You have to be Nuts to play Traffic Chicken in Lima, Peru
There must be some hidden logic. After numerous vacations and 5 months living there, I still can’t see it.
We have been traveling to Peru for 18 years to visit relatives and considered moving to a Lima suburb after we retired. I have never rented a car and tried to drive there. We have always taken taxis. They are numerous and cheap, from 2 to 4 dollars for most trips. From the back seat, I have carefully analyzed the traffic patterns.
You need to have nerves of steel to drive using the rules that I discovered. New York, Boston and Chicago look tame in comparison. My experience with those cities did nothing to prepare me for driving in Lima.
The roads contain the same lane markers, signs and lights that I would see at home. Streets vary from one to four lanes in width, just like home. You would think that driving would be easy — just learning the Spanish terms where needed. Ha!
In practice, driving is nothing like home. Everyone would get traffic tickets for nearly everything, except speeding! This is what I have learned:
- Lane markers. Those are just recommendations. In the U.S., two lanes mean two cars side by side. However, three cars will usually fit and sometimes, four. Then, the motor scooters go between cars when there is space.
- Stop sign. That, too, is a recommendation. People do slow down, but that is in self-defense.
- Traffic Lights. Having drivers stop at red lights was my only normal experience in traffic. I did not see anyone rushing through a yellow light. The lights are much longer than those I am used to - sometimes as long as 90 seconds.
- Double Yellow lines (no passing). On the 4-hour trip from Lima to Ica, we had about an hour of two-lane highway through the mountains. People did stay in their lanes due to the higher speeds. Faster cars passed slower cars and trucks, usually over dashed white lines.
Some, including our driver, passed on double yellow lines at times. Indiana published a booklet when I was sixteen stating that passing on hills and curves was one way to keep from growing old.
- Squeeze Left. That term perfectly describes Lima traffic, except that it is from every direction.
- Parking. People parked on both sides of the streets facing both directions.
Other street signs seemed fairly normal.
Most drivers in this picture are in their own lanes. Peruvians would consider this to be light traffic.
The REAL rules
I analyze everything. With the heavy congestion, speeds are low. After years of research from the back of taxis and the sidewalks, I have reached these conclusions:
- He who gets there first, wins. This happens at cross streets; also where cars are trying to merge into less space. One inch in front of the other car is plenty.
- He who hesitates, loses. Once one car gets into a cross street blocking traffic from each side, everyone behind follows at 6-inch intervals. It looks like a line of cars on a NASCAR track - at much lower speeds.
- Right/Left turns from any lane. Drivers turn right, across moving traffic, from the left lane. Same from the right lane going left. If there are three lanes, who knows what the person in the middle is going to do. Also, turn signals do not seem to exist.
- Left turn waiting position. In the States, the driver pulls into the intersection and waits for oncoming traffic to clear. Cars line up behind the first car in a single column. Cars turn one at a time when safe to do so.
In Lima, the cars pull next to the first car forming a row that fills the intersection. Other cars form smaller rows curving back into a single column. The drivers then squeeze into the new street when safe to do so.
The side-by-side method actually works as well as the line.
- Chicken. Most streets are one-way. Two-way streets with one lane each way may have cars parked on both sides. Imagine two side by side cars approaching you. Who moves first?
- Clearance. Cars drive much closer together than I am used to - like 1 to 3 inches on all sides (about 76 millimeters). That seemed to be plenty of space.
- Pedestrians –everyone for themselves. I felt like a target. The concept of “right of way” does not seem to exist. You have to be especially careful to look for turning cars. A friend who has been there for 5 years agreed. They will not stop; I don’t think. I did not have the nerve to test the idea that they would.
Then, to add to the confusion, Peru is a nation of small businesses, like stop-light window washers. They work in very efficient teams that clean with water and squeegees from each side. They were polite and not aggressive. They asked first.
My limited experience in the U.S. was just the opposite. Someone would slap muddy water onto the windshield, and then demand payment to clean up the mess.
Other people sell candy, magazines and ice cream. Numerous entertainers perform. One pair of jugglers was so good that the taxi driver, my friends in the back and I all gave them a tip.
Better Results than Expected
With everyone forcing their way into the smallest of spaces and cars so close together, I expected more accidents. I never saw any. Most cars were intact - no dents or scratches. I wondered why.
That may be due to the short blocks and low speeds. There are speed bumps at most intersections. People also seem to understand when they have pushed the limit.
I suspect that the driving patterns are ingrained into the culture. They work very well if you understand the rules, which could be radically different than my conclusions.
If I ever decide to drive in Peru, I will take a class first with a personal tutor.