Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Nicaragua, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. Driving in Nicaragua poses many difficulties and risks, including mandatory arrest for drivers involved in accidents that result in death or serious injury until police are able to determine who is at fault. Driving is on the right side of the road in Nicaragua. Motorists driving to Nicaragua should use the principal highways and official border crossings at Guasaule, El Espino, and Las Manos between Nicaragua and Honduras and Penas Blancas between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Although some of the principal highways connecting the major cities are in generally good condition, drivers should be aware that seasonal torrential rains take a heavy toll on road beds. With few exceptions, secondary roads are in poor repair, potholed, poorly lit, frequently narrow, and lack shoulders. Road travel after dark is especially hazardous in all areas of the country. Motorists are encouraged to prepare accordingly and to carry a cellular phone in case of an emergency.
In general, road signs are poor to non-existent. Bicycles, oxcarts, dogs, horses, and vehicles without lights are encountered at times even on main thoroughfares in Nicaragua. Motorcycles, often carrying passengers, dart in and out of traffic with little or no warning. Many vehicles are in poor condition, travel very slowly, and break down without warning. Drivers should be especially careful on curves and hills, as many drivers will pass or park on blind corners. Speed limits vary depending on the type of road, but due to a lack of government resources, traffic rules are rarely enforced.
Due to the age and disrepair of many vehicles, many drivers will not use their turn signals. Rather, it is common for a vehicle operator to stick his hand out the window to signal a turn. If you do drive in Nicaragua, you need to exercise the utmost caution, drive defensively, and make sure you have auto insurance.
Nicaraguan law requires that a driver be taken into custody for driving under the influence or being involved in an accident that causes serious injury or death, even if the driver is insured and appears not to have been at fault. The minimum detention period is 48 hours; however, detentions frequently last until a judicial decision is reached (often weeks or months), or until a waiver is signed by the injured party (usually as the result of a cash settlement). In accidents that result in death, drivers are usually detained until they reach an agreement with the family of the victim even if they are not at fault.
Visitors to Nicaragua might want to consider hiring a professional driver during their stay. Licensed drivers who are familiar with local roads can be hired through local car rental agencies. In case of accident, only the driver will be taken into custody.
The Embassy has received a number of complaints from U.S. citizens who have been stopped by transit police authorities demanding bribes in order to avoid fines. Motorists in rental cars and those with foreign license plates are more likely to be stopped by transit police. Transit police have seized driver licenses and car registration documents from motorists who refuse or are unable to pay. Subsequently, these drivers have reported difficulties in recovering the seized documents. U.S. citizens are urged to ensure that their vehicles comply fully with Nicaraguan transit regulations, including being in possession of an emergency triangle and fire extinguisher, and that the vehicle is properly registered. If transit police authorities demand an on-the-spot payment, drivers should ask for the officer's name and badge number, as well as a receipt, and inform the Embassy of when/where the event took place. Reports should be sent via email to the U.S. Consular Section in Managua. Rental car agencies should also be advised if their vehicles have been deemed negligent in meeting Nicaraguan transit regulations.
Avoid taking local buses. They are overcrowded, unsafe and often are used by pickpockets. Because of the conditions discussed above, traffic accidents often result in serious injury or death. This is most often true when heavy vehicles, such as buses or trucks, are involved. Traditionally, vehicles involved in accidents in Nicaragua are not moved (even to clear traffic), until authorized by a police officer. Drivers who violate this norm may be held legally liable for the accident.
Regulations governing transit are administered by the National Police. For specific information concerning Nicaraguan driver’s permits, vehicle inspection, road tax, and mandatory insurance, you may wish to refer to the National Police web site. You may also contact the Embassy of Nicaragua in Washington, D.C. for further information.
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