When traveling the roads in Puerto Rico, we are often struck (ooh, maybe a bad choice of words) by certain peculiarities that we have not seen in other places. These include both the way people drive and relatively common roadside sightings here.
As for driving habits, we are coming to believe that the culture of a place may be found – at least in part – by learning the “rules of the road” and driving habits of the locals. In Puerto Rico, there are certain guidelines that we have learned to follow that make driving a more pleasant, less stressful process here.
First, left hand turns really do get the right of way in heavy traffic. This right of way is not all or nothing, however. The amount of right of way is determined primarily by two things: how far a car sticks out into an intersection or oncoming traffic, and how fast the oncoming traffic is moving. So, the more a car sticks out, the more it has the right of way and, conversely, that right of way is proportionately reduced by the speed of the oncoming traffic. It is considered appropriate for oncoming vehicles (with or without stopping) to reduce speed and to allow the vehicle moving from a driveway, parking lot or side street (with or without stop sign and with or without stopping) to turn left ahead of you, regardless of whether there was any indication of an intersection. As the car coming into traffic, you must judge the intent of the other drivers. It’s a little like the game of chicken, but with courtesy.
A second rule is “merge” or “yield” really means move ahead. This also follows the same “polite chicken game” scenario. The rule here is much simpler, however. In the case of merge (“ceda” in Puerto Rico) or yield signs (as in, where a lane is closed on the highway) whichever vehicle’s set of wheels is ahead goes first when the lane disappears. There are none of the midwest U.S. signs requiring drivers to move into the open lane 1/2 mile before the other one disappears. In fact, real Puerto Rican drivers continue to move in the lane moving fastest right up until one lane ends and then move over, if needed, based on whoever gets there first.
The final rule is really not a rule, but a recognition of commonality. Many, many cars in Puerto Rico do not have working brake lights and/or turn signals – one or both. We are not sure why – although we joke that these features must be expensive extra options that people elect to forego since we see this even on newer vehicles. But we have learned not to follow too close to the vehicle in front of us because you never know whether there will be any signal to indicate slowing, stopping, or an upcoming turn.
It all feels crazy – not unlike driving on the left side of the road in the UK – when you first get here. However, after awhile you realize that once you understand the unspoken and unwritten rules, driving is much easier and certainly no crazier than what we experienced in other places (like downtown Chicago, for example).