By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
It’ll only take one fatality or maiming injury on a road in Huatulco or Puerto Escondido to get gringos to smarten up. It makes no difference whether you’re an expat resident of Oaxaca, a snowbird, or a one-week tourist. And it definitively shouldn’t provide you with any solace calling it a scooter rather than what it is, a motorized vehicle affording its driver no protection at all, travelling alongside cars and trucks whizzing by.
Highway traffic rules which do exist in Oaxaca are rarely enforced, including impaired driving, vehicle mechanical fitness and licensing of drivers. In fact, if you’re 18 years of age, all you have to do to get your drivers’ license is attend at the ministry office with your ID, proof of residence, particulars of a next of kin in the event of a serious accident and pay a modest fee; no eye test, no written test, no road test. And if you want licensing to drive a big truck, all you do is pay a little more.
The driver next to your 70 cc Chinese Italika scooter could be a kid driving a dump truck with bald tires and badly worn break pads – a teenager who has never been in a vehicle before that day let alone driven one, yet he’s legal. Couple that with the lack of enforcement in case he’s doing something illegal (i.e. drinking or driving unlicensed) and you get the picture.
It doesn’t matter how good a rider you are, and with how much experience. In the state of Oaxaca you’re much more at the mercy of those driving around you than when you’re touring on your motorcycle back home.
Buying, Renting, Equipping
Whether buying a motorcycle or scooter for regular use (it’s always better to spend a bit more for a Japanese brand), or renting during your vacation, do not get on a bike that is less than 125 cc. This size sufficiently enables you to extricate yourself from potential accidents because it provides the bare minimum of power to avoid a pedestrian or other vehicle. Many novices think that a small scooter is all that’s needed, “just to get around.” But your vehicle should do more. It should enable you to stay safe. Furthermore, with something too small you might not have the confidence to keep up with other traffic and hold or take up your entire lane.
With so many cyclists riding helmetless in Oaxaca, the temptation to do so may arise, especially in hot weather. Always wear a full face helmet. Don’t buy a bicycle helmet. They’re generally not made to sustain the impact of a motorcycle accident. Buy a brand rated in the US or Canada. A Oaxacan friend, an experienced off-road rider, was “just going to the store” so didn’t wear his helmet. He ended up with a fractured jaw. When you’re tempted to give your partner or a friend a short ride home or to their hotel, don’t, unless you have a second helmet with you.
Leathers were always an imperative for me riding in Canada. But I’ve never made it a hard-fast rule here in Oaxaca – except when it comes to gloves. You’ll naturally try to use your hands to break your fall, so why not have that protection, something that stretches rather your skin, which breaks, bleeds and exposes bone. Never wear shorts. Denim is next best to leather, and won’t be overly uncomfortable since it is cotton.
Rules of the Road
Keep up with the traffic flow, and hold your lane rather than motor along next to the curb. Heeding these two suggestions will reduce the likelihood of someone clipping you while trying to pass you in your lane. Weaving between lanes should not be an issue on the coast because of the lack of traffic, but it certainly occurs with frequency in the state capital because of congestion. In any event, resist the temptation. Weaving is one of the easiest ways to hit a pedestrian, another motorcycle, or an opening car door.
When stopped at a light, keep both feet on the ground rather than rest one on a foot stand. Maintaining your balance in this way reduces the likelihood of falling if struck from behind.
Insurance is optional in the state of Oaxaca. In the capital only 22% of vehicles are insured. At minimum buy liability insurance. If you’re in an accident, and someone is injured, without insurance you could end up in jail, even if you claim it wasn’t your fault. Even with insurance the police have the right to hold you until they are certain that your insurance is current. If you are insured as owner of a car, you may be covered under that policy for liability while riding your motorcycle, so check with your representative.
A few closing words of caution: do not ride along the grease spot mid-lane, avoid breaking while turning, periodically check tire pressure, exercise extra caution when it’s been raining, always be aware of what’s around you, and have your bike serviced every six months. While this advice won’t always protect you from the other guy, it’ll increase the likelihood of years of safe riding.
Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com). After his two brushes, Alvin no longer rides off-road for pleasure or borrows friends’ larger bikes for highway touring. Alvin has been accident free while in his SUV taking visitors to Oaxaca to tour the central valley sights.