Cuidado! El Traffic Cop

CELIA DARLINGTON lives in Berkeley, California, where she works for her doctor husband and does free-lance writing on the side.

Mexico City, one of the big cities of the world, is one of the most traffic-snarled. As in all Latin countries, the automobile is driven with fiery enthusiasm, the horn being more important than the brake. Some North American tourists abandon all thought of driving when they reach the outskirts of the city. They either park their cars for the duration of their visit or hire a native chauffeur.

There are plenty of things besides cars to watch out for on Mexican roads. In the country there are burros, horse-drawn wagons, cattle, and chickens. In the city there may be bicycle riders with trays of rolls on their heads, cargadores on foot lugging anything from coffins to pianos, couples from the country strolling carelessly through traffic lights, bands of Indians interminably dancing their way on a pilgrimage to Chalma, and boys darting out to offer chewing gum or lottery tickets to passing motorists. You have to watch out for all of them while simultaneously keeping pace with the hurtling torrent of freewheeling cabs and buses.

At the same time, honor, as dear to the Latin heart as horsepower, must be upheld. Watch the determination of two buses racing each other around a narrow curve. See the camaraderie of turismo chauffeurs, braking their cars in mid-highway, careless of who may wish to pass, for a brotherly abrazo.

Driving in this atmosphere brings out the usual aggressions, freely expressed. Yet drivers must stay within certain limits. The rhythm of the old phrase “Shave and a haircut — bay rum” is a fighting rhythm in Spanish. It means something too insulting to take. If another motorist irritates you, this is not the rhythm to toot upon your horn. Last time we were in Mexico City we heard that a driver had pursued a car which had thus taunted him, cornered his foe in a gas station, and shot him dead.

When you tour Mexico in a car with U.S. license plates, you can get by with small irregularities because you are valued as a visitor. If you’re driving a car with Mexican plates, however, you may be stopped by traffic policemen for trivial reasons, or for no reason at all. Your problem is solved by a small financial transaction on the spot (extra on holidays). It’s always easier to pay. As our Mexican friend Arturo pointed out, “The police in Mexico know that nobody’s papers can possibly be in perfect order. It’s worth a few pesos not to be investigated.”

Anyone involved in a real accident may find himself, innocent or guilty, in the lockup indefinitely until all the details arc sifted out. This, while grim, is better than the possible fate of motorists after serious accidents in the more remote parts of the country, where lynchings arc not unknown. Fear of retribution is in fact so great that hit-and-run driving is the unfortunate rule in Mexico. Getting away from the scene is what matters.

It comes as a shock to learn that United States traffic customs are as strange to traveling Mexicans as theirs are to us. T hey are inclined to regard our rules as dictatorial, even fascist. After all, should a sign reading “Stop” mean stop if there’s no one around? Isn’t that carrying the thing rather far? Arturo toyed with the idea of immigrating to California. He stayed with us while he looked the situation over, and that’s how we happened to share his traffic experiences.

It started ominously the first day of his visit, when he parked his car in a space where the meter read “expired.” Speaking pretty good English, he had no doubt what this meant. He was amazed to discover, after receiving a ticket, that “expired” did not mean the meter was no longer in use.

The ticket thus acquired looked like a clarion call for appearance in court. Arturo had been coached never to offer financial inducements to U.S. traffic officers, and he carried this logically over to the mails. He was not about to send in $2. “See, it says I am to appear—” The traffic court came to know him well.

Arturo’s second offense was parking “more than eighteen inches from the curb.” Foreigner’s luck again. Did you ever get a ticket for parking nineteen inches from the curb?

His third offense was going through a stop sign, on a quiet street, without a complete stop. All right. It can happen to anyone. It happened to Arturo several times, and he also received citations for wheels not turned in when his car was parked on a hill, proximity to hydrants, and ignorance of the meaning of colored curbs. And speeding tickets accumulated.

Meantime he had a grandstand view of the American traffic system in operation. A radar trap had been set up on our street. Arturo would have been a natural victim except that the zone where speeders were clocked was up the hill from our house, and he never passed that way. It was outside our door that offenders by the dozens were finally flagged down and ticketed. Arturo watched from the window with fascination.

“And there is absolutely nothing in it for the policeman!” he said.

His final traffic offense was, again, going through a stop sign on a quiet street without coming to a full stop. It happened to be the same sign he had ignored on an earlier occasion. It also happened to be the same policeman, and recognition flashed between them. The officer suggested kindly that Arturo should sign up for driving school.

That did it. Twenty years of dodging buses, bicycles, speeding cabs, burros, cattle, and pedestrians, “and now I should go to school and learn how to drive my car on an empty street?”

Arturo moved back to Mexico, where his driving record is unblemished.