Highway Signs | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Highway Signs

On Mexican highways you see lots of white signs. Some are useful. This one tells you to slow down. It lets you know the speed limit so you can deprive the traffic cop of that excuse for pulling you over. (Don't worry. He'll find something.)


Of course, nobody actually obeys speed limits in Mexico. Wealthy aristocrats in Lexuses see them as suggestions that don't apply to their caste. For campesinos in smoking '59 GMC pickup trucks, speed limits are mere aspirations.

To deter speeders, the authorities sometimes resort to threats.


Obey the speed limit or we'll put in speed bumps. Ah, topes. You'll go over dozens of them on any trip. Speed bumps on steroids, someone called them. You'll leave your running gear in a tangled heap on the road behind you if you don't see one coming and slow down for it.

A lot of signs give advice, like "Don't drive when tired."


"Use your seat belt."


"Drive carefully. Your family is waiting for you."


Oh puh-leez! Whose idea was that one? Like it never occurred to me that my family might miss me. Like I even think about them when I'm trying to pass that Flecha Amarilla bus. Thanks for reminding me.

(OK. I'm probably judging a little harshly due to my lack of acculturation. Families are very important in Mexico, and maybe this sign does a good job of tweaking consciences. Or not.)

Mexico is trying to reduce littering just like other countries. Many signs say "No Tire Basura" (No littering), but Spanish is a language of many syllables, the more the better.


This sign says "No Littering" in fourteen syllables, but nevertheless manages to leave a loophole: It prohibits throwing garbage in the right of way, but if you've got a good arm...

I found the sign below posted just over the line of the State of Yucatan. It appears to imply that those slobs from Campeche don't give a damn about their highways, but Yucatecans do.


If you're not willing to follow "no littering" regulations, and you can't be shamed into complying, then maybe you'll consider this more philosophical argument:


Yes. A clean highway is a safe highway. If you keep the litter off it, then all you have to worry about is the goats, and cattle and tricicladeros and the broken down truck in the fast lane and the bloated dog carcasses and the giant tire-eating potholes and the goddamn topes...

Uh... Sorry about that.

Up until now, the highway signs we've discussed have offered a small amount of useful information (such as speed limits) and a lot of gratuitous advice. Note that none of them tell you where you are or how far it is to where you're going, or if you should turn left at the next intersection for the road to Jalpa. We don't have those kinds of signs in Mexico.

But we have signs about signs. Like this one.


Observe the signage.


Obey the signs.


Observe and obey the signs. (A twofer, that one.)


Observe and preserve the signs. Everybody is getting sick of the signs. Better ask people to take it easy on them.


Yeah. Don't mistreat 'em. Or they'll sulk.


Don't destroy them either. (You need a sign to tell people this?)


Ah. I see. The signs are to help you take care of us. (Are you getting the impression by now that the department of highway signs is just a leetle paternalistic?)


And now we're back to the philosophical appeal. "The signs are symbols of security." Surely that'll deter spray-can-wielding cholos.

I found the mix to be roughly 50-50: fifty percent signs hectoring us about driving and fifty percent signs about signs. The latter convey no useful information. They're content-free. A waste of metal and paint and posthole digging. On the highway between Uxmal and Mérida, I saw eight in a row about obeying and not messing with the signs. You could destruya them all without effect.

How, you may ask, does a government working in the best interests of the governed wind up doing something like this?

My guess is that some Senator's nephew needed a job. So the Senator got a bill passed forming the Department of Advisory Highway Signs of the Republic of Mexico. The nephew got a fancy high-rise office with secretaries and staff and a limo and a driver, and then he set out to design signs. Never having driven outside of Mexico City, he had no idea what signs were needed, so he just used his feeble imagination and the result is as you see it.

You may think I'm being snide, judgmental. Consider then the words of Carlos Hank González, formerly Mayor of Mexico City and Governor of the State of Mexico. He said this for publication: "Show me a politician who is poor, and I'll show you a poor politician." Carlos Hank González was a public servant all of his life. He received no inheritance; only his government salary. He is a billionaire.

Here's one last sign which, when I first saw it, bent my mind:


"Don't Leave Rocks On The Pavement." Uh... Oookay...

Why do you even have to say that? Who would put rocks on the pavement?

I saw those signs for a couple of years before they made sense.

When in the U. S., we have a breakdown and block a lane, we put out flares. In Mexico, any breakdown blocks a lane because highways have no shoulders. Those drivers most likely to experience breakdowns are unlikely to have flares: they can't afford them, just like they can't afford to maintain their vehicles. Moreover, the lane may be blocked for quite a while because most people can't afford a tow, so repairs have to be effected in situ. To divert traffic, drivers collect big rocks and arrange them on the pavement in a "V" pattern behind the stalled vehicle. Plus maybe a couple to block the wheels, because the parking brake hasn't worked since 1983.

These rocks are dangerous. You hit one of them at 60 and you're gonna be blocking a lane yourself. So of course, any responsible driver would remove his rocks after he got the car running, right?

Not always. Every so often, I've had to swerve at the last minute to avoid a "V" of rocks just sitting there, no stalled vehicle anywhere near. So I guess those signs are necessary. We can only hope they're more effective than the "No Littering" ones.

I once saw sign that said "Don't build fires on the roadway." Because people build bonfires for those nighttime stalls. Fires, of course, at into the macadam, making huge potholes. Causing more breakdowns.