Driving in Oaxaca, Mexico, became a little more difficult in September / October, 2009. That's when federal, state and municipal governments actually began enforcing the law, at least in the City of Oaxaca and in parts of the central valleys. Until then rules of the road for driving in Oaxaca were on the books, but not enforced; or if enforced at all it was on a very sporadic basis.
As of autumn, 2009, the authorities have been out in full force in a concerted campaign to stop those suspected of driving without seat belts in use, using a cellular phone, and speeding. It's not as though enforcement is a bad thing, only that as a driver you have virtually no recourse in terms of disputing the alleged infraction.
Oaxaca still has a Napoleonic, inquisitorial penal system, and while change is in progress in terms of oral trials for the most serious of criminal offences, it's unlikely that drivers will ever be given the right to dispute highway traffic offences through the courts - at least not in this writer's lifetime.
The range in penalties so far seen is from being given a ticket, to having your plates removed, to having your vehicle towed. No doubt those with more serious infractions uncovered are being whisked off to jail. And since there's no such thing as "probable cause," the police can pop the truck and the glove box, as they wish, and try to uncover all manner of illegal material. So just watch out if you're inclined to smoke up and take along your grass, pot, boo, mota, hierba or weed with you.
The enforcement of seat belt and cell phone laws is indeed admirable, regardless of whether or not a bribe can be paid. But it's the use of radar guns to determine whether or not you're speeding, which is troubling, for two reasons:
1) The speed limit signs are simply absurd. For example, en route to the Sunday market town of Tlacolula, there are signs randomly indicating 40, 30 and then 60 - and not miles per hour. We're talking kilometers per hour. This is a major highway leading from the City of Oaxaca to the coast. And naturally one of the speed traps recently seen is just outside of Tlacolula along this stretch of roadway. Leaving the city and descending the Cerro del Fortín just beyond the Auditorio Guelaguetza, there are newly erected signs indicating 40 kph. At least here the limit is consistently displayed, unreasonably low as it is. And yes, the speed traps are there from time to time, with up to nine police officers awaiting you.
If you ask a Oaxacan what the speed limit is, he will on balance have no idea, for two reasons: the signage, as indicated, in many cases makes no sense; and perhaps key to the analysis, is the fact that drivers are now licensed without a requirement of passing a written or on-road test, since such testing does not exist. So there is no way that drivers will reasonably, of their own accord, go out and try to ascertain the limit.
2) In the US and in Canada, there are a couple of pretty good radar defences to which those facing conviction can avail themselves. Since in Oaxaca one does not have the right to dispute an alleged infraction in court before a judge, with evidence in chief, cross-examination, submissions and the rest, those defences are not available. You cannot question the officer using the radar gun regarding his training regarding competence to use the equipment, whether or not the equipment has been tested before his shift to determine its reliability, or based on
any other doubt you may have or wish to pursue.
The best advice is buckle up, don't use the cell phone while driving, try to find some speed limit signs, and drive accordingly - no matter how much those behind you are honking. And if you are in fact stopped, try to direct the officer's attention to the motorcycles whizzing by you, drivers without helmets, and on the phone and smoking - at the same time.
Alvin Starkman has a Masters in anthropology and law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Now a resident of Oaxaca, Alvin writes, takes tours to the sights, and owns Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com), a unique Oaxaca bed and breakfast experience, providing Oaxaca accommodations which combine the comfort and service of Oaxaca hotels with the personal touch of quaint country inn style lodging.
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