Rules of the Road While Driving in Oaxaca

Rules of the Road While Driving in Oaxaca

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

When driving in Oaxaca you always have to be vigilant of the traffic police, known as transito, even though the state has no hard and fast highway traffic rules to provide guidance. At minimum, if there are regulations consistent enforcement is woefully lacking. In fact watching and learning from local drivers provides no assurance that you won’t end up paying a fine, coming out to the street one day to find that your plates have disappeared or that your car has vanished.


These particular municipal government employees are not paid all that well, and therefore have limited “resources,” arguably in the multiple sense of the word. I’ve been told they earn about 6,000 pesos per month, and also that they earn about 2,000 – 3,000 pesos per month and relies on making the balance of their wages “on the street,” a point to be kept in mind. One thing for sure is that they probably earn less than the average Oaxacan (about 65,000 pesos annually according to most recent statistics)…not like the law enforcement officers we know who retire in their fifties with good pensions to then start a second career in the security field.

I’m convinced that no one knows the traffic laws and that whatever is being enforced is done so haphazardly or on a whim. The point is that even when you think you’re doing the right thing or know the law, you may still be pulled over, fined or bear the wrath of irate motorists honking at you. What follows is a smattering of assistance for would-be Oaxacan drivers, constituting acceptable driving practices, not necessarily the law…nor what will keep you out of trouble. But over the past fifteen years I’ve only been pulled over three times…once for a u-turn in a major intersection, another time for driving without plates, and recently for simply not knowing what to do in the middle of a weird-looking intersection with even stranger traffic signals (to date not a single fine).

Keep in mind that frequently lanes aren’t marked clearly, or at all, and lights aren’t always working, at least for one direction of traffic. When you see two or more transito directing in an intersection, do not assume that they’re working in unison. I recently saw one officer clipping his fingernails while apparently directing traffic. If it’s sunny and hot, a lone officer might seem invisible, and your only indication he’s around will be the sound of his whistle blowing…he’ll be out of the intersection, watching and directing traffic from under the awning of a building on the corner, in the shade.


Many intersections don’t have yield or stop signs, or lights. Most up and down big streets have the right of way, as do most major cross streets, but it’s a matter of learning over time which street is which, what constitutes a big or major one, and even once you’ve done so, being cautious upon entering every intersection because you don’t know if the other guy knows. At traffic lights, green has the right of way, but not immediately. You’re probably accustomed to driving in a jurisdiction where there’s a delay of a second or two between the other driver getting the red, and you getting the green. No so in Oaxaca. Before proceeding, edge out carefully to see how many drivers speed through the red. They say that semáforos (traffic lights) are suggestive only, so at times there will be drivers stopping and then proceeding through a red. Though illegal, this is not an uncommon or unaccepted practice…it just happens, and I bet those going through reds in this context get into less accidents than drivers proceeding immediately upon seeing a green, or those going through unmarked intersections.


You’re not supposed to turn right on a red after stopping if it’s safe to do so, unless there’s a sign with an arrow. Breach this one and you’ll be honked at more than for going straight through a red! Sometimes right lanes are reserved for right turns only, so watch for them, or understand why the guy behind you is honking when you obey the red light…there might be a green arrow somewhere telling you to turn right, but not necessarily. The car on your left might also want to turn right. Regarding left turns, the same holds true. But more often there will be two or three lanes of traffic wanting to turn left, including you. But before making your left turn, ensure the driver to your left also plans to turn left, and not go straight. Buses seem to be allowed to turn whichever way they want from whichever lane they’re in, and because they’re bigger than you, be careful, if you can see them through their exhaust. Unless you plan to turn, the safest place to be and to avoid angry motorists is the middle lanes. On occasion you might even happen upon a far right lane reserved for left hand turns.

Beginning in May, 2006, road “improvements” on the main east-west thoroughfare in the city, Niños Héroes de Chapúltepec, and on a couple of other major roadways, approached completion. Instead of there being the usual left hand turn lanes, we now have, a block before an intersection, traffic signals directing you to veer to the far left hand side of the roadway, cutting across oncoming traffic lanes. Then, when you reach the intersection where you want to turn left, there are additional traffic lights. It’s hard to explain the concept, the chaos and the danger to both drivers and pedestrians. Think of it as driving along a North American roadway, and then all of a sudden you have to become a British driver, but just for a block and a turn. The government placed officers at these new intersections to familiarize drivers with these new lanes, which is admirable…but these instructors of insanity are now gone, after the powers who be decided that Oaxacans were then familiar with the grid pattern. So what happens to non-Oaxacan drivers, such as tourists? Will Hertz now double its insurance premiums?

On the highways it’s not acceptable to put on your left hand signal, wait for oncoming traffic to clear, and then make your turn. Drivers behind you will honk incessantly. You should either keep driving until you find a traffic circle designed for lefts and u-turns (an unusual configuration for many North American drivers) and then go back to your intersection and make a right hand turn, or, pull over to the shoulder on the right, wait until traffic has cleared in both directions, and then scoot across as quickly as you can.


You’ll learn to double park, even though you’ll loathe those who do so and create traffic congestion. Sometimes a tranisto blows his whistle, sometimes he starts giving you a ticket or removing your plate, and sometimes he does nothing. Pick your spots, keep a passenger in your car who knows where to find you, and be quick. The vehicle you’re blocking will on balance be patient, since the driver was probably double parking an hour earlier. When parking close to a corner, the key is to do so on a street where cars can only turn in the other direction so there’s no chance of you getting clipped. You’re not supposed to do it, but most often it’s overlooked. However, if you’re close to the corner of a street onto which bus traffic turns, watch out because the bus won’t be able to make the turn, and transito will do whatever he can to remove your vehicle.

Don’t worry too much about barely making it into a parking spot, because Oaxacans seem to have a knack for getting out of small spaces. Watch for driveways since sometimes they’re pretty hard to see. If you want to park illegally, and there’s a traffic cop watching, if it’s only for a few minutes and you thank him for permission with 10 or 20 pesos, it might be your best way to get a good spot close to where you want to go to conduct your business. In parking lots, take note of early closing hours.


I don’t know the city speed limits, nor do the vast majority of Oaxacans. Topes (or reductores – speed bumps) will dictate your speed, as will the driver behind you. Regarding the former, sometimes they’re marked and sometimes they’re not. Notice the number of repair shops for tires and springs, and signs for alignment and balancing. Attack the topes slowly, and if possible on an angle. Highways often have speed limits marked, but gauge your speed as you would in the city … go with the flow. Most highways near the city are a lane and a half in each direction. It’s permissible and accepted practice, to move onto the nice wide shoulder to let others pass, or to simply drive on it all the time so you don’t have to keep pulling over. While toll-roads warn of radar in operation, the only place I’ve ever seen it is on the autopista from Acapulco to Mexico City. However, you can be pulled over without radar, the fine is very stiff, you’d better have cash on hand … and recall that there’s no presumption of innocence.


When passing on the highways, regardless of whether you’re on a two, three, or four lane roadway, do not rely on the road markings. Sometimes the broken line is too close to the crest of a hill. It’s clear that there is not a roads engineer on site to oversee or even direct the painting of the yellow line. Often there will be miles of solid yellow, and a tractor trailer in front of you. Trucks will usually pull over for you to pass, almost giving you enough space, so take advantage of the opportunity. Often they will turn on their left hand signal, indicating to you that from their perspective it’s safe to pass … the issue is whether or not you want to trust what they’re urging you to do.

There’s no doubt that the engineers are also on lunch break when signage is erected. While signs are usually pretty accurate, at times they are not. When the new left turn configurations were firsts instituted, on two occasions I was directed to veer to the left by an arrow pointing around a triangle, only to find that the arrow should have told me to go right. Naturally I ended up in a standoff with oncoming traffic. Two or three days later, the faulty signage was covered up until proper signs were erected. In early 2008, a new, oversized overhead green sign was erected near the airport, directing traffic to continue ahead to get to the coastal resort town of Puerto Escondido, and to another major center, Sola de Vega, via highway 195. Unfortunately, highway 195 does not exist, at least in this part of the state. A couple of months later the sign was removed.

Arrows in and of themselves can be misleading, and poorly illustrated. For example, for years there’s been a sign just inside the Oaxaca city limits, as you arrive from Mexico City, directing you around the city and how to get to the highway to the coast and to the ruin at Mitla. The problem is that the arrow directs you to make a hard left, and if you do, you end up on a one way street facing oncoming traffic. The sign should either be placed further along the roadway, or the arrow should more clearly indicate to wait a couple of blocks before turning.


To get a drivers’ license in Oaxaca there is no road test, no written test, and no eye examination. Do you really want to take a chance driving in Oaxaca when this might be the first day that the driver beside you has ever been in a car, let alone driving it?

Alvin Starkman has written over 200 articles about Oaxaca, and is now a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México. Alvin leads small group tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sights; is a consultant to film production companies; and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (, a unique Mexican bed and breakfast, combining the service of a downtown Oaxaca hotel with the personal touch and quaintness of country inn lodging. Alvin also arranges culinary tours of Oaxaca with acclaimed chef Pilar Cabrera (

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One Response to Rules of the Road While Driving in Oaxaca

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