Drive and Walk Defensively

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.

11 thoughts on “Drive and Walk Defensively

  1. You are absolutely right on the money Don. Having driven in many countries with narrow streets and aggressive drivers, it did take a while to figure out the one-ways and lack of stop signs. On good idea is to not only look for a stop sign on your side of the road but also look for the back of one on the opposite kitty corner. Having a fairly large truck also helps to intimidate a little yellow Yaris.
    One thing I would like to see, and I have been asked a few times, is “What to do in the event of an accident”. i.e. Call the cops, call your insurance company, do not give your insurance details to anyone involved, etc., etc. It is very difficult to understand what is going on not fully understanding the language. Perhaps you could come up with a list of what to do and what not to do.

  2. Hi Mike. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. You raise a good question and I am not sure I have the answer. If a person speaks no Spanish, then that is a problem. I know my insurance company told me that if I were in an accident, to call them first thing. They said they would come to the site and take over. That has been my plan.

    I know you are not supposed to move the cars. I guess, what I would recommend is going to your insurance company and asking them. They are the one that is going to pay the bill and if you don’t do things according to their rules, then they may not pay.

  3. That’s all very well Don but I gets way more involved than that. When my wife had her little altercation, we paid for our vehicle to be repaired and Generali paid for the other vehicle. However, when it came time to take a “Finiquito” to court that was a whole different story. We had to get our attorney to sort out what could have been a major problem as a passenger in the “Yellow Peril” claimed an injury.
    Perhaps a little more research may be in order.

  4. As an afterthought, I did not explain what a “Finiquito” is. It is a document that the insurance company hands to the court which is supposed to relinquish all parties of further claims in the future. However, we had our company take out one paragraph from this document as it did not clearly state that fact. Then we had to get the other party to sign the document again before presenting it to the court. Things that they do not tell you. BEWARE.

  5. Here’s my experience with a one way street in PC. In 1994, my new wife and I left our wedding reception in PC about 4 am and began the 15 minute trip to our hotel a few miles away. The reception was held at a dulceria in the El Dorado shopping center. Since this was my wedding night, I decided to take some short cuts that I was sure would get us to the hotel much quicker. The short cuts took us down several dark streets. Well…I found one of those one way streets Don mentioned above. There were no street lights, signs, or lines in the road. However, I was convinced that if I headed down that street about 4 blocks, I would find the street that would take us to the hotel. So…I turned down the street and within a few seconds, I immediately noticed something was wrong. Parked cars on both sides of the street were all pointing at me. At the moment I saw the cars, I thought “uh oh” (I actually thought something else…but I won’t repeat it here). A mili second later, I see about 5 police officers standing in the middle of the street. I looked at my new wife, and even in the dark, I could see a fearful look in her face. I then realized I had messed up (but I won’t repeat here what I really thought). So…the police flagged me down and asked to see my passport (passport por favor). With wisdom and insight into tipping Panama style, I slipped a $20 bill in with the passport. After about 15 minutes of sitting in the dark, listening to some loud shouting and animated behavior by the officers and a couple of gun shots a few blocks away, the officer handed me back my passport and flagged me on. As I drove to the end of the street, I was very relieved to see the brightly lit street I was looking for…and my freedom. No sooner had I turned onto that street, when out of the corner of my eye I saw another police officer standing in the middle of this brightly lit street. He had just observed me exiting that one way street the wrong way. It was his duty to stop the offender and so he started to flag me down. When I realized I didn’t have another $20 bill in my pocket, I turned my head toward my wife (and away from the officer) and my new wife whispered in one of the loudest whispers I can remember “rapido rapido”…and away we went. Needless to say, I have bookmarked Don’s driving lesson above as a “favorite” in my web browser, to be read several times before we move to Panama.

  6. Hi Don:

    Your story is absolutely true regarding the way we drive in this country. It is as if we transform ourselves into different persons when we take the wheel. Faster is better, and with no rules is better still.

    In Panama City the situation is even worse, because of traffic congestion. We park our cars over sidewalks, over parks, over private parkings…absolutely everywhere we can. Yellow is green red is green…and green is obviously green. I’m not exaggerating when I say that driving in this city is suicidal. Just take a look at the daily news.

    I enjoyed the stories of your readers as well. Great post.



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