Driver's ed in Mexico City: White knuckles all the way
Mexico City doesn't require adults to pass an exam for a driver's license, but there are driving schools for 'nervous people' who are afraid of the wild roads.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY RICHARD FAUSSET
REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY
Pedro Cervantes was speaking with his teaching voice. It was clear and almost mystically calm — the kind of voice you'd want talking you through the emergency landing of a passenger plane:
This is the steering wheel, he said. Hands at 10 and 2. This is your gas gauge.
Cervantes was in the passenger seat of a red, four-door Nissan compact from the Harvey Driving School, giving Patricia Sanchez, 52, her first lesson in how to drive.
Or, more specifically, how to drive in Mexico City, a seemingly infinite maze of daredevils and incompetents, of axle-bending potholes and curb-hugging taco stands, of signless seven-way intersections and baffling multidirectional traffic circles, of tamale vendors on tricycles and cops hungry for bribe money.
My dad and I drove around Mexico City in 1975. One day we tried to get to the Palace of Fine Arts, a vast marble theater so heavy it had sunk two dozen feet into Mexico City's dry lakebed since it was built in the mid-1800s. We could see it looming over the lesser buildings, but the randomness of the street layout made it hard to approach. Finally, we discovered a six lane boulevard leading directly to the Palace. As soon as my dad turned on to it, a policeman blew his whistle. Suddenly, six cars abreast came roaring at us -- it was a one-way street.
The traffic cop was standing right under where the One-Way sign should have been. He, or a predecessor, probably took it down to increase business. Police sergeants auction off the most lucrative corners in Mexico City, so the lowly patrolmen who win the rights to a tourist-heavy spot like this have to be enterprising just to break even on bribe rake-offs, much less turn a profit.
It's a place with 4.5 million motorized vehicles, a place where someone is killed or injured in a traffic accident every hour, yet adults don't have to take any sort of exam to receive a driver's license.
... After an out-of-control gas truck crashed and exploded May 7, killing 26 residents of suburban Ecatepec, newspaper columnist Sergio Sarmiento suggested that Mexicans, who are understandably fixated on the drug-cartel-fueled culture of violence in the country, should also focus on the culture of negligence. ...
But Sanchez, a retired social security agency worker, soft-spoken, with pink lipstick to match her nails, was looking for some peace of mind.
On the side of Cervantes' Nissan, blocky yellow letters spelled out:
"ESPECIALISTAS EN PERSONAS NERVIOSAS." Specialists in nervous people.
... In Mexico City, driver's exams for adults were phased out in 2001 after widespread corruption was discovered among test administrators. These days, aspiring license-seekers can simply show up at a government office with an ID, proof of residence and 626 pesos, or about $50.
Robert Kaplan wrote in the Atlantic once about how he was surprised to find in Eritrea in northeast Africa that you couldn't bribe anybody to get your driver's license, you had to take a rigorous driver's ed course then pass an honest driving test.
But, when he thought about it, Eritrea's high level of honesty and competence made sense because Eritrea is sort of the Prussia of Africa, a small country that fought Ethiopia for its independence for three decades and then fought a couple of tank wars with Ethiopia mostly because it liked war and liked the nation-building effects of war.
Eritreans treated each other as fellow citizens in a perilous joint enterprise. Mexico, in contrast, has been independent for 200 years, and there's little point in fighting either America or Guatemala.
City officials recently announced that an exam of some kind will again be required for adult applicants next year. That should be good for business at the capital's 29 licensed driving schools. For now, many of their customers are adolescents, who must show they took a driving course to qualify for a license. The rest are adults like Sanchez, the personas nerviosas.
She had paid 1,000 pesos, or about $80, for three two-hour lessons, consisting of a one-hour review of the controls, five hours of hands-on driving and a photocopied sheet of paper with basic, seemingly random tips: "Don't look at airplanes," "Don't put your faith in good luck."
Harriet Doerr's acclaimed memoir/novel, Stones for Ibarra, about a WASP couple moving to Mexico (played in the movie by Glenn Close and Keith Carradine) to restart a family gold mine lost in the Revolution is basically about how:
A. Mexicans always put their faith in good luck.
B. Mexicans never have good luck.
Just about every chapter ends with some poor Mexican getting maimed or killed, and somebody else saying, "Oh, that happens at this fiesta every year. It's tragic, but what are you going to do?"
Traffic laws were not part of the curriculum, Cervantes said. There simply wasn't time.
Basically, it is "a course in how to survive," the instructor said, laughing.
... It's unclear whether the return of the driving exam for adults will have any effect on Mexico City's driving culture. What would be considered bad driving in other countries — the rule-bending, bumper-riding and lane-drifting — is simply business as usual here....
Pedro Hoth, Mexico City's former international affairs coordinator, believes that Mexico City's driving style is rooted in the age of conquest, when only the Spanish and their allies had the right to ride a horse. Having a horse meant having a special claim to power.
"Today the automobile is the substitute for the horse, but the attitude is the same," Hoth wrote in a recent email. "It's a kind of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, this arrogance that many drivers experience once they get behind the wheel. The inside of the car becomes a space of arbitrary power."
This kind of automotive caballeroism is pretty common around the world. Driving around the English Cotswolds -- the most genteel landscape in the world -- was pretty harrowing in 1987, with normally polite Englishmen tailgating and honking on the winding lanes, transformed into The Humongous and Wes by the act of getting behind the wheel, liberated at last from the stifling class system.
The one place back then that automotive caballeroism didn't seem common was in my native Los Angeles. Angelenos drive fast, but other than maybe on Mulholland Drive, with its impatient Porsche drivers, there was little sense that owning a car made you better than the common man.
That's because practically everybody in the Los Angeles of my youth owned a car: capitalist egalitarianism, Henry Ford's dream. It turned out that some minimum level of general prosperity, Los Angeles in 1962, say, is actually conducive to safety, public order, manners, and responsible behavior.
Our elites have been trying to fix that problem ever since.