Introduction to Mexican Roads

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To me it's the place that gave us tacos, burritos and guacamole, but to Jonathan Winkler it's so much more. Having headed south of the border on a number of occasions, he is well placed to provide an introduction to the roads of Mexico.

Administration, design, and construction

In rural areas, main highways are generally owned either by the federal government (carreteras federales) or by the state government having jurisdiction (carreteras estatales). Unlike the US and Canada, where the individual states and provinces own the main rural highways and the respective federal governments assist financially with capital improvement and maintenance, Mexico hews more closely to the British model of central government ownership of a trunk road network. However, in recent years the country has shifted towards the cooperative model used by its North American neighbors by allowing states to take responsibility for expanding existing federal highways from two-lane to four-lane divided.

Mex. 45 shield The agency having responsibility for the carreteras federales is the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transportes (Secretariat of Communications and Transport), a Cabinet-level department which also regulates the telecommunications industry in Mexico. Like Canada, but unlike the US, there is no common nomenclature for referring to state road-managing agencies. In Chihuahua carreteras estatales are the responsibility of the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas (Secretariat of Communications and Public Works).

The federal highway network in Mexico has developed according to a strategic plan first laid out in the 1930's, which sought to connect the state capitals and principal cities of Mexico by means of a loosely defined grid consisting of even-numbered east-west highways (number increasing south from the US border) and odd-numbered north-south highways (number increasing east from the Pacific). On this system, the initial improvement is typically a paved two-lane road designed to support speed limits ranging from 90 km/h in flat country to 40 km/h or less in rugged mountainous terrain. Generally the alignment is unrefined, with lanes 10' wide wending their way through a profusion of longish tangents succeeded by shortish and sharpish bends. Roads built to these rudimentary standards can be tiring to drive over long distances, especially after the surfacing has been allowed to rut and pit with little attention other than chip-sealing.

As traffic warrants and funding availability permits, this two-lane road is often expanded to four-lane divided or bypassed by a four-lane divided highway on new location, often with a toll being charged to use the new road. These toll bypass expressways are called carreteras directa de cuota (direct toll highways), have much more generous alignments than the original two-lane roads, and are designated by a "D" (for directa) underneath the route number in the federal highway route marker. Speed limits vary, with 120 km/h on Mex. 15 in Sonora being possibly the highest. At least in northern Mexico, these highways are not necessarily constructed to full freeway (motorway) standard, and often have right turns and left-turn bays (at very wide spacing). Each of the latter does double duty as a facilitated U-turn ("RETORNO"). Informal frontage roads sometimes develop near small settlements (e.g. Mex. 45 at Sacramento, about 30 km north of Chihuahua), where trucks and other slower traffic pull off the paved road surface and drive on the verge. Meanwhile, the original two-lane road typically retains its federal highway designation but receives "ESTE CAMINO NO ES DE ALTA VELOCIDAD" ("This is not a fast road") signing to encourage drivers to pay more to use the new road. Most tolled federal highways are owned by Caminos y Puentes Federales (CAPUFE), the toll-road arm of the SCT, but a few are operated by state road-managing agencies. Mex. 15 between Hermosillo and Nogales is an example of a CAPUFE toll road while Mex. 45 between Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez is operated by Chihuahua's SCOP.

Road-building adventures

Mexican road planners think as big as their norteamericano and canadiense counterparts. However, extremely rugged terrain (Mexico is partitioned from north to south by the Sierras Madres Oriental & Occidental) and lack of finance not only interferes with the realization of major schemes, but also delays simple links for decades. Although Mex. 16 between La Junta, Chih. and Hermosillo, Son. had been planned for decades, it was not until after 1984 that its two lanes were rammed through the Sierra Madre Occidental, on an alignment so tortuous that speeds greater than 40 km/h are not generally possible for about 400 km.

At this writing, the internationally infamous portion of Mex. 40 between Mazatlán and Victoria de Durango, known as La Espinaza del Diablo (the spine of the Devil) and featuring hairpin bends with advisory speeds down to 10 km/h, is only just now being bypassed by a four-lane divided highway carried over long viaducts and through deep cuttings.

This is not to say, however, that road development in Mexico is completely directed by dispassionate assessment of traffic needs. In Chihuahua, where the capital is controlled by the Partido de Revolución Institucional (PRI) but Juárez is a stronghold of the opposing Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), the PRI in 2001 rammed through a bypass toll road between Mex. 45 just south of the internal frontier checkpoint near Juárez and a brand-new border crossing near Santa Teresa, New Mexico, just west of the built-up area. The PAN complained because it felt that the toll road had been constructed as a poor second to dealing with traffic problems within urban Juárez. Environmentalists were also unhappy about its impact on the Samalayuca sand dunes, which are probably best known in the English-speaking world as the setting for the sandworm sequences in David Lynch's film adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel Dune.

The new bypass of Juarez - a solution or an excuse?

In majestic disregard of these finicking objections, the PRI government also reached out to its counterparts in Texas and Sinaloa in hopes of developing a new corridor, La Entrada al Pacífico, which would connect Texas' principal cities (via US 67) to Mexico's deep-water port at Topolobampo with a divided highway. Texas has responded by including a spur to Presidio, where US 67 ends at the Mexican border, in its controversial and massively overscaled Trans-Texas Corridor network. SCOP's road planners are meanwhile trying to find a suitable location for the Chihuahua to Topolobampo segment, which is not a trivial task since it must bypass the rugged and scenic Barranca de Cobre (Copper Canyon) country which is now an important focus of ecotourism.

The only element of this corridor which is four-lane divided at present is a brand-new toll road bypass of two-lane Mex. 16 which ties into the existing two-lane road 85 km east of Chihuahua (in the middle of nowhere) and ends at Chih. 49 at La Mula, an isolated village about 50 km south of Ojinaga and the Presidio border crossing. This facility opened in September 2003, over a year late, over budget, and with high potential to become a debt-service white elephant since it does not connect with any facilities of comparable standard at either end.

However, this forthright approach to road construction commands admiration in Texas, where the roadbuilding interests see the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as the perfect cover for a massive program of new roads, and officials envy their Chihuahuan counterparts' ability to progress schemes rapidly by buying land for right-of-way before preparing environmental documentation.

Traffic signing and traffic behavior

In Mexico the traffic signing system is patterned after the 1953 Geneva protocol, whose signing system attempts to strike a middle course between North American and European standards by using symbols within red circles on rectangular blanks for regulatory signs and yellow diamonds for warning signs. This protocol also borrows the North American system of using separate route marker signs to indicate the number and status of important through highways.

In the late 1950's and early 1960's, SCT's traffic engineering experts developed standard sign designs from the Protocol template which were to be used within Mexico. The main distinguishing feature of these signs is standard lettering which is very similar to, but not identical to, the FHWA alphabet series used in the US and Canada, and a squared-off standard arrow (informally called an "Aztec arrow") which appears on all signs calling for an arrow except lane assignment signs (a rarity in Mexico). They also worked out the details of a very simple guide signing system which remains in use in Mexico to this day, except that white letters on green background is used now instead of white letters on black background or black letters on white background.

Free and toll road signing Details of the signing system are given in the Manual de dispositivos para el control del tránsito en las calles y carreteras, which is published by SCT's Dirección General de Servicios Técnicos. DGST recently scanned in the latest (1986) edition of the MDCT and has put it on its website in Acrobat format, where it can be downloaded in chunks (the files aggregate to 95 MB). The MDCT is followed more or less exactly on carreteras federales which SCT owns and maintains, and the vast majority (if not all) of Mexican states require that their signing also comply with the MDCT. Nevertheless, within the framework of technical compliance, some states have developed a "house style" (particularly on guide signs) which is distinctive and instantly recognizable.

Traffic signing in Mexico holds few surprises for those familiar with conditions in the US and Canada. However, the annular red ring (without slash) on regulatory signs has a restrictive meaning which varies according to the accompanying placard. A sign showing a left-bending arrow within a red circle, for example, designates a left-turn-only lane if the accompanying plaque says "SOLO IZQUIERDO" or "SOLO IZQ," but means that traffic can turn left only on a green arrow if the plaque says "ESPERE" (i.e., wait for the green arrow).

Mexico also converted to yellow centerlines later than the US and Canada, so dashed white centerlines (signifying passing permitted in both directions) can still be found on isolated rural roads. Mexico also uses a single yellow line to indicate passing is forbidden in both directions, as an alternative to the usual double yellow centerline. Like many other Latin American countries, but unlike its North American neighbors, Mexico uses steel hemispheres (topes) set in the road surface as channel delineators and, when laid in a line transversely, as traffic calming, typically to force sharp reductions in speed on the approaches to isolated villages. Topes are effective, particularly when they have been knocked out of the road surface and the screws attaching them to it are left free to puncture tires.

North American drivers also need to be alert for mandatory stops at railroad crossings, even on major roads in congested urban areas where (in the US or Canada) the crossings would be grade-separated or protected by automatic signals allowing traffic to flow freely across the crossing when trains are not present.

Right turn on red (RTOR), the practice of turning right against a red traffic signal after coming to a full stop and checking to be sure there is no conflicting traffic, has gradually become legal almost everywhere in North America since the 1970's, but still does not exist in Mexico and, indeed, has no LTOR equivalent in Britain.

Motoring in Mexico & negotiating the border

Foreigners wishing to visit Mexico by road have to obtain a tourist permit in order to travel within the interior or to remain in the frontier zone for longer than 72 hours. The frontier zone is an area within 15-40 km of the land borders which is defined, in practical terms, as those areas one can conveniently reach after crossing the border but without also passing an internal frontier checkpoint. The permit used to be free, but is now subject to a charge of around US$20, which has to be paid at a Mexican bank. Paperwork processing for the permit typically takes place at the border crossing itself; a passport is sufficient although US and Canadian citizens can substitute a driver's license plus birth certificate.

The tourist permit is also necessary to obtain a vehicle permit allowing one to take one's vehicle into the Mexican interior. Other documentation that is required includes a driver's license, proof of ownership (special requirements apply for rental cars and cars on which payments are still being made to a bank), and a credit card allowing one to make a deposit which is returned when the car is taken out of Mexico for good and which theoretically is set high enough for most cars to wipe out the profit from reselling the car in Mexico.

Mileage sign

The vehicle permit, once issued, consists of a printed certificate and a hologrammatic windshield sticker which is inspected at the internal frontier checkpoint. The sticker must be peeled off and the certificate must be returned when the car leaves Mexico for good. In return, the car owner gets a second certificate indicating that the permit has been returned and thus that the vehicle is legal to take into Mexico again at some future time. Paperwork processing for the permit typically takes place at a Banjercito (Banco de Ejercito = Bank of the Army) module just around the corner from the immigration office.

Although Banjercito is on the list of banks qualified to take payment for tourist permits too, this is not necessarily done automatically as part of the vehicle permit transaction. Although it is not legal and is the target of an ongoing crackdown, it occasionally happens that a Banjercito employee will walk one out to one's car, apply the windshield sticker to the upper left-hand corner of the windshield, and politely ask for a gratuity of M$20 (about US$2).

The rationale for what is essentially an elaborate temporary vehicle importation procedure is usually given as, "Mexico is an automobile manufacturing country, therefore foreigners must not be allowed to bring in their cars for resale to Mexicans and thereby undermine domestic car production." This does not explain how lower-income Mexicans, who are reportedly so keen to purchase cheap and relatively reliable used North American cars that they refer to them as chocolates (!), are supposed to be able to afford to buy new in the Mexican market. It is also not clear to what extent these procedures will survive NAFTA's coming into full effect, though I speculate that type approval standards (calibration of speedometers in km/h versus MPH, etc.) will be used to continue protecting the domestic Mexican car market.

American sources, such as leaflets and guidebooks published by the American Automobile Association, report that if one fails to return the vehicle permit paperwork before leaving Mexico for good, the Mexican authorities consider this prima facie evidence that the car has been sold in Mexico contrary to law, and both the car and the owner on whose tourist permit it has been temporarily imported are banned from entering Mexico again. These sources are vague and tend to stress the rigors of Mexican law, the formality of Mexican customs, etc. because part of their intent is to discourage Americans from treating Mexico as a destination for vice tourism in much the same way Britons go to Eastern European countries for hen parties and the like. But in spite of the vagueness of the advice they offer and their lack of evidence of field checking, it is wise to adopt a careful and conservative approach in dealing with Mexican officialdom.

It pays to be careful when planning a return to the USA because not all legal border crossings have facilities for issuing vehicle permits or accepting returned permits. Near major cities such as Nogales and Juárez, for instance, the permitting facilities are actually located at the nearby major internal frontier checkpoint (often called "Km. 30" because they are located 30 km away from the border itself) rather than at the border crossings. Once a driver returns his or her vehicle permit at an internal checkpoint thusly equipped, he or she is restricted to leaving Mexico via one of the border crossings in or near the major city (which may have waits of many hours) or a border crossing further away which can be reached without passing another internal frontier checkpoint (there may be none).

Checkpoints in general are an important aspect of driving in Mexico. Aside from the border crossings and internal frontier checkpoints, which are staffed by the Aduana (customs) and by immigration officers, there are roving and erratically signed military checkpoints (puestos de revision militar) where one is given cursory questioning and asked to open one's boot (trunk) to allow a quick check for illegal drugs. On Mex. 16, at km 275, Chihuahua's Policia Judicial del Estado (PJE) (state judicial police) has a permanent checkpoint where officers in sinister black uniforms also check for drugs. Mex. 15, the main north-south route through Sonora, is a crucially important artery for moving the hated white powder, so the various Mexican law enforcement agencies--who operate in a climate characterized by mutual distrust, open interdepartmental war, and low-intensity shooting conflict with each other--pull out all the stops. One passes through checkpoints manned by the army; by the Policia Federal Preventiva (PFP) (Federal Preventive Police) (whose name hints at an Orwellian mission to stop crime before it happens); and, finally, by flak-jacket-wearing representatives of the Procuraduría General de República (PGR) (federal Attorney General's office).

In Mexico it is an old rule never to drive at night. The US Embassy makes much of the fact that it does not permit its employees to drive after dark on Embassy business. Old as it is, this rule is prudent since a fairly high proportion of the Mexican vehicle fleet makes do with broken headlights and there is little to no systematic maintenance of striping and roadside delineation. It can be broken with relatively little risk on recently built roads with fresh thermoplastic and thin plastic guideposts with white reflecting strips, but not on older roads where the striping has lost all of its retroreflectivity and the guideposts are made of reinforced concrete (!).

Mexico also has financial responsibility requirements without an actual mandate to have insurance coverage. It is still prudent to purchase this before crossing the border, since a lack of insurance reciprocity means North American auto insurance is not normally valid for travel within Mexico. Much is made of how Mexico's adherence to the Code Napoleon implies a presumption of guilty until proven innocent, accidents are criminal offenses, errant drivers get billed the cost of replacing damaged road furniture, Mexican police officers are only too eager to throw gringos into a vermin-infested jail while an examining magistrate takes his own sweet time working out who is at fault in an accident, etc. but practically the only generalization which does not oversimplify the law or project middle-class gringo fears is this: an accident is a hassle, no matter what side of the border it takes place in, and can generally be avoided through careful, defensive driving.