Driving in Jamaica isn’t for the faint of heart. Much can be said for the cultural differences between this Third World country and that of my native America. The art of driving is just as different. Most of my tourist friends shudder at the thought of getting behind the wheel of a rental car here. The bulk of their fears is largely that of driving on the left side of the road. In Jamaica, left is right or should I say correct. That was my first concern as well.
I can still remember my first time. It was during our house hunting years when my only source of real estate was on the internet. With my co-pilot wife, Ann, by my side we headed to Brownstown, which is tucked about 8 km inland from the North Coast highway. The map says it is 74 km from Montego Bay or almost 50 miles. But back before our super highway was built, this trip took around an hour and a half over winding potholed laden roads, traversing through every village and town along the way. So different from today’s road which bypasses nearly every one of those towns.
The problem I had adjusting to this new and different position of being behind the wheel on the right side of the car was with some basic controls such as the directionals and the windshield wiper controls. They are on the opposite side of the steering column from the US cars. I can’t tell you how many times I put the wipers on instead of the indicators. After six years of driving here, I still make that mistake on occasions. The other adjustment I had to make was looking to my upper left for the rearview mirrior instead of on the right which, after 40 years of driving, was where I always found it.
Those I consider minor adjustments compared to my constant coaching of my loving wife who had to make sure I was on the left side of the roundabouts (rotary) and roads with median strips. What followed this first experience was far scarier than anything I had ever imagined.
Taxi drivers of Jamaica, please forgive me for what I am about to say. Even though other drivers aren’t perfect, the majority of the bad drivers are taximen. The most reckless thing they do is overtake (pass) when it is either illegal or extremely dangerous such as at a blind curve. Nearly as reckless is their speed. They travel at whatever speed they want whenever they want. It is bad enough they put their lives in jeopardy but they also put their passengers and everyone else on the road in danger. They seem to live by the old adage, “time is money.” These route taxi drivers feel that they have to get to their base destination first so they can carry a full load back to their community.
Added to this is how far and fast they protude on to the main road as they come out of a side street. Many times I have had to take evasive action as it didn’t appear they were going to stop. Tailgating is another problem. I often think that many of these guys have studied the driving styles of Indy car racers as I believe they try to take advantage of the draft from the car ahead of them to try and save gas.
Perhaps the scariest aspect of these taximen is the high percentage of them, and others, who have paid upwards of US $200.00 for a driver’s license thus avoiding taking a written and road test. You would be surprised at how many of them can’t read and write. No wonder they don’t obey the rules of the road.
Having lived most of my life in the Boston, MA area, I know the streets of Boston like the back of my hand. People have told me over the years that I should drive a cab in Boston. Being very naive, I thought they said that because of my knowledge of the city until one day I was bluntly told, probably by an ex-wife, that it was the reckless way I drove. Hah! Me, reckless? I thought I was just being very skillful. That probably explains how easily I fit into driving like most Jamaicans.
Now I have to tell you about my dear wife, Ann. She, too, is a very experienced driver with full confidence of her driving ability as long as she is behind the wheel. When I am behind the wheel, she has no control of either the car or my driving. Thus said, you can imagine the many “discussions” we have had with me behind the wheel. These “discussions” got so intense one day while we were out running errands that in the middle of these errands she got in the back seat and kept her eyes closed for the remainder of the afternoon. This wasn’t an isolated incident as everywhere we went from that day on she sat in the back with her eyes shut.
A few months later, we had to meet up with a friend before continuing on to another friend’s home. As he approached us in the shopping center parking lot our friend was shocked when he looked into the car and saw Ann sitting in the back seat. The first thing he said was, “Mrs. Casey, why are you sitting in the back seat?” After he heard her explanation he told her that she should at least sit on the passenger side so we both wouldn’t die in case of an accident. This advice Ann readily took.
Other customs to get used to while driving around town are passing on the inside while making a right turn at a traffic light and hearing the “toot of the angry horn” as soon as the light turns green. It matters not whether the first car in line has started moving. These “toots” usually come from cars several places back and not the second car in line.
Courtesy is not something drivers have in heavy traffic. It is dog eat dog every time. Cars inch along whenever traffic is at a standstill. Whoever can manoever their car between two others in the adjoining lane is the winner. It can be a very hard earned win as neither driver wants to be the loser. It isn’t very often that anything verbal is said between the two jockeying cars unless contact is made. At this point both drivers will get out, survey the situation, and take each other to task, while they compound the traffic jam for those behind them.
At the beginning of this article I said this represented most drivers but not all. I do see daily examples of courteous, law abiding drivers. One radio station gives away JA $1500.00 (US $20.00) to good drivers during their traffic reports. As upset as some drivers can get, I have never seen anything but patience when it comes to people learning to drive. Everyone learning to drive has to display a big red “L” on the front and rear of their vehicle.
Peace has finally come to the Casy household since we purchased a car with an automatic transmission this past January. Ann now gets to be in control at least half of the time. I, on the other hand, enjoy sitting in the passenger seat relaxing sometimes with my eyes closed. No, it has nothing to do with Ann’s driving skills. I have full confidence in her ability to get us from place to place safely. When my eyes aren’t closed, I have the opportunity to see more of this beautiful Jamaica instead of concentrating on the road.
After all is said and done, defensive driving seems to be the best way to get around this island. Ann, of course, probably has a different point of view! Later…