Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Insights on Mexico's road language

Invariably, within the first kilometer of driving visitors picked up at the Mexico City airport, I hear a perplexed "how can you drive here?," or an intimidated "I'd never try to drive here."  I reply asking him/her to listen.  “Notice how quiet it is -- how little honking  -- even in massive traffic jams.  Notice the lack of road rage.”   If we get past the differences in driving style we’ll realize how courteous Mexican drivers are.

I like to compare driving in Mexico to downhill skiing.  In both cases we focus on what's ahead, knowing that the skier behind us is focused on what is ahead of him/her.  We don't wear rearview mirrors while skiing, yet from time to time we do glance behind.  Understanding this we feel less pressure to be aware of everything going on around us and have improved concentration on our field of vision.  Just as it works on the ski slope, it works in driving – that is if everyone uses the same technique.  

Mexican pedestrians are at a disadvantage but I've found that if eye contact is made with a driver, followed by a slight hand signal requesting passage, nine times out of ten the driver will bring his/her vehicle to a complete stop allowing the pedestrian to cross.   I also suggest visitors disregard what they learned in kindergarten; instead of crossing at corners where traffic comes from four directions, it is often easier to cross in the middle of the block where there are only two directions of traffic.  Northern North Americans see this as both dangerous and illegal.  Nonetheless, it reflects Mexico’s libertarian philosophy and is a practical safety tip requiring that the pedestrian take personal responsibility for his/her safety and that the driver avoid hitting a pedestrian or other car and incurring likely liability.   

Drivers are restricted to three means of communication with other drivers and pedestrians:  horn, lights, and hand signals.  All are used frequently and in most cases courteously.  A short tap on the horn is a friendly message.  It can mean "thank you" or be a way to get the other driver’s attention to then be followed by hand signals making some request such as "I'm not trying to merge, I just want to cut across," by indicating the direction in which one wants to go holding ones palm with fingers extended and angling it up in the intended direction of travel.  Indeed most hand signs used by drivers are with palm and fingers extended in variations of an imperial wave.   In that position it isn't an offensive hand signal.  Universally offensive hand signals involve fingers, fists, and jabbing motions.   

Flashing one's headlights is usually a signal to the other driver or pedestrian to go ahead and do what she/he is intending to do -- make a left turn, cross the street, merge, yield to the oncoming vehicle.

In our English-speaking world hand signs, other than waving, seem to be restricted to offensive signals -- though we get glimpses of very complex hand signal language used by stockbrokers, baseball players, and bidders at auctions.  Mexico has many more hand signs that can be understood by the general population.  Some are much more offensive and aggressive than the few available in English-speaking circles, but Mexico has many more which are courteous, used on a daily basis, and easily understood.  This leads to a great deal of inaudible communication that may be missed by visitors. 

Mexican's have a treasure trove of sayings; all one needs to say is the first line because everyone knows what follows.  There are also communication sounds everyone identifies -- the whistle of the sweet potato man, the bell of the trash truck.   But don't ever, ever knock with a rhythmic five taps on someone's door, as is common in our neighboring countries to the north and south.  Mexican's will take great offense.  If the rhythmic sound is honked on a horn road rage will certainly result.  But tap-tap, tap-tap on the back of a vehicle is recognized all over Mexico as the way to alert the driver that he/she can keep backing up.  It is much more effective than screaming or waving, as is done in most every other country I have visited.  Screams generally can't be understood and waves can't be seen. Tapping lets the driver know he/she can continue backing up and that the person tapping is paying attention. 

Another custom of the Mexican road can provide an adrenaline rush when nighttime driving windy two-lane roads.  If you want to pass a slow moving truck, pull out into the oncoming traffic lane and turn off your headlights.  The truck driver will do likewise.  In that darkness you can see more than when both vehicles had headlights on, and you're able to see any oncoming headlights. Marvelous.

Roads and streets are one of the few, perhaps only, places we can be any time of the day or night without needing to own the place or pay to be there.  Interestingly it is on the roads, where we can easily experience and experiment with the libertarian nature of life in Mexico.  

Libertarianism is not just a facet of driving; it permeates the fabric of Mexican life.  Mexicans expect to be vigilant and know they are almost always responsible for any ill that befalls them.  I’d be most interested in hearing from readers about their personal experiences with libertarianism in Mexico and how they feel about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment