MEXICO CITY: Unruly traffic is a constant hazard in Mexico City, one of the planet’s most heavily populated cities, where more than four million cars jostle for space and the death toll on the roads is rising.
Yet amid this chaos, visitors are stunned to learn that all new drivers have to do to launch themselves onto the heaving, pot-holed streets is simply to buy a license – no driving test involved.
Authorities in the capital removed the test requirement several years ago in a bid to reduce corruption, as people were often bribing officials to pass them.
Now to obtain a license in the traffic-choked capital, a driver simply pays 626 pesos (47 dollars), shows an electoral card and proof of address.
“You could buy a license for 100 pesos (7.5 dollars) before. Even the outside supervisors were corrupt,” said Javier Munoz Echeveste, accidents manager at El Aguila car insurance company.
Crashes and near-misses are a daily occurrence on the streets of Mexico City’s federal district, home to some nine million people who race down multiple-lane highways.
“It’s a mess, it’s an anarchy. There’s no respect for the rules. Drivers learn empirically and they also drive aggressively which leads to serious accidents,” said Eugenio Munoz, director of the Panamericana driving school.
Around 24,000 people die from road accidents in Mexico each year, according to insurance companies – a figure almost double the annual drug violence death toll.
The figure thrust Mexico into eighth position in the world for the number of annual road deaths, according to official figures supplied to the World Health Organization. Top billing on that list goes to India and then China – the world’s most populous nations.
Road deaths are probably in reality much higher here, due to corruption at accident scenes, when many people simply flee, and with more than half of all road users lacking insurance.
Many argue that a national driving test, properly applied to reduce corruption, is still needed and forms part of Mexico’s promises to the United Nations for its 2011-2020 Decade of Action for Road Safety.
“Mexico has to place itself at the level of other countries and Mexico City of other cities ... where they have to study and qualify to be able to get a driving license,” said Rocio Mejia, general director of Cenfes, a non-profit health and safety training center for public transport workers.
As in many emerging countries, accidents have increased along with car sales, by around 15 per cent between 2004 and 2008, according to private road safety body Cesvi.
But while Mexico has shown some success with road safety campaigns, it keeps unusually lax rules on practical driving tests in many of its 32 states.
Some have only simple multiple-choice written exams while others, including Mexico City, have no obligatory training at all.
Only the youngest drivers, aged 15-17, need to take a driving test.
Meanwhile, authorities spend an average 60 centavos (less than one US cent) per person on road safety and awareness, compared to 600 pesos in many countries, according to Cesvi.
“The tendency is now just to collect funds for government budgets while accident prevention is left aside,” said Miguel Guzman Negrete, deputy director of road safety at Cesvi.
Seatbelt use is lax, despite being required by law. Talking on the telephone while driving is also banned, in theory.
A Mexico City breathalyzer campaign to reduce drunk driving has however been effective, with alcohol-related traffic fatalities down 28-30 per cent in eight years.
Set up by two universities in 2008, Cenfes trains the capital’s bus and taxi drivers and aims to avoid corruption. It has started to convince officials of the need to offer rigorous tests for all drivers.
Francis Pirin, general director of transport regulations for Mexico City’s government, is now working with Cenfes on a proposal to introduce compulsory practical and written driving tests as well as medical tests in the capital.
But Pirin warned it will have to be highly subsidized, in a country where almost half the population lives in poverty.
“Imagine a man who relies on a vehicle for work... imagine that that man’s vision changes and when he goes to get his license we tell him ‘You first have to take a medical exam to buy glasses.’ Do you know what problems we’ll cause?” she said.
“That’s also a concern.”