Culture shock and an encounter with the curb

Spencer McDonald
Ah, Mexico in January. Sun, sand, surf — and tequila. Dancing in the Drunken Duck bar. Oh yes, and Mexican public transportation. Yikes. After twenty-something years of teaching from the passenger seat of everything from heavy trucks and fire apparatus to police cars and pick-up trucks, I have developed a pretty good sense of where any vehicle I’m riding in is on the road — that is, where the corners are and where the tires are contacting the pavement.

So when I rode into town from our little condo on the north side of Bucerias, just north of Puerto Vallarta Mexico in a mini-van/bus, it was clear to me long before the accident that we were going to hit the curb. Hard.

Yet, I wondered as we came barrelling up the shoulder passing the stopped traffic in an attempt to get to the bus stop three seconds sooner if perhaps the bus driver actually did know where the passenger side tires were and we would miss that sharp, broken, six-inch curb-end that looked to me like the destination of our right front passenger wheel, which was right under my butt. 

I got my answer when I heard the bang as we hit the curb at around 60km/h. We bounced about one foot or so up and landed back on the road (and not down the small embankment to the right) which was fortunate as my guess is that no one including the driver (or me) was wearing a seat belt (yes, I looked for them, no they were not accessible). If there were shocks on that wheel before the launch, they certainly weren’t going to work well after that bump.

In Canada, for every 100,000 people we see about 9.2 traffic fatalities every year. In the United States, there are just over 12. In Mexico there are over 20 — more than twice the rate of Canada. But for every 100,000 registered vehicles, Canadian has a fatality rate of 13 per year while Mexico sees almost 80. Having said that, worldwide, Mexico is still a little bit better than average.

Our driver stopped the van and cursed briefly (and apparently skillfully) in Spanish while pounding the steering wheel then limped the van to the bus stop which was our original destination. He got out without a word of explanation and began to change the wheel. The one coming off had a “V” shaped bend about five inches deep from the curb edge and was completely ruined. The tire had come off completely by then and was lying back on the highway while everyone else on the highway just drove around, past or over it.

The rest of us piled off the bus and waited about 90 seconds for the next one, got on like there was nothing wrong and we were on our way again. “That was interesting,” I said to a fellow traveller who looked like he had been in Bucerias for a while (maybe since 1978). He shrugged and said “TMO: Typical Mexican Operation.”

I love Mexico, I love the people, the culture, the food, the pace of life and while there is much in the press about the violence generated in the drug trade, I never saw any evidence of that, nor did I worry too much about getting caught in the crossfire. What is did worry about was getting from one place to another on the highway.

This incident in the mini bus got me thinking though; thinking about how many people really don’t know the dimensions of their vehicle, like where the tires are on the roadway or where the corners or the bumpers are. When I trained police, one of the exercises was accuracy in tire placement. We required the candidate to accurately drive over a moderately sized marker to prove that she knew where the tires actually were on the road.

This type of practice, if you have never done it, will help you get a better sense of your vehicle size and “footprint”. You can do it in your driveway at home with anything small enough to drive over yet high enough to feel, like a small stone. Try it some time. It will help with parking and slow speed maneuvers and give you a greater sense of control.

And it may also prepare you to see it coming if you have similar experience as me in a foreign land.