Driving in Puerto Rico

Posted on 12/27/2015 in misc

All the tourism sites, and even friends that had been to Puerto Rico warned me about driving on the island. However, unless you are staying in Old San Juan and don't plan to leave the city, you kind of have to have a car to visit PR. So I rented a car, and got a 2016 Hyundai Sonata with about 300 miles on it. I put 700 miles on the car in a week, so I'm totally qualified to comment on driving in Puerto Rico.

In a lot of ways it really isn't much worse than driving in Boston or NY, if you can imagine doing that in an environment where general disregard for basic driving laws is normal (even more so than normal for those towns). So, in no particular order, here are some observations about driving in Puerto Rico.

  1. Turn signals are a sign of weakness. Seriously, it got to where I was so surprised to see somebody signal a turn or lane change that I automatically assumed that driver was another visitor from off-island.

  2. Speaking of lanes, many roads in PR simply don't have lane markers or a center line. It's unclear if that is a result of the budget crisis in the country and a lack of road maintenance funds, or if the government simply gave up because drivers don't really pay any attention to the lane markers. Drivers in Puerto Rico make their own lanes wherever they need them. Intersections get completely backed up where drivers have created 4 lanes where there should only be two, or one.

  3. I read a lot about how bad the roads were in PR, but I really didn't think they were any worse than a Midwest city after a bad winter. They are definitely patching more than repaving, due probably to budget issues. But I never drove on a road where I felt like the speed limit was dangerous due to road conditions.

  4. Speaking of speed limits, for all their disregard of right-of-way and stoplights, drivers in PR do obey the speed limit. On the highways, 80% set cruise control to the speed limit, the other 20% set it 15 mph below the speed limit. I probably don't even need to address the question of whether or not all those slow drivers stay in the right line.

  5. Stoplights are suggestions. If a driver in Puerto Rico has a red left turn arrow and there is no oncoming traffic, they make the left. That is actually legal between midnight and 6 AM in PR, but the drivers have extended that to 24 hours. Honestly, it's not a bad idea. I've probably wasted weeks of my life by now at the left turn off the main road near our house.

  6. In Rincon, you will see horses in traffic. Be ready for it.

  7. Even in a parking lot with ample parking, drivers in PR will park illegally on the curbs. They just seem to prefer parallel parking to pulling into a parking spot. The general rule seems to be if that your car almost fits, it's close enough and a valid parking spot. Also, they don't worry about parking with traffic. Several times I came around a narrow corner to be faced with cars on both sides of the road parked facing me, causing a momentary panic that I was driving the wrong way on a one way road. I was fine, it's just how they park there.

  8. In Rincon at least, they don't control traffic during a parade. So we got the surreal experience of being in the car on a two lane road, with a parade in the other lane. You can imagine what that does to traffic.

  9. Drinking and driving seems to be tolerated in Rincon, although to be fair they are all drinking Medellia Light, which is pretty damn close to water, so maybe it's ok.

  10. When turning right onto a busy road, drivers in PR simply stick the front end of their car out and assume you'll stop, or maybe dare you to hit them. Take your pick. And remember, they don't use turn signals.

  11. This one is for the Fredericksburg locals. The drive from San Juan to Rincon is about 2:15. The first hour is interstate like toll road, then in Aricebo you pick up PR 2, which is Caribbean twin of RT 3,. Imagine driving from 95 to Rt 20 and back 3 times consecutively, and you have a fair approximation of the drive on RT 2. It's way more scenic in spots, but I could have taken pictures of intersections and convinced you they were from the states. There is a Burger King / Churches Chicken / McDonalds / Wendy's (pick 2) on every corner, and also a Walgreens at every other stoplight.

  12. If you are stopped at a stoplight in PR somebody will be there selling something. The most common we saw were bottled water ($1 each so a good deal if you are thirsty), produce, $5 pizza from a local chain, candy, and Christmas wrapping paper. Likewise it seems as though anybody can set up a BBQ grill and a sun shade and sell food. We ate roadside BBQ once and it was just fine. A skewer of BBQ chicken and a chunk of bread was $2 - can't beat those prices.

  13. If pedestrians have the right-of-way in a crosswalk nobody bothered to tell the drivers. The most common reaction to stepping into a crosswalk is the nearest driver revving the engine to warn you he isn't slowing down, let alone stopping. This was worst in San Juan. Drivers in Rincon seem to be more relaxed, maybe because they are all drinking :)

  14. Gas wasn't as expensive as I expected. It's sold in liters, and we calculated the per-gallon equivalent at about $2.25. More expensive than VA, but not dramatically so.

  15. Puerto Rico is metric, except for speed limits. So the distance signs are all metric, but the speed limit signs are in miles per hour. Also, in the rental car anything hardware related was in English, anything software was Spanish. So the LED screen is all Spanish, but the AC / Heat buttons are English.

The craziest thing we saw - we were coming back from the rain forest and there were about a dozen cars backed up trying to turn left onto a very busy 4-lane road at an uncontrolled intersection. A beat up pick-up came roaring up the wrong side of the road, passed us all, pulled out into the intersection and stopped, thereby forcing traffic to stop so we could all turn left. I didn't make it to the front before the truck moved on, so I took the cowards route and turned right and then made a u-turn at the next light.

I survived the week with no damage to the rental car. However you do need to be comfortable driving aggressively if you are going to rent a car in Puerto Rico. Defensive driving is not a thing there, and in fact would probably be dangerous.

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