Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Panama, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States.
The information below concerning Panama is provided for general reference only, and may not be applicable for a particular location or circumstance. Travelers should carry identification with them at all times and be prepared to stop for unannounced checkpoints throughout the country, especially at night.
While U.S. citizen tourists are permitted to stay in Panama for up to 180 days without a visa, current Panamanian law allows foreigners to drive in Panama using their valid foreign driver’s license for a period of only 90 days. Driving without a valid driver’s license is illegal in all areas of Panama. Drivers stopped for driving while intoxicated may face the loss of their driver’s license, a monetary penalty, and vehicle impoundment. Talking on a cell phone or drinking an alcoholic beverage while driving also carry fines.
Panama's roads, traffic and transportation systems are generally safe, but frequently traffic lights do not exist, even at busy intersections. Traffic in Panama moves on the right, as in the U.S., and Panamanian law requires that drivers and passengers wear seat belts.
Driving in Panama is often hazardous and difficult due to heavy traffic, undisciplined driving habits, poorly maintained streets and a shortage of effective signs and traffic signals. On roads where poor lighting and driving conditions prevail, night driving is difficult and should be approached with caution. Night driving is particularly hazardous on the old Panama City – Colon highway. Riding your bicycle in the streets is not recommended, but there are a number of parks throughout the country where riding is permitted and safe.
Traffic roundabouts are common in Panama, and extreme care should be taken when entering and exiting them. Generally speaking, vehicles already in the roundabout have right-of-way over those entering, but demanding your right-of-way may result in an accident. Most roundabouts have two lanes all the way around, so it is a good idea to plan your exit and get in the proper lane so that you do not have to cut across traffic to exit. Be especially careful of taxis, as the drivers can be very assertive.
Buses and taxis are not always maintained in a safe operating condition due to lack of regulatory enforcement. Public transportation should be used with caution, especially the local city buses found in Panama City called Diablos Rojos or "Red Devils." A modern public transit infrastructure, using modern buses, is being rolled out and the Diablos Rojos are being retired, but as yet the security of the new transit system cannot be evaluated.
Third party liability auto insurance is mandatory, but many drivers are uninsured. If an accident occurs, a recent law requires that the vehicles be moved off the roadway; failure to do so could result in a fine. Individuals involved in non-injury accidents should take a photo of both cars and then pull their vehicle off the roadway. Exchange information with the other driver and wait for the police to arrive. Emergency response in Panama is not regularly reliable. Police may take hours to respond to routine accidents, though response is often quicker for serious accidents. Ambulances will take all injured persons to a public hospital for treatment unless proof of health insurance is provided at the time of arrival.
Road travel is more dangerous during the rainy season (April to December) due to flooding. Rainy season occasionally makes city streets impassible and washes out some roads in the interior of the country. In addition, roads in rural areas are often poorly maintained and lack illumination at night. Such roads are generally less traveled and the availability of emergency roadside assistance is very limited. Heavier road traffic during Carnival through Easter Sunday makes road travel in the interior provinces more difficult and dangerous. Carnival starts the Saturday prior to Ash Wednesday and goes on for four days. If you are interested in receiving real time weather, earthquake, and high seas information from the Panamanian Government, please visit their website or follow @SINAPROC_PANAMAon Twitter.
There is often construction at night on Panama's portion of the Pan American highway. There are few signs alerting drivers to construction, and the highway is not well lit at night. When traveling on the highway, travelers should be aware of possible roadblocks. The Pan American Highway ends at Yaviza in the Darien Province of Panama and does not continue through to Colombia.
The Panama Metro is currently under construction throughout Panama City. This public transportation project includes the construction of 13 stations, of which eight will be underground and five aboveground. There are ongoing traffic pattern changes and additional traffic delays, particularly during rush hour, due to the project.
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