Friday, February 27, 2015

Traffic observations in the Dominican Republic

A rather light load, by Dominican standards
I am now about halfway through my trip in the Dominican Republic (actually, I have just added more text and pics after the finish of the race), and I have had ample opportunity over these past six days to observe the behavior of drivers (and other users of streets and roads) from the vantage point of the passenger seat. Let me tell you, it's interesting.
Compared to many of the moving wrecks, this car is virtually off-the-lot
Like any large Latin city, Santo Domingo has a traffic infrastructure perfectly suited to its needs—if this were 1950! But since this is 2015, and everybody now drives a car, the streets are hopelessly clogged. To get from my initial hotel to the offices at the cycling federation—maybe a distance of three miles, four tops—took an easy 45 minutes every time I was picked up or taken back. The arteries have traffic lights, and it is here that things really get messy: The lights are timed for very long cycles (up to 90 seconds), meaning that already slow traffic comes to a complete standstill. And restarting a traffic jam takes much more time than keeping traffic flowing, even if it is slow. (BTW, I know about the 90 seconds since many of the traffic lights have a second countdown timer so that the honking can start with about 15 seconds to go until "green.")
Safe passing on a two-lane highway
Regardless of whether an intersection is controlled by a traffic light or by stop signs (or no signage at all, which is mostly the case), the first rule is to enter the intersection and claim one's spot. Since some people go right, some go left, and most go straight, that means that there is this Gordian knot of immovable traffic right in the middle of the intersection, inching forward, never giving up one's position unless there is an obviously much bigger vehicle positioned to take it. To avoid such a scenario, the cars are packed tightly so that there is no angle of attack by the big fish. Oddly enough, this dos-a-dos is relatively honkage free.
Motorcycles, the pick-ups of the DR
In those areas where the traffic is more free-flowing, different yet similar rules apply:

1. If you have a red light, simply ignore it.
2. If you have a green light, most definitely slow down and proceed with a modicum of caution.
3. If there is a stop sign, ignore it as well and slow down only minimally; chances are good that the non-stop sign controlled driver will do the same, or so you hope.
4. All other rules regarding a clogged intersection apply—see above.

In other words: It's all a big, gooey mess. Thrown into the mix of cars, mini vans, and trucks of all sizes and states of disrepair is an inordinate number of small motorcycles that have just outgrown the cc standard of a moped. These motos weave in and out of tight and extra-tight spaces, claiming the extra square inches that the cars are hoping to utilize in their quest for advancing position. These guys really know how to handle their bikes! Oddly, their shenanigans practically never draw the sound of the klaxon. In the city that's reserved to alert others that a red light is still red but everybody needs to get ready, and to communicate general dissatisfaction with life, I presume. It's a wonderful system!
They all mingle well, cars and motos
So, that brings us to highway driving. My driver, Juan, and I covered a few hundred kilometers of dual-carriage (four lanes) toll roads as well as a private dual-lane toll road and lots of normal highways, both two-lane as well as four lanes. While the toll roads were more or less access controlled, the free roads were not. But that did not really matter much, since similar rules applied: On a four-lane, dual-carriage way, you drive in the left lane, regardless of how slow you are. As a matter of fact, the slower you are, the more imperative it is to drive as long as possible in the left lane, despite the many signs that admonish that the carril izquierda is for passing only. But if you think that the fast cars start passing on the right from the get-go, oh no, that'd be too easy: They start to tailgate whatever obstacle is in front of them and patiently wait for the move to the right, which, of course, never comes. But if you think that now the honking starts, you are mightily wrong. After a short while behind the offender one starts to initiate the right pass, after all. No need to use the blinker—obviously anybody behind you will expect this move and first start tailgating you.
Prime example of proper blind-turn passing etiquette
Of course, it can happen that whoever passes the slow vehicle is pretty slow too, so now things are clogged up (we're still talking about four lanes here). In this case it is necessary to judiciously create a third lane, between the two slow-pokes. To create such a lane requires a lot of honking, or not; in that case, keep your arms inside the vehicle and feel the enlightenment when you realize why there is no longer a right-side mirror.
There are a lot of rules—it's just that nobody really gives a damn!
On regular two-lane highways things are simpler because there is more honking involved, especially when one passes motos and bikes; cars that are being passed somehow know that you're approaching, and at the last moment they will scoot over far enough to the right (without hitting that moto, which they have already alerted to their coming) so that you won't lose the left mirror as well.
Speed bump that slows traffic to a crawl—the racers tried to hop them if possible
Just don't think that everybody honks all the time. That's just not so. Honking is used as a way to communicate that you are coming and that you will broadside that moto or pedestrian or car if there is any more movement toward your trajectory. Of course, if it is something large that is moving into your path, you don't honk but simply slow down and let that behemoth claim its superiority. To sum it up, you always honk at pedestrians, bikes, and motorcycles if their movement warrants it; they just don't stand a chance.
That's the little KIA in which I was carted around for 10 days
In addition to the horn there is that other communication device that's built into cars: the blinker or turn signal. Well, it's hardly ever used as truly directional indicator, except when taking a left turn from the rightmost lane or vice versa, crossing at least four virtual lanes. No, the blinker is used when sitting inches away from a totally overloaded, smoke-belching truck that is lumbering up a mountain road. It is used to indicate that you will start your pass in the next available blind turn and that you claim your spot. You also use the blinker (this time the right one) on a fast, straight dual-lane highway to show that oncoming vehicle that is within 15 nanoseconds of hitting you that you are going back over to the right after your successful pass. Left mirrors are often lost in these maneuvers as well, as are right ones, too.
The joy of grinding uphill ...
To keep the mortality rates in the small towns low, speed bumps (called topes or tumolos in various Latin countries) force traffic to slow down to less than 1 mph to avoid breaking an axle, or the entire chassis. I have never seen more aggressive topes in my life—in Santo Domingo I rode over some of them on the bike, and it was almost like hitting a curb. Preferably such speed bumps will come after a fast downhill section, after a turn. The bike racers absolutely hated them! They would try to hop them, but while the first ten riders would be able to so, the remaining 110 didn't have much success to time their maneuver just right. Another way to slow down traffic is to build very large and deep potholes, but they have the unwanted side-effect that drivers will also swerve, which then necessitates more honking to alert pedestrian or cyclist or moto alike that you're coming at them in an unpredictable way. To make sure that there are few escape routes, gutters are deep and curbs are high. Therefore, the two-wheeled vehicles often will travel against the traffic, just to see what will hit them instead of being surprised. That's pretty smart, I suppose.
Slow down, Buster!
Thanks to long transfers back to the hotel from a stage finish I also had a chance to observe night driving on a few occasions. That is fun! While cars and trucks are generally well lit, motos generally are not. Rear lights seem to be a fashion faux-pas, and front lights are really unnecessary because, after all, it is always possible to navigate by the light that four-wheeled vehicles provide. If there is a luxe motorcycle with a front light, it will usually attract others (sans lights) that make good use of the leader. More importantly, though, there are no animals on the roads at night, so one can really deem driving at dark a relatively  safe form of entertainment.
The lead moto actually had a front light; neither one had a rear light, but the lead (luxe!) had a reflector
If you think that driving in the DR is a lawless, anarchistic exercise, you're wrong. There are rules—it's just that they differ from the ones we use in the US. Driving in the DR reminds me of doing so in places such as Mexico City, Athens, or Teheran: Upon first sight it's all totally chaotic, but upon a bit of observation you will discern the unwritten rules of behavior. In all seriousness, I did not see a single wreck anywhere—no overturned cars, no burned-out buses, no gutted truck wrecks. Still, if I were to rent a car here I'd take out full insurance coverage, just so that the mirrors would be covered....



  1. Hi Jurgen, Nice to meet you yesterday. Great observations! I have a short blog post here-- regarding bicycling on the streets in Santo Domingo that you might like. See you today at the race!

    1. Hey Dan, finally got a chance to re-post some other posts regrading traffic in the DR. sorry i couldn't chat on the last day of the race--things were a bit on the wild side. I'll check out your blog asap.