I have been thinking about writing this for a while and the Saban’s accident, a while back, moved me to do it. If there was ever a country, where you need to exercise defensive driving skills, Panama is it.
I find Panamanians to be some of the nicest, most courteous, most friendly and most thoughtful people I have ever met. However, when you put them behind the wheel, they are more like AJ Foyt on steroids, after someone had just cut him off in the turn.
Crossing the street is taking your own life in your hands. There are many crosswalks, but crosswalks are interpreted a little different here. Crossing in a crosswalk means you have less chance of being run over. Drivers will not automatically stop for you. There are no “Walk” or “Don’t Walk” lights to help you. Be extremely careful crossing the street, especially if the is a taxi coming withing 50 yards. If you watch most Panamanians, they never trust anyone when they cross the street. Most wait until a car signals that they may cross in front of it.
If you are new to driving in David, you may find it a challenge even though this is a relatively small place. It is hard to find a street sign, so plan on taking a few days driving around to learn some basic landmarks. Three days of driving back on forth on streets in David and you will know where most of the important locations are. This is important, because all directions, that people will give you, will be by landmarks and not street signs.
There are one way streets in David. They typically run in a East/West direction. Most of the streets running East/West (one way or two way) do not have stop signs at every corner. However, all streets running in a general North/South direction do have stop signs at every corner. The street sign may be missing, or covered by a bush or tree, but DO NOT avoid stopping at each and every corner, if you are not on a one way street. The one time you forget, may put a reminder in the side of your car.
One exception, to the North/South statement above, is what is know as Calle Rapido in David. It is also sometimes called the street of the dead. This is a one way street that intersects the InterAmerican highway next to Cochez. While this is a one way street without stop signs (except for the intersection with the traffic light), you should still be careful passing through all intersections. Why do you think it got the nickname of Calle de los muertos.
Now I have said that there are one way streets and two way streets. You probably won’t be lucky enough to see any sign indicating that the street is one way. So how can you recognize that you are on a one way street. One way is if there are cars coming at you with horns blaring and lights flashing, then your turned onto a one way street and are going the wrong way.
What if there are no cars? If you are lucky and there are center stripes in the streets, they will give you a clue. If they are yellow, then you are on a two way street. If the stripes are white, then you are on a one way street.
If you plan to drive in David, or other places in Panama, the first thing to put into gear is your brain. Do not be driving thinking about the cute girls walking along the street. Do not have your mind on what it was that you were supposed to pick up in the store. Do not have your mind wondering why Chiriquí Chatter has been down for several hours. Just focus on driving. Anything less and a reminder may place itself in the front, back or side of your car.
Traffic is getting heavier in David and on all of the highways. It is worse on some days than other. When the Panamanians get paid, they will come to town and go to the bank and do all of their business. These day are heavy days. If you don’t need to get out on those days, you are better off not.
Panamanians drive fast and aggressively. Especially the taxi drivers. I would bet that at least 80% of all accidents includes at least one taxi. Most taxi drivers that I have seen avoid obeying any traffic rule.
If you see yourself approaching a potentially dangerous situation, like a car backing out of a parking place, honk your car. I have heard more cars honking here than in anyplace I have ever lived. If someone passes you on the left, they will honk to let you know not to change lanes. If someone passes you on the right, they will honk to let you know not to change lanes as well. If you are at a traffic light, horns will commence honking exactly ½ second after the light turns green. If you are in an accident and you were not honking your horn, the accident will be your fault.
Remember if you are driving at night on the weekend, remember that you will most likely be sharing the highway with drunks. You will also encounter a large number of cars driving without lights. Driving at night in a hard rain is extremely challenging.
The moral of this post is to be very careful if you are behind the wheel. Driving can be hazardous to your health and at minimum to your wallet.