If there is a (tongue in cheek) truth, it is that every city claims to have the worst traffic in the world, and I can say that I have lived in some cities that could reasonably make that claim. None however compare with Panama City, and Panamanian drivers in general. Going to Google Maps, it frequently tells you that is will take significantly less time to walk between locations than it will take you to drive.
When we lived in the South of France, I used to say that I finally found out who taught the Malaysians to drive – the French from Nice. If that was true (probably not), I now know who the French took as their role model.
It is standard for a right hand turning vehicle to start the turn from the left-most lane (for those of you in the UK, NZ or Australia, a left hand turn from the far right lane). This is so common that we simply refer to it as the "Panama Turn" when it happens directly in front of us, sometimes requiring rapid braking on our part. Furthermore, the roads are actually configured to require the traversing of multiple lanes in fairly short distances, causing no end of start/stop driving.
|My personal bet is that he was cut off.|
Turn signals are, or course, optional. So optional that I suspect many cars don't actually have any turn signal mechanics inside the car. Swerving is common, as much to avoid potholes as to think about changing lanes and then deciding to stay in your current lane.
Some people have gone so far as to tell me that rear view mirrors are a waste in Panama, as the only thing you should care about are the cars in front of you. That certainly seems to sum up drivers - lane changes that cut you off, no blinkers, stopping anywhere, driving into traffic from side roads at speed, and of course the ubiquitous “Panama Turn”.
Remarkably perhaps, the traffic accident death rate per 100,000 peopleis 10, just under the US rate of 10.6, but far higher than the 2.9 rate for the UK, and below the rest of Latin America. So the horror of Panamanian driving is not the death rate, but the terrible traffic.
While death rate are first world, sort of, the accident rate is pretty amazing, and the insurance and court system manages the volume poorly. Anecdotally, I know of a case in which a rear-ended insurance claim remains outstanding because the driver at fault simply ignores the court summons.
|Flipping Cars onto their sides seems to a local speciality.|
As the Panama economy has grown, so have the number of cars and trucks on the roads; a growth rate that has exceeded the rate of growth of paved road surface in the city. Partial solutions have included new roads, a confusing one-way system, widened roads, and increasing the number of lanes - where two lanes existed in the past, there are now three lanes. Three very cosy lanes. In some cases you can still see the original lane makers.
Add to this a history of corruption, with the issuance of17,000 "no test" drivers licenses between 2011 and 2014, and Panama City has not only a strained infrastructure, but thousands of drivers who have not passed even the most basic of driving tests.
I can attest to the "most basic of driving tests". The theory test includes such critical questions such as how far away from a truck carrying dynamite do you have to be before you can smoke a cigarette? (The answer is 150 meters, if you really want to know). Sure, there are real questions in the theory test, but many of the questions are contradictory and in some cases simply silly. For example, the proper answer to what is the impact of heavy rain? Your car stops. The only reason that this answer is sort of correct, is because the roads flood, and it you do not know from good experience just how deep that water is, don’t go there.
The only practical test required of a driver is to prove you can park. Yes, that is the only practical test. Park forward into a space. Park backward into a space. Parallel park. Full disclosure, I failed the parallel parking the first time; I mounted the curb, and had to return a week later to repeat the test. A Nissan Patrol is not a small car, and simple arrogance on my part was my undoing. The next time, we rented the smallest car we could find, and parallel parking was a breeze.
While this all sounds terrible, there is hope. Panama City has afantastic subway system, which is cheap ($.35 per trip, $.70 round trip), clean, fast and growing. The stations can cater for trains of 5 carriages instead of the current 3 per train. Current passenger numbers on the Metro are around 200,000 per day, in a city of 1.5 million. That number will increase with the expanding of the line, and the introduction of the second line, due in late 2018 in time to move the hordes expected for the Pope’s visit.
Still, the roads will be full, and fuller with each month and year. And with the driving style here, I am very happy with our beast, the Nissan Patrol. It is high enough for the puddles and floods, ugly enough that people cannot miss seeing it, and big enough that it tends to make smaller car worried about the outcome. All factors that give me much comfort driving in Panama.
(Photos are from one day only - from the Trafico Panama Facebook page)