When moving to Mexico, many people think learning Spanish is the biggest challenge. But, from one new Mexican resident to the other, Spanish is the easy part. The most daunting, stressful change was getting behind the wheel and pulling onto the streets. This is mostly due to the stark difference between how I was taught to drive for the first 30 years of my life and what it takes to drive successfully in Mexico.
For example, learning to drive in the U.S. meant driving between clearly painted yellow or white lines, checking the stoplights clearly placed in front of you, following the street signs, and merging slowly with metered on-ramps.
Pulling out onto Mexican roads takes a different sense of awareness, more like being able to navigate MarioKart. For instance, this morning I watched a large truck attempt a turn onto a small dirt road from a main road. At the same time, the light changed and the cross traffic began moving, with one car attempting a turn into the lane of the truck. Another car was behind the truck, following it onto the dirt road. A fourth car was behind the truck, caught in the intersection as it could no longer pass because the truck was making a tight turn. There was only one clear lane as the other was a bus lane with bumpers and the cars could not enter. A fifth car appeared trying to also turn. What looked like a disaster waiting to happen from my perspective was solved relatively quickly with cooperation from all five drivers. Each moved this way and that, reversed just so, and made room for the truck to complete the turn, followed by its partner car. Next, the car in the intersection moved forward and the two cars trying to turn, made the turn cleanly and went on their way.
For the Americans wanting to learn the needed skills to solve any road crisis and to drive south of the border in any major Mexican city, here are my top ten rules of the road:
- Lane Lines. Not all roads will have straight, nicely painted lines to show you where to drive. And, even when they do, the lines might shift mid-road or even have several lines painted over each other, which makes for confusion in knowing which to follow if you are trying to “stay between the lines”. What helped me was learning to estimate my own distances between vehicles. At the beginning, this mostly meant staying behind another vehicle, watching where they passed and realizing I could also fit in that space, and then eventually, it clicked. Now I can make my own lane when needed on an empty road or fit between two semi trucks when four lanes merge down to two.
- Traffic Lights. Unlike the U.S. there is usually only one traffic light to point you in the correct direction. These are not always obvious, especially when more than four streets intersect. Some lights may be on an angle while the other looks at you directly. The one that faces you is normally the only light you should pay attention to; however, this is not a hard and fast rule. If possible, try to slow enough to allow another car to get to the light before you, and then follow them as they move. If you happen to be the first person to get to the light, once it changes and you don’t move, those drivers behind you will be quick to help you out (with a sharp beep of the horn, or two).
- Turning Lights and Lanes. A left-turn only lane is not usually marked. To avoid getting trapped behind a long lane of turning cars, avoid the left-hand lane. If you happen to move into the left lane and the cars are stopped, OR, even worse, you are the first car stopped at a light with a line of cars behind you waiting to turn, you will have a few options. If you are the one trapped behind the cars, the simple solution is just to wait it out and when you get to the intersection, cross straight as normal. If, however, you happen to be in the unfortunate situation of being stopped at a light with a left turn arrow and a long line of honking, angry drivers behind you, honestly the best answer is probably to just make a U-turn at the light, circle back around to get back to your original direction, and then pass the light on the right lane.
- Speed Bumps. You will find speed bumps on almost every road in Mexico. Since most police do not pull you over for speeding, this is the Mexican way of forcing people to slow down and go the speed limit. Unfortunately, they are not always marked with a sign or painted. The best way to avoid a harsh bump with the car is to again note the drivers in front of you. If you see their brake lights, begin to slow; when you watch them go up and over a bump, pass slowly and continue. You will generally find speed bumps everywhere except the highways, so pay attention!
- Potholes. Just as you watch drivers ahead for indications of a speed bump, they are also helpful indicators of the fearsome pothole. While many roads are being upgraded to hydraulic concrete, the old blacktop streets are often filled with potholes. Of course, keep your eye out for them, too! But before you learn what to look for, a quickly swerving driver is not an indication of drunk driving in Mexico; on the contrary, the quick swerve is made from an attentive, offensive driver avoiding a deep hole in the road. Follow their lead to avoid holes, but to also not swerve unnecessarily into other traffic. Once you have mastered this move, you will feel like a bonafide Mexican driver.
- Motorbikes. Whether they are UberEats drivers or students headed to university classes, motorbike drivers are widely known for making up their own rules. They may cross a street through a median. They might create their own turn lane. They might cross a red light. But…more than anything…they will creep between two cars on the middle of both lanes to pass the drivers. Do not fear, this usually happens at a safe, slow speed, most times at the traffic lights or if there is a traffic jam. The motorbikes will move between the cars like a video game player, finding the right path to the front. Ignore them, but be aware and avoid sudden lane movements when at a traffic light or in a jam. Always check your mirrors and blind spots.
- Speed Limits. When I first started driving in Mexico, I felt like I never saw speed limits. They exist, but they are not always posted. Learning the estimated speed limits helps. On most city streets, the speed limit is 40 kilometers per hour. Once you get outside the city on beltlines, you can expect a limit of 70–90 km/h. Highways range from 110–120 km/h. You really do need to learn metric when living in Mexico, but that is another topic altogether. For right now, focus on these speeds. Remember, your speedometer has both systems marked if you need to feel secure that driving at 140 km/h is really about 85 mph. Just like in the US, most drivers stay around 10–20 kilometers over the speed limit. So in general, I drive 60 in the city, 100 on the beltlines, and 140 on the highways. Be aware that there are cameras on some beltlines or highways to catch speeders, but there are usually signs that they are present. Again, if you notice drivers slowing randomly in the middle of the highway, it is most likely because they know a camera is approaching. If in doubt, follow suit, and mimic the other drivers. It’s like one big game of “follow the leader” until you learn.
- Street Signs. Or lack thereof. GPS can sometimes be helpful in Mexico, but the street signs are never clearly posted. Learn that some GPS routes will be called one name, but the actual street sign may say another, and the locals will call the road by a different name. As quickly as possible, learn the main streets and landmarks. Mexicans are known for giving directions based on areas, neighborhoods, and important buildings. The street sign might disappear, but the mall most likely won’t. Reprogram your usual attention to street signs to turn to the Barcel paint store or the orange Ferreteria on the left corner. By knowing the streets and not relying on signs, you are halfway to feeling comfortable out on the Mexican roads.
- Half Lanes. If you venture out on the Mexican highways, there is a rule called the “half lane”. To us Americans, this half lane appears to be the shoulder of the road, which should only be used when pulling over to stop. For Mexican drivers, the half lane is used for slow moving traffic. You will drive mostly in the half lane and somewhat in the main lane on the highway. In this way, faster vehicles have room to pass you and keep traffic moving. Do not drive in the main lane unless passing. When passing, pay attention to traffic on the other side of the road. Since you pass using the main lane and part of the other side of the road (for oncoming traffic) you have to pass when there is also space on the other side of the road. When I was driving in the main lane, I did not pay attention, at first, to the oncoming traffic. However, when they are getting ready to pass, they will enter your lane, so you need to move into the half lane. Learning to use the half lane on the highway will help you feel at ease at high speeds.
- Buses. Above all else, BUSES have the right of way. When it comes to turning on red, stopping in the middle of the road, taking up a lane to drop off or pick up riders, choosing their lane to be the middle of the street — no matter what, defer to the bus. The bus will take you out. Let them go. Bus drivers are legit aggressive, so no matter what other rules you forget, always remember: Buses go first.
There you have it. The 10 most essential driving rules to survive your stay in Mexico. After two years living and driving in Mexico, I guarantee you, driving as if you are playing a video game will help you and others stay safe. Mexican drivers are not distracted drivers. They are attentive to the roads, vehicles around them, and will avoid accidents that Americans would make by simply being on their phone. Once you learn to game their system, you also will feel like you have leveled up in your own driving skills. Welcome to the fun!