can be hand-written by the same residents of the area.
Military Checkpoints and Blockades
The Mexican military often sets checkpoints on major highways, outside major cities, and near the border. Some are static, although many are set randomly. They’re no more than a nuisance, but show how important it is that you carry your passport, visas, driving license, and proof of insurance with you at all times. Blockades are a different animal. Check this article for more information on Mexico Road Blockades.
The Difference in Rural Roads
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.. Rural roads represent a unique experience to see the countryside, both in Mexico and the US. However, unlike in America, few roads running through Mexican ranchos have fences fitted on either side that would restrict the movement of cows, sheep, horses, and other animals, so keep in mind that you’re likely to have a close encounter with the four-legged type when driving through them.
Driving in Mexico can seem daunting at first, but soon after you cross the border you’ll realize that the similarities between both countries are more numerous than the differences. Nevertheless, understanding the local driving practices and conditions can save you a lot of trouble down the road and ensure you only take good memories from your trip.
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.”