For the first couple months we were here I felt like I lacked the Rosetta stone of driving. Tonight I realized that somewhere along the way I’d picked it up. Allow me to expound upon the unwritten rules of driving in Uruguay and hope with me that this isn’t just the pride before the fall.
Most neighborhood intersections have no signs. The safe rule is this–consider it a 4 way yield. Avoid the temptation of thinking that since you’re on the bigger street the other cars will stop for you. Taxis and busses are the only ones who can get away with that. Here it is again, condensed–no sign, yield.
If you have a yield sign it’s probably because people before you have suffered greatly at that intersection. Take the yield sign to mean “yield with emphasis.”
A stop sign must always be obeyed. They are rare but when you see them, they are mandatory. A stop sign means “there’s a bus coming.” One thing to consider is that in Uruguay stop is not “ALTO” like in other parts of Latin America, it’s “PARA.”
Don’t run the red. If it’s yellow, just stop. Everyone jumps the green so a car in the intersection a split second after a light turns red stands a good chance of being forcibly moved out of the intersection. On the other hand, it’s okay to ‘anticipate’ the green a bit.
At times, especially on the Rambla, there are pedestrian crossings that are not very well marked. You have to learn where they are and keep a close eye out for the white lines in the road because people step out into them without warning. It is considered very bad manners to not stop for a pedestrian in the road.
Drive slowly downtown. This is a rule in any city I suppose and even though pedestrians in Uruguay seem to have instilled in them a little more fear of vehicles than do people in other big cities, there are lots of pedestrians and again, it’s bad manners to ignore a pedestrian when you’re in a vehicle.
Lanes are optional but not as optional as it seems. Lanes are pretty fixed in normal traffic and only become optional at stop lights. When everyone arrives to a red light they all kind of bunch up wherever they fit but then things just get sorted out into the proper amount of lanes soon afterwards. It is wise to signal if you’re changing lanes, many Uruguayans don’t, but I would recommend using your directional indicators.
The right lane is often blocked by stopped trucks, taxis, people etc. If you’re in the right lane take extra precautions and be prepared to stop at any moment since there is a high likelihood of an obstacle in your way.
Motorcycles are slow here. It may look big but don’t worry, it’s slow. Generally motorcycles and mopeds stick to the sides of the road (both the curb side and middle) so cars can pass them. It’s polite to leave a little room for them to all bunch up beside you at a stoplight only for you to blow by them all when the light turns green. You really have to keep an eye out for them though–often their headlights are very dim and they aren’t always the best drivers. I’d say motorcycles and mopeds are the biggest driving hazard here.
The parking guys aren’t there to help you park. Sure, they perform that function but their main purpose is to keep an eye on your car while you’re doing whatever you’re doing. Tipping them is polite and expected. It can be anywhere between 2 pesos and 10 pesos. At a soccer game or other event 20 to 40 pesos is more appropriate.
Most intersections with traffic lights feature someone performing or selling something. It’s handy to keep some change around to give out if you feel comfortable doing so. Almost all of these performers and salespeople are extremely friendly and good natured.
Take precautions late at night when stopping at intersections. Though Montevideo is generally a very peaceful city it is not unheard of for people to be robbed of things sitting on seats beside them while sitting at a traffic light.
Traffic police are rare. If you get a traffic ticket it almost certainly won’t be because the cop behind you pulls you over. You might get stopped by an officer on foot in a speed trap on the side of the road or perhaps even more likely, get a letter in the mail with a picture of you doing something you weren’t supposed to and a fine attached. That having been said, I’ve only seen one speed trap and have never personally known anyone to get a ticket in the 4 months I’ve been here.
Insurance is optional. This means that if you like your car you’d probably better get it since the chances are if some hits you they won’t have it.
Finally, even though it will feel like everyone is flying along at breakneck speeds when you first arrive, really things are fairly ordered and you should feel free to drive as slowly as you need to as long as you stick to the right hand lane. What seems to be chaos actually just a different type of order and you’ll get used to it quickly.
Jenny describes driving here as ‘libertarian.’ People know that if they obey the unwritten rules that things work out for the best for everyone. It’s not a bad system once you get used to it. It requires more concentration than driving elsewhere but after the initial shock, I think it’s more fun.
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