Tips for Driving Safely, Part 3: Navigating City Streets

TijuanaBefore I moved to Mexico I lived in Seattle for a number of years. I often talked to people from the Los Angeles, California, area who said that drivers in Seattle drove like "pansies." Last week I drove through LA and I noticed the difference: Los Angeles has a lot of Mexico's driving culture. Now I'm passing the holidays up in the greater-Seattle area where we are much more passive aggressive culturally, and people are more likely to wait and let someone pass, rather than to talk or otherwise communicate with their fellow motorists. Rolled up windows and smart phones keep people from having to talk to one another.

During the past two years in Mexico I've learned much about the driving culture. It's much more aggressive than my home-town's driving style. Where we Pacific North Westerners are "pansies" Mexican drivers have a lot of "huevos" when it comes to driving. This is for many reasons. The weather in Mexico and LA is much warmer and sunnier. Up in places like Seattle and Portland, it's often cold and rainy so people keep their windows rolled up.

When it's warm in Mexico almost everyone drives around the city with their windows rolled down. This is for many reasons. While plenty of cars in Mexico are equipped with air conditioning, people use an open window to communicate with other people around them so as to get to their destination quicker, and to ask questions for things such as directions and where to find things in the area. Many vendors and business advertisers count on people having their windows rolled down in Mexico, and they will wait for red lights to pawn their goods or services. Juggling clowns, puppeteers and fire breathers will perform and collect donations all within the span of one red light. Thus, it's more polite to drive with your window down. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Mexico City TrafficWhere you can use a smartphone to ask for directions, look up weather reports and where to find food or any other service in the US, you can still do that in Mexico: however it's less accurate and less widespread, as that sort of technology is outside of the budget of most working class Mexicans. I've noticed big improvements to internet services during my past two years in Mexico, but still many businesses south of the border don't have websites, because they don't have the budget for one. I've also noticed that navigation services such as Google Maps are often a bit behind on updating their algorithms for Mexico's roadways. You can still use it, but when it's for a city destination it's better to check with someone who knows the area. I've had a bad Google mapping experience that caused me to drive into a very dodgy neighborhood, on the wrong side of the city in Monterrey, and I ended up being 45 minutes late for an appointment and had to reschedule.

Driving Mexico CityMy recommendation for driving in an unfamiliar city would be to do so with the windows down. Remember to keep your wallet and cellphone outside of grabbing radius, as many street people are desperate. If you need help finding a service or a freeway or a specific business, it's often well worth your time to holler at someone who appears to be from the area. Mexico's culture is very warm and people love to help other people. Many Mexicans feel a responsibility to help out foreigners who seem to be lost. Tourism is, after all, a very big part of Mexico's economy.

Also remember that traffic rules are much looser, as are most other laws in Mexico. Try not to stand out, keep with the flow of traffic. During my two years in Mexico I was never pulled over by the police, but that doesn't mean you won't. You can learn more about the "mordida" on this website.