Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Guatemala is provided for general reference only, and may not apply to all locations or circumstances.
Driving in Guatemala requires one's full attention, and all drivers must take extraordinary efforts to drive defensively to avoid dangerous situations.
Traffic rules are only casually observed. Many drivers do not use their turn signals to alert other drivers. Instead, a common custom is for a driver or passenger to stick a hand out the window and wave it to indicate that they will be taking an unspecified action. Speed limits, lane markings, and stop signs are frequently ignored. Passing blindly on winding and/or steep mountain roads, poorly designed surfaces, and unmarked hazards, including frequent landslides and precarious temporary highway repairs, all present additional risks to motorists. Lethal head-on collisions are common.
All drivers involved in accidents resulting in injury may be detained and held in protective custody pending investigation. In several instances, police officers have been posted outside hospital rooms of drivers who were injured and they were not allowed to depart the country without judicial intervention. Such cases require the assistance of private local attorneys.
Common public transportation is by local brightly-painted recycled school buses, which serve almost every town in the country. Criminal activity and frequent fatal accidents, however, make the low-priced inter-city buses particularly dangerous. Modern inter-city buses offer some security from highway violence, but armed attacks are increasing, indicating that all buses are vulnerable. (See additional information in the CRIME section.)
Although city streets are lit, secondary and rural roads have little to no illumination. Driving outside of urban areas at night is dangerous and not recommended. The Inter-American Highway (CA-1) and the road from Guatemala City to the Caribbean coast (CA-9) are especially dangerous due to heavy traffic, including large trucks and trailers. There are no roadside assistance clubs; however, a roadside assistance force (PROVIAL) patrols most of the major highways in the country. PROVIAL can be contacted by calling 2419-2121. Their vehicles are equipped with basic tools and first aid supplies, and their services are free. Police patrol the major roadways and may assist travelers, but the patrols are sporadic and may be suspended due to budget constraints. For roadside assistance, travelers may call the police by dialing 110 or 120 or the fire department by dialing 122 or 123. Cellular telephone service covers most areas frequented by tourists.
Cars and trucks are often stalled or parked in the middle of the road. Tree branches are sometimes placed in the road a hundred meters or so before the stalled vehicle to warn approaching traffic of the hazard. While driving in or near large cities, be vigilant of pedestrians who unexpectedly dart across roads, even in heavy traffic due to the lack of cross walks.
Valid U.S. driver's licenses are accepted for the first 30 days of a visit, and international driving permits are accepted in Guatemala for extended stays. Guatemala's road safety authorities are the Department of Transit and the Joint Operations Center of the National Police. Drivers use the right-hand side of the road in Guatemala, and speed limits are posted (in kilometers) depending on the condition of the road. Speed limits are rarely enforced, and drivers often drive at the absolute maximum speed their vehicle can handle at that particular time. These drivers share the road with slow vehicles, some barely able to manage 20 miles per hour, creating a hazardous mix of velocities. Turning right on red is not permitted unless otherwise posted, and drivers must yield when entering a traffic circle. Seat belts must be worn in Guatemala, but there are no laws regarding the use of child safety seats. It is against the law for drivers to operate cellular phones while driving but cell phone usage while driving remains commonplace.
People found driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs are arrested and may serve jail time. For accidents resulting in death, every driver involved is taken into custody and the vehicle(s) impounded until a judge determines responsibility following a re-enactment of the accident. For accidents resulting in injury, the non-injured party may be taken into custody until a judge determines fault and financial responsibility.
In April 2009, Guatemala passed a new transportation law primarily aimed to limit the number of individuals on motorcycles and mopeds. Under this new law, motorcycles and mopeds may carry only one person, the driver. In addition, motorcycle and moped drivers must wear a helmet and a vest. The helmet and vest must each have a reflective band that displays the motorcycle or moped’s license plate number to be visible from five meters away. The law is applicable in Guatemala City and the seven municipalities of the Department of Guatemala: Villa Nueva, Villa Canales, Mixco, Chinautla, Santa Catarina Pinula, San José Pinula, and San Miguel Petapa. It does not provide exceptions to tourists and non-residents. All individuals are subject to the law and non-compliance could result in fines ranging from approximately $65 to $3,125. The law also has provisions limiting the number of passengers in any vehicle to the number stated in the vehicle’s registration papers. Bicycles may only carry one passenger unless designed for more.
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