We read in the paper where the government was fed up with people running red lights so they were starting a law through congress to treat people who run red lights as “Terrorists”. The next week Wallace was driving with Edith through Barahona. We came to an intersection where the traffic light didn’t work. Of course that is a very common dilemma wherever you are in the Dominican Republic. There are at least 2 lights that have never worked for the 3 months we have been here that we have to pass through every day. The intersection was clear, so Wallace drove on through. Two blocks up the road a group of policemen are standing in the road. Some people get through, some don’t. Wallace was stopped and cited for running a red light! When he protested, the police said, “Look, it works fine!”. Sure enough, in his direction the light worked fine. Wallace is now a terrorist!
When you get a ticket, you take the little slip of paper you receive to the National Bank anywhere in the country. For every ticket, they know what to charge you. You pay your fine and get your ticket stamped and away you go. Piece of cake. Wallace’s ticket was $1,000.00 RD. (about $25 US). Now Wallace is an X-Terrorist!
Driving in Santo Domingo is like a roller coaster ride at Disneyland. First time drivers and passengers alike are usually white knuckled and astonished out of their wits. We haven’t ceased to be on edge when in the car, but it helps to understand the “rules” of the game.
There are the usual written rules of driving like white and yellow lane markers, green, yellow and red lights at intersections, one-way signs, no-parking signs, directional signs, etc. These are the written rules, but they are not the rules everyone plays the game by. The real rules are not written in a manual someplace.
Here are the unwritten rules.
- BIG: Never argue with a vehicle bigger than you.
- FLOW: Travel in the direction everyone else is generally traveling and don’t get hung up about being on the wrong side of the road or going in the wrong direction.
- PICK: If the nose of your vehicle is in front of the vehicle next to you, you can move into their lane and cut them off at anytime. You must be able to do that or you will get no-where. Being polite is not a safe thing most of the time. You have to have a little aggresiveness.
- BLOCK: This is an essential rule. If you come to a busy intersection without a stop light and you want to go through the intersection. Take advantage of the person next to you who used the “pick” rule to stop traffic. Use their “block” and move out. Always keep your eyes open for the “block” rule.
- NO-SEE-CHICKEN: If you are entering an intersection or a “pick” situation, if you are real brave you can look the other way instead of looking at oncoming traffic and just move into the intersection and cut into the traffic without warning. If you look at the oncoming traffic, you have lost the game because you acknowledged the oncoming and they will pick you off.
- MALHECHOS: It is better to give way to the Malhechos even if you have an advantage over them because of the “big” or “pick” or “block” rules because they have nothing to loose. Malhechos is what we call guaguas (buses) and taxis. They are so beat up they have nothing to loose and they will win the pick and no-see chicken every time so it is best to just make way for them. They will cross over 3 lanes of traffic without warning if they want to.
SPEED We really don’t like this rule, but it is a fact of life that a driver who has the nerve to drive fast can open up spaces where none existed a moment before because others see him coming and figure the fast driver is either an INTOCABLE or has enough nerve to do just about anything. We saw our first seed limit sign after 3 months of driving. We didn’t think they even existed. We don’t speed because with speed a lot of people can get hurt real fast.
- INTOCABLES Intocables are the untouchables. These are politicians who are proceeded down the road by motorcyles driven by men dressed in black uniforms. They come out of no-where, stop in the middle of intersections and everyone stops and lets the intocables go through unchallenged. Ambulances on the other hand have no better chance on the road than anyone else and can take an hour to go a block. Nobody gives way for them.
- ALERTNESS: Dominicans are very alert drivers. You cannot be sight-seeing or carrying on much of a conversation while you drive because you must be 100% into your driving. The person in the front passenger side is not just a passenger, they are the “co-pilot” and must be as alert as the driver.
- OBSTACLES: In the midst of all of this you can suddenly without warning be confronted with a sewer manhole which is missing a manhole cover, or a big hole where the road collapsed neither of which have any warning signs or barricades even though they have been there for months. Or a ladder will be leaning against some overhead wires with a man sitting on the wires doing his work and the base of the latter is obstructing the outer lane. Or a malhecho can suddenly decide to stop in the outer lane to pick up passengers or the same malhecho darting from the outside lane to the left lane so he can turn—all of this without looking or signaling or waiting for anyone. Or a big ditch next to the curb where you are headed into a tight turn around the corner. One obstacle we see frequently is a man in a wheel chair who parks in the outside lane of one of the busiest streets in town. He waves and smiles at everyone, especially us because the Church donated his wheelchair to him!
- MOTOS: There are thousands and thousands of motorcycles. They can carry as many as 5 people or large baskets, propane tanks, lawnmowers, 2x4s, animals, or just about anything. When we think we have seen it all, we see something else incredible. They don’t usually obey any rules and dart in and out of traffic or on the sidewalk or in the wrong direction. You have to pretty much ignore them or you go crazy. (as a Church, we have given lots of orthopedic limbs to former moto riders.)
Traffic lights are obeyed if convenient, you ignore lanes markings, there is no speed limit and if convenient it doesn’t matter if you go in the wrong direction on one-way streets or even on the wrong side of the road.
Wallace claims he actually enjoys driving. “It is like being on a Disneyland bumper car ride of mega-proportions. If you like playing video games you are going to love driving in the Dominican Republic. I have learned all the above unwritten rules pretty well, but I don’t speed. If you speed I figure it is only a matter of time before you hit a moto and take some guy’s leg off. It is better to arrive then not arrive at all. But the rest of the rules work pretty well. One thing for sure though is I will not be able to drive on American roads ever again without getting mega-tickets.”
We have numbers to call if we have an accident, but we are told to never get in an argument with a malhecho because the police will support them every time. It is best to try to settle the matter quickly and right there before the police are involved.
We have been sideswiped and lost our front bumper which we tied on with wire so we could get home. Wallace backed into another car causing damage and spend the morning one day at the police station. Wallace has one ticket for running a red light. We have seen a lot of close call moto accidents; seen a big truck rear-end a car with severe damage; and came on an accident where a pedestrian was plastered on the asphalt.
Other than that, driving is great.
The reality is, driving in the Dominican Republic is a very serious thing. We probably drive more than any other pair of missionaries and our exposure is great. We don’t leave the house without a prayer specific to driving and we don’t drive unless we have to.