Dominican Drivers

This is a story I wrote when I first moved to Dominican Republic. It was written 10 de Febrero de 2002. There is much I could add to the story now that I have lived in the country for a few years. But this story is my view at that time in my life. Enjoy!

To learn about getting around Dominican Republic check this out Transportation in DR.

Dominican Drivers

As I walk to work every day I can’t tell you how many times my life passes before my eyes. Crossing the street is very challenging in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican driver is one of the most amazing beings on this earth. They have a way of driving that makes every moment behind the wheel a life-threatening event.

If you can drive in Dominican Republic you can drive anywhere in the world!

I’ll start with the “pare” (stop) and speed limit signs. I think they are just there for decoration or maybe something to give some painter a job, because drivers sure don’t pay attention to these signs. These daredevils are listening to music (mainly bachata and merengue usually very loud), talking on their cellular (which is illegal), drinking a beer (Presidente bien frio), and enjoying their lives for the most part. Accelerating to get to the next stop before the next guy, weaving in and out of traffic. Its not just a few people that do it – everyone does! Then after midnight you don’t have to stop at the red lights. It’s the law! But you are responsible if there is a crash on your account. Go figure!

I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what the real function of the turn signal is. I’m thinking that the turn signal and the high beams are just used for decoration…”Oh, Look at the pretty lights!” Most people seem to drive with the high beams on and no one thinks anything of it. I have never heard any complaints about it. I really think they do not know they have a lower beam so as to be courteous to the oncoming driver.

Turn signals are used but never trust them. Just because the right turn signal is on doesn’t necessarily mean the driver is turning right. They could be making a left turn or going straight…they like to surprise you!

Many of the vehicles don’t even have turn signals or backlights. I saw a truck, it was wired together with coat hangers. Even the tail light covers were wired on and he had a heavy wire he put on the door to hold it closed. I really don’t know what was holding that truck together. I wonder if the lights even functioned!

There are certain beeps that these drivers use to let others know what their intentions are. Whether they are going through an intersection without stopping or they want you to move out of the way, there is a beep for every action. There are short, multiple beeps and long beeps all with a meaning of their own and depending on the situation. Its like a Morse code. I know the Dominicans like to use their hands when they talk and I think the horn is just an extension of this. Since no one can see their hand-speak they use horn-speak. I know that before I ever attempt to drive here I will have to master this beeping technique or I will never make it driving in this country.

I know people here don’t know what “the right of way” means. Everyone has the right and there is no way I have seen yet! Everyone goes at the same time, gives a beep of course, and I guess it’s just luck that keeps them alive. At a place where cars cross the middle of the highway, I was always taught to keep to the left, but not here. Everyone just goes and when they are all wedged in they just keep going! No one gives in and backs up. They just keep inching ahead. Like one of the cars in front, facing them, are going to magically disappear.

I saw this with my own eyes, and in the center of the whole mess was a policeman standing. Waving his arms, not doing any good. I’m sure if he had a horn he would have been blowing it. But without a horn all he could do was wave his arms. I didn’t stay around to see the outcome but have always wondered how this situation was remedied.

One morning as Sniffy and I were walking to a Colmado, a woman was driving backwards down the street. Cars were coming up on her fast! People just went around her, not bothering to give her some space so she could back up to where she was going safely.

I was in a publico with a friend leaving a Colmado. About four blocks away my friend realized he wanted a beer. So instead of turning the car around the driver just backed down the road! I couldn’t believe it..a main road and he was just backing up like it was really the proper thing to do!

A two-lane road is never really a two-lane road. It is how many ever lanes of traffic can fit. I think they think it’s a challenge to see how many cars can fit into one lane. The right side is usually filled with parked and stopped cars. People getting in and out of taxis and publicos. People pulling up to someone’s home and calling out to see if the person they are looking for is there. Can’t forget the motorcycles making their own lanes. Working their way in and out of the cars. Many of the cars don’t even have break lights to warn someone they are stopping.

Now I have to talk about public transportation. A person can hail a taxi on every major street in the city. They are everywhere! Most of the taxis are good to average looking cars. You have the car to yourself. Then there are the publicos. These cars have anywhere from one to eight or ten people in them, however many they can squeeze in, including the packages from the store that someone just purchased. These drivers stick their hands out the window and point in the direction they are going. They usually stay on the same road driving back and forth all day. But sometimes they throw you and make an unexpected turn. The person on the street gives a signal, hand down to their side, sort of waving in the direction they want to go. If both driver and fares hand signals match then he stops and you hop in. Climb in is more like it though. You usually have to squeeze in with many others and then when someone wants out everyone has to get out to set them free.

I never saw anything like it. The condition of the cars is amazing, can’t believe they are permitted on the streets. Front windshields taped up, broken windows. I saw a spray-painted orange publico, no taillights or bumpers. No back window. Well ok, there was a few remnants of plastic and duct tape! People loaded in. The doors closed. The car just sat there until some passer-by came to the rescue and gave the bugger a push. Then, it was on its way with its payload of people!

There are the busses that drive like they own the road. Vans…I don’t know what they are called…with the side door always open. A guy hangs out the door. He talks to the people, I guess finding out where they are going…who knows what he is saying. I haven’t braved those yet. But, after some people get in it’s off down the street with the guy still hanging out the door!

There are pickup trucks where people ride in the back. A friend and I were driving behind one once. It was filled with kids jumping and wrestling. Sitting on the sides of the truck. I kept picturing one of them falling off the side of the truck. I didn’t want to see this and suggested that we take a different route, which he did gladly.

I have seen men riding on piles of junk and #50 sacks of rice, piled high. They are sitting on top of this heap sipping on a little plastic pack of water, enjoying the bachata from the passing cars. Singing along happily. While the driver is sipping on a cold Presidente(the local beer)!

The motorbikes, that’s a whole other story. They do whatever they desire. I always wondered why they were always in the front of the traffic at red lights. Well let me tell you! They just drive between the stopped cars and get in the front! They don’t have to behave like cars. They do as they please. Ride on the sidewalks and weave in and out of traffic. There is a law that’s starting to be enforced. Helmets must be worn and they are not happy about this at all. But you still see many without helmets. There are three, four and sometimes more, riders and other living creatures on these motorbikes. Chickens hanging off the handlebars by their feet (still alive of course “they are fresher that way silly!”). Peoples whose butts look like they are going to slide off the back, babies in arms, groceries, propane tanks, large pieces of wood….anything that can be carried usually is.

Here is something I never saw carts in the streets. Not the pretty ones that couples use to feel romantic, even though they are here also. But a cart with a horse that looks like it could drop over any minute, pulling a cart loaded down with fruit and other items. Riding in the street like they are a car. Other fruit vendors are riding funny looking bicycles with a cart built on the front or back. With some skinny man peddling. It is amazing to me that they can even move the cart. I could never do it!

There are ice-cream vendors peddling or pushing a cart ringing a little tinkly bell. An umbrella to protect their little heads from the sun (I’m sure it is to get attention also). Early in the morning you can hear these vendors starting their rounds. Yelling out what wares they have available in their carts and ringing their bells. I always know when its around 3 o’clock. I hear the little tinkle of the ice cream man’s bell!

The road hazards only add to the driving experience. Not only do you have to watch for other crazy drivers but beware of all the other things happening around you. Stray dogs with their teats dragging on the ground. Sometimes its not just one dog but a pack of dogs going out “sniffing”. People crossing the roads where they so desire. Giant holes and ruts that could eat your car alive. Missing manhole covers. Construction everywhere. Some with barriers and others without. You could be driving along happily and all of a sudden there is no road…just holes and dirt and gravel. Garbage and things that can tare your tires to shreds. People mixing a drink or drinking a Presidente listening to bachata music at unbelievable decibel levels. People selling all sorts of little trinkets and nuts on many of the street corners.

Let’s not forget the beggars. Adults of every description and ailment, down to small children with their hands out knocking on your window. You could also be sitting at a light and get a wet, dirty sponge thrown at your windshield and have your windshield washed. Even if you don’t have a windshield!

One thing I have never seen here is road rage. With all these crazy drivers and all the hazards in the streets. Not saying that it is not here, I just haven’t seen it. America has great roads, cautious and courteous drivers, give the right of way, use turn signals and low beams (mind you this is speaking in general terms), and yet there are so many angry drivers. I have never seen road rage here, even when there is an accident. Jeez! In America if someone beeps at red light or didn’t turn down their high beams most drivers would be very upset. You would probably be given “the finger” (I have seen many men and women do this little gesture many times in America). They may do a lot of gesturing in this country, but I can say I hardly ever see this gesture used during driving. Here people just seem to talk. They may be angry, and most people here carry guns. But they do not be dragging people out of their cars and beating them up.

I was talking to a Dominican woman, lived in USA for four years. She told me when she returned to her own country it was almost a year before she had the nerve to get behind the wheel.

I hope someday I have the guts to drive here, and that I can handle the stress. I look at some of the drivers faces when they pass me as I am walking. They have a look of terror on their faces, eyes bugging out, white knuckles, as they work their way into the middle of an intersection. I’m going to be one of these white-knuckled drivers someday. Dents on my 4 wheel drive Jeep. Big metal guards on all sides to protect me from the crazy way of driving here in the Dominican Republic. But hey! I still love this country.

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