Traffic laws in the Dominican Republic in general seem to be merely suggestions and appear to be hopelessly abandoned in the major cities, prompting most guide books to suggest that, as a tourist, you forgo city driving completely.
Red lights mean “Stop” only when there are several vehicles waiting at an adjacent intersection. If there’s no one there, run the light. The double line painted in the center of the road which means “No Passing” in North America is merely a decorative flourish in Spanish-speaking Hispaniola; expect to find oncoming cars quickly bearing down on you in your own lane at any time. Drivers appear required to honk, yell, and tailgate; not terribly dissimilar to New York City or Mumbai. The use of turn signals apparently confuses other drivers in the Dominican Republic, so the general consensus is to avoid using them altogether. Use hand signals instead or, better yet, simply swerve violently to your right and cut across three lanes of traffic. We fit in like natives after only a few days.
One-way roads are not determined by the posted “Una Via” signs, but by the direction of the cars parked on the sidewalk. If they are pointing in the same direction as your car or if they are heading both ways, it is “safe” to ignore the one-way sign, but when you see that all cars are parked facing towards you… think twice. To make matters worse, there are many streets in downtown Santo Domingo that are marked as one-way, but have turn lanes leading you onto them going in the “wrong” direction. Choose whichever of the two opposing directions you wish to go.
There are more road hazards than just lack of adherence to traffic laws. Motoconchos, or motorcycle taxis, carry up to three people perched on a bike. More often than not, some large object is carried as a substitute for a third person — a milk can, a bag of groceries, a propane tank, a prostitute, or a goat. Most motoconchos (and quite a few cars) don’t have taillights, and a few of those don’t have headlights either, so nighttime driving can be an interesting challenge. Taxis resemble recent participants in a demolition derby — rusted, dented, missing significant parts. Freeways with concrete barriers between the two sides of the road tend to have periodic small gaps at which clusters of pedestrians and motorcyclists gather in their frightening attempts to dash to the other side of the road. Last, but certainly not least, expect cavernous, bone-jarring potholes on every road, except on those roads over 300 years old which (inexplicably) have no potholes.
Useful street signs to know and understand:
- Despacio — slow down, because there’s probably a speed bump ahead
- Despacio, Salida De Camiones — slow down, because overloaded trucks are likely to pull out in front of you and envelop you in a dense cloud of noxious smoke
- Hombre Trabajando — men pretending to work nearby
- No Doble En “U” — absolutely no U-turn, unless you want to go in the other direction
- No Entre — do not enter, sometimes used in conjunction with Una Via, which means they really, really mean it this time.
- No Estacione — no stopping, unless you want to buy some bananas or pineapples
- No Rebase — no passing, unless the car in front of you is too slow or has stopped to buy bananas or pineapples
- Pare — stop, unless there’s no reason to; see section on red lights above
- Retorno — a safe, legal place to make a U-turn on a divided highway, a lifesaver if you miss the last exit at the end of town (Sean!)
- SEOPC — Secretaría de Estado de Obras Públicas y Comunicaciones, the department of people pretending to work
- Una Via — a one-way street, but you get to pick which one way to go
- Use El Cinturón — use seatbelts (strange black straps found in the interior of the vehicle that are approved and recommended by the government, therefore to be avoided at all cost)
- Velocidad Maxima – the maximum speed at which the government recommends your car plummet into the upcoming pothole, after which your car will be violently torn apart by the concussion
- Velocidad Reducida — slow down; dangerous curves, speed bumps, prostitutes, or goats ahead
Disregard the recommendations of the guide books and take wholeheartedly to the road in the Dominican Republic. It is an experience you may never forget. I know I won’t!