Stop, If the Mood Strikes You

“There’s not enough room for him to pass us!”

I nodded in response to my wife’s outburst, secure in the knowledge that the driver of the beaten-up car now attempting to pass us would indeed ignore the 18-wheeler headed directly at him. At the last possible moment he would swerve back into our lane, cutting us off and potentially creating a multi-car pile up when all of the more patient cars behind me slammed into my now stopped car.

We were on a stretch of the two-lane asphalt road with the overly generous title of “The Pan-American Highway.” True to form, the driver attempting to pass me cut me off at the last possible second, but I had already veered into the largely non-existent shoulder while tapping on my brakes to alert the other drivers behind me.

The driver who passed us gained nothing. I was driving slowly because all of us were stuck behind a long line of trucks lumbering north. This kind of thing initially made me crazy, but I eventually embraced the notion that I should expect the worst of my fellow drivers.

It would be easy to label Ticos as lousy drivers. In many cases this is definitely true. It is also true our old home back in Houston was less than a quarter mile from the elementary school but it wasn’t safe for our kids to walk to school.

Shortly after we had moved to our old neighborhood — specifically because it was walking distance to the schools — the City of Houston lost a court case involving the use of “red light” cameras. Almost overnight the number of motorists who ran the light at the intersection in front of the school skyrocketed. I took to counting to three before I stepped into the street and watched drivers zoom past as they ran the red light, doing 40 or 50 miler per hour in the school zone while they talked on their cell phones.

As a result we gave up on walking and instead loaded our boys on the school bus that wove its way through the area. It seemed silly to make them board a bus for a quarter-mile ride, but it was a lot safer to wrap them in several tons of steel and flashing lights versus hoping that they’d manage to survive a real-time case of Frogger.

Back in the here and now what makes driving in our little mountain town (population of roughly 7,000 in the greater area) unusually problematic is not the small group of lousy Tico drivers. It is instead the mix of bad local drivers mixing with the ever-changing pool of tourists.

Our area receives tens of thousands of visitors each year. Many of these tourists come in cars they’ve rented. These rental cars apparently come with instructions like, “If you find yourself confused, don’t be afraid to stop where ever you are to consult your phone, a map or your deity of choice. Those of you that haven’t driven a car with a manual transmission in 30 years should avail yourself of this opportunity to relearn this skill in an extremely challenging setting. Remember, there is nothing wrong with an unannounced, prolonged stop in the middle of the street.”

The tourist drivers share the roads (some of which are unpaved) with the Tico drivers, including the subset that pops a wheelie on their moto all the way up the big hill. To make matters worse, all drivers involved are forced to decipher the small amount of signage, official and unofficial, that exists to guide them on their way.

Tico drivers fully understand the significance of a stick jutting out of the road with a bag or rag tied to the end of it. The stick indicates the presence of a very large hole. This warning will stay in place until such time as the road is fixed (potentially never) or the stick is run over. The bag or rag tied to the top disintegrates relatively quickly, so those driving at night or in the rain have to be able to pick the stick out of the landscape. This system is less than optimal for tourists.

Beware of hole. These warning sticks are often shoved into holes in the middle of the road.

Beware of hole. These warning sticks are often shoved into holes in the middle of the road.

Where signage exists it often creates more problems than it solves. Our area recently received a new sign: Ceda el Paso

Yield, for those who speak Spanish. "Triangular sign" for those that don't....

Yield, for those who speak Spanish. Triangular sign perched just before a steep drop for those that don’t

I believe the intention of the sign, which means nothing to most tourists as they do not speak Spanish, is actually “be really careful making a left turn.” Those making a left turn here put themselves directly in the path of those coming up the steep main road below who have floored it and can’t see anything until they’re in the middle of the intersection.

View from the main road coming up, where other drivers make left turns in front of us just as you crest the hill. Squint and you'll see the new yield sign at the top left.

View from the main road coming up. Squint and you’ll see the yield sign that is actually discouraging left turns at the top left.

This intersection would certainly be a candidate for a traffic light if we had them —except for the fact that you can’t ask those going up the big hill to stop or they would roll back down and lay waste to everything below. As it stands this intersection serves as an interesting way to pass a few minutes watching drivers with various skill levels, nationalities, and native tongues loudly exchange views about the quality of each other’s driving.  

I don’t believe there is an easy fix for the subset of every society’s driving population that is simply bad. I also doubt that additional signage, regardless of the language used, is going to be much help here in Costa Rica (many of the locals choose not to see it and tourists are too busy trying to figure out where they are on the roads that only have names in the navigation applications).

Tourists coming this way should note that intersections like this are the reason the insurance for the rental car likely cost more than the car rental itself. Tourists are also encouraged to expect that the guy trying to pass WILL indeed do it, whether you like it or not.