Part 2 of 2 – Mastering Mexican Roads: Your Guide to Local Driving Customs and Regulations

solo black car driving on 2-lane highway through desert mountain terrain

We’re back again for Part Two of our mini-series on Mexican roads! Traveling through Mexico by car or campervan promises an exhilarating adventure but, to fully enjoy and also come out in one piece, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with local driving customs and regulations.

RV parked in desert shrub landscape with father and son outside throwing a ball
Photo by Roadpass on Unsplash

Look back to Part One now if you missed our crucial information on the legal requirements for driving or renting a motor vehicle in Mexico as a foreigner, and safety tips for navigating Baja roads with either gas-powered or electric vehicles.

From weirdly blinking traffic lights to understanding the nuances of four-way stops, each aspect of driving in Mexico offers its own unique challenges. In this guide, we’ll delve into the intricacies of Mexican road etiquette, providing essential tips and insights to help you navigate the roads with confidence and ease.

Traffic Lights

close up of streetlight with yellow light illuminated
Photo by David Guenther on Unsplash

In Mexico, navigating traffic lights comes with a slight twist that could catch you off guard if you’re not aware. While the standard “red means stop, yellow means caution, green means go” rule applies in the United States and Canada, Mexico throws in a blinking green light for good measure, and it’s not a protected left turn signal (in Mexico, a green arrow indicates turning is protected from oncoming traffic).

Here’s where it gets interesting: that blinking green light in Mexico is akin to a yellow light in the States/Canada. It signals that you can proceed through the intersection only if you don’t need to speed up and will be through before the light turns yellow. 

Passing through an intersection on a yellow light in Mexico, as you would north of the border, is basically running a red and might just get you pulled over.

Four-Way Stop Signs

In Baja California and Baja California Sur, encountering a four-way stop sign can sometimes feel like trying to partner dance without knowing the steps. Who goes first? Why is nobody fully stopping? … While you will surely observe local drivers smoothly gliding through these intersections in what appears to be a seamless flow, it’s important as a tourist to know the law and adhere to it.

The rule is simple: always come to a complete stop behind the line of the marked or imaginary pedestrian crossing. If two cars arrive at similar times, whoever completes their full stop first has the right of way. When in doubt, a simple wave of your hand on the steering wheel lets the other driver know you’d like them to proceed first. 

Even though you may receive a friendly beep from a fellow driver behind you as you come to a full stop, it’s still best practice, and taking this precautionary measure can help you steer clear of any unwanted tickets or legal complications.

Right-Hand Turn on Red Lights?

Like many states in the U.S., making a right turn on a red light is generally permissible in Mexico, unless signage indicates otherwise. However, it’s crucial to come to a complete stop before entering the intersection and ensure that it’s safe to proceed into the far-right lane of the desired roadway. This is not always true for turning left from a one-way street onto another one-way street. In this case, best just to wait for the green to proceed with your turn.

Purchasing Fuel

Time to fuel up! At Mexican gas stations (you’ll mostly still find the national brand from the days of regulated gasoline, Pemex, but also Arco, Chevron, and BP) car-side attendants handle everything from pumping gas to processing payments. Self-serve stations are incredibly rare. 

Make sure after you tell the attendant what type of gas you’d like (‘verde’ for regular unleaded gas, ‘rojo’ for premium gas, and ‘negro’ for diesel, most of the time) you look at the gauge while they reset the pump to ‘zeros’ before filling. While various payment methods are accepted, carrying pesos can ensure fair exchange rates and expedite transactions.

Tipping

Tipping gas station attendants is not mandatory but customary and greatly appreciated by the hard-working low-salaried employees. Along with filling your tank, attendants will often clean your windshield and can check your tire pressure or oil level. Anything from 10 to 50 pesos is standard, based on the level of service provided. 

Police Asking for a Bribe (Mordida) During Traffic Stop

While instances of police soliciting bribes, known as “mordidas,” have decreased with enhanced oversight, travelers should remain vigilant and assert their rights respectfully. 

close up of hands taking one United States dollar out of a man's wallet
Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

When approached by a police officer who requests your license and registration, ask to see their identification and write down their name and badge number in your phone, first. They should provide this information willingly.

Then, hand over your documents, and if the officer has legal grounds they will write you a ticket for each infraction. As in many foreign countries, the police officer will then take your driver’s license to the police station where it will be held until you pay. In Mexico, if you pay your ticket within 24 hours you will receive a large discount off the set fine.

If, however, the officer requests money on the spot, often supposedly for much less than your ticket(s) would be and pretending it’s for the sake of convenience, the dance begins. Firmly insist on receiving a ticket instead, regardless of whether you believe you’ve committed the violation(s) in question. Stay composed and calm but assertive. 

close up of flashing police lights on car at night
Photo by Michael Förtsch on Unsplash

If the officer then mentions going to the station to see the traffic judge, agree and offer to accompany them. In many cases, if the officer has stopped you under false pretenses they will relent at this point and let you go. This sometimes even takes beginning to “drive away to the station together” before the officer will see you’re not giving in, pull over again, and finally wave you off. 

It’s important to understand that if you receive a legitimately warranted ticket, the standard procedure is to settle the fine at the police station. Unfortunately, no website or digital app exists for tourists to pay traffic tickets online. This lack of convenience can be frustrating and even disruptive to your travel plans, especially if you find yourself in a situation where the payment center at the station is closed for the night and you’re scheduled to leave town early the next day.

However, even in such circumstances, we strongly advise against resolving the situation by offering the police any bribe. Doing so only perpetuates a problem that many are actively working to eliminate. Instead, try to avoid driving illegally, particularly on the night before your departure, or ideally, at any time!

Reporting incidents of misconduct to local authorities at the internal affairs offices and documenting encounters can contribute to accountability and deterrence.

 

Infographic on police corruption written in Spanish from the Public Security Agency of Baja California Sur
To report an incidence of corruption by police or government, record the place, date, and time of the incident; the identification and agency of the officer involved; the police vehicle’s plate number; and include any photos or videos of the interaction you were able to take.

Left Turn Signals in Mexico

One of the quirks that often surprises first-time drivers in Mexico is the apparent lack of turn signal use, especially in city traffic. This may seem odd at first, but it’s just one of those things you quickly get used to.

When it comes to highways, things take a slightly different turn—pun intended. You’ll notice that on two-lane highways, locals do tend to use their left turn signals, albeit not always in the way you’d expect. If you’re behind a slower-moving car or truck with its left turn signal on, it’s probably a signal that the driver is letting you and other vehicles know it’s safe to pass them on the left.

But here’s the catch: always exercise caution when passing, double checking there’s no intention by the vehicle in front to turn left onto an off-highway roadway and right into your vehicle attempting to pass.

Likewise, when you’re the one using your left turn signal on a highway, be aware that drivers behind you will likely interpret it as an invitation to pass. If that is your intention, consider slightly slowing down and staying to the right side of your lane to make your signal clearer.

Left arm sticking out car window
Photo by Karthik Sridasyam on Unsplash

However, if you’re planning to turn left across the highway, make sure to signal that it’s not safe to pass by sticking your left arm straight out the window, keeping to the left side of the lane, and pumping your brakes a bit. Mexican highways rarely have designated left turn lanes, so this situation requires careful handling.

 

In summary, navigating Mexican roads requires preparedness, caution, and an understanding of the regulations and customs. By paying attention to how locals navigate these situations, you’ll gain valuable insights into Mexico’s unique driving customs and make your journey smoother and safer.

Driving really is the best way to explore everything the Baja Peninsula has to offer! So get out there, safely, and see where the roads take you.

By: The Trip&homes Team

 

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Terri Lynn Manna

Terri Lynn Manna is an avid writer based between La Paz, Mexico, and Montreal, Canada, where she draws inspiration from the waterways and wilderness that surround her. With over 50 countries stamped in her passport, she's a seasoned backpacker who shares her insights on travel practicalities and the myriad adventures waiting to be experienced.

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