Jamaica: Playing Chicken with the Jerks

Speaker's Corner: Roger Rapoport loves Jamaica. But driving on the island's roads? Not so much.

02.05.10 | 11:53 AM ET

Kingston, Jamaica (iStockPhoto)

Although Jamaica is famous for its marijuana and love hotels with subtle names like Hedonism, there’s no question that the best way to make a living in the country is driving a wrecker. According to American travel insurance companies that flatly refuse to sell rental car policies in Jamaica, this island nation is one of the worst places in the world to get behind the wheel.

Driving here is so precarious that outside the entrance to Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport, a large billboard displays the running total of traffic fatalities over the past three years. Of course, many Jamaicans are whizzing past so fast they never see why they should slow down.

While Jamaica’s fatality rate is exceeded by many other developing countries and has, in fact, gone down in recent years, it remains unacceptably high to government officials. Auto accidents are the leading cause of death among 10 to 24 year olds and the U.S. State Department points out what is obvious to any visitor: “Driving habits range from aggressive speeding and disregard for others to inexperience and over-polite behaviors creating uncertainty and hazards to pedestrians.”

Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly in 2008, Jamaica’s minister for Transport and Works noted that in many middle and low income countries like his half the patients in hospital surgical wards were victims of auto accidents.

On my recent Jamaican journey I ignored the wise advice of my insurance agent, Gene Fethke, who spends about $800 hiring drivers on regular vacations here with his wife, Karen. This was more than double the cost of the $400-a-week Nissan I rented for a trip with my wife.

I had flown down on a jet piloted by a captain who never set foot outside his Montego Bay hotel. “It just isn’t safe,” a flight attendant explained. To make sure visitors feel protected, rent-a-cops earning a couple of dollars an hour make sure harmless locals don’t try to crash all-inclusive (aka all-excluded) resorts. To create an illusion of security Jamaicans are banned from having a drink, a meal or enjoying a reggae show at some prominent resorts on their own island.

For me the entire point of visiting a foreign country is meeting the people who actually live there. Why live in a fenced compound, swim off private beaches and sign up for shopping tours that discourage you from striking out on your own?

If you really want to visit Jamaica’s villages, enjoy local restaurants and see some of its best mountain scenery and remote delights, you need to consider renting a car and carrying a cell phone for emergencies. Heading down the road on the left side, you would never know that Jamaica has a national speed limit—50 miles an hour. At one point, on my way into Falmouth, I was passed by a police cruiser going more than 90 mph with his gumball flasher off. He was chasing no one.

During my visit I saw hundreds of moving violations but never spotted an officer issuing a citation. Since most Jamaicans can’t afford a car they turn to cabs, vans and buses driven with the kind of death-defying skill that would frighten a NASCAR winner.

One of the most alarming features of driving in Jamaica is the way vehicles stop in the middle of the road. Naturally this forces irate drivers to constantly pass in the face of oncoming traffic. It’s common for motorists to do 180s in the middle of intersections, and when it comes to passing a long line of vehicles on a two-lane road, no one is scarier than a Jamaican driver. I know this is true because on the second day of my trip I narrowly escaped a Negril collision with a speeding white Toyota that decided to pass seven cars. You’re reading this piece because my wife and I swerved off the road in a split second.

Even slow-moving vehicles are a danger here. In late 2008, after years of crusading for safer driving, frustrated government officials were stunned to record the country’s worst traffic fatality in a generation. Fourteen passengers lost their lives when a truck flipped over a precipice while trying to back up.

With their seemingly bottomless potholes, rural lanes present unique problems, particularly on one-way mountain routes. Although major highways benefit from first-class new construction, there’s no doubt that “chicken” is the national pastime in a country where far too many drivers act like jerks.

Given all the risks, I decided to put the island nation to the ultimate test—a four-hour night roundtrip on a new road from Port Maria to Port Antonio. Several people warned me about the danger of hitting someone dozing on the serpentine road. On the long ride back to my hotel, I passed only a handful of cars, piloted by safe and sane drivers. Under a full moon, the brand new roadway felt like the highway to paradise.

Now it felt good to be riding through tropical forests, past waterfalls and rivers shimmering in the moonlight. The new road was an engineering marvel, with well designed switchbacks leading down into quiet hamlets. Great people, the Jamaicans, with a country they can be proud of as long as their drivers are home fast asleep.

Roger Rapoport is the editor of the "I Should Have Stayed Home" trouble travel series and the author of "Citizen Moore: The Life and Times of an American Iconoclast" (RDR Books).

6 Comments for Jamaica: Playing Chicken with the Jerks

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 02.08.10 | 11:15 AM ET

“This island nation is one of the worst places in the world to get behind the wheel.”  Very interesting.  We’re told that California and Arizona has some of the worst drivers.  Who knew it was so precarious to drive in Jamaica.  Writing about your driving experience would make for an interesting travel article.  It beats the same old, same old destination article!

“Jamaicans are banned from having a drink, a meal or enjoying a reggae show at some prominent resorts on their own island.”  What’s the point of visiting another country if you can’t mingle with the locals?  It is understood that Jamaica has a “rough reputation” and tourists are warned to stay out of certain areas, but to completely ban their own people.  That’s insane!

Kerri-Ann Coombs 02.10.10 | 11:21 AM ET

For anyone interested in Jamaica for vacation I would first suggest that you not spend the ridiculous amount for all-inclusives, even though they tell you about the great savings. who is really going to eat and drink that much? Come on, and then you have to pay crazy amounts for the activities they offer. I suggest a nice bed & breakfast or hostel. There are pretty nice ones in the Ochi Rios area. I personally stayed at Paradise Jamaica (you can search for it online) and it was really nice. I mean nothing will really compare to thebig hotels, but when you are going on vacation you just want somewhere nice and comfortable to fall asleep. You will save sooooooo much by going this route, and have a chance to really experience what Jamaica has to offer, rather than the fakeness and pretending that goes on in some of those big hotels.

Sherri Miller 02.10.10 | 11:51 PM ET

I am Jamaican, born and raised.  I was not aware that we had “villages”.

Stop complaining. No one asked you to go.

Ben Keene 02.11.10 | 12:36 PM ET

Thanks for the story, Roger. Reminds me of driving in Puerto Rico a few years ago. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a motorist put their car in reverse and back up on a four lane highway since.

Hal Peat 02.14.10 | 7:29 PM ET

You know, it’s “ganja” that’s smoked, not marijuana (not that I do or advocate either), and as to the all-inclusives?  The American middle classes are by and large not overseas traveling very much presently (newsflash: world recession put an end to that many months ago), witness the major staff layoffs at one prominent Jamaican all-inclusive brand in ‘08.  Also, there’s a program called “Meet the People” which any traveler can make the effort to take part in.  Aside from that of course, you can meet the people easily enough just like you can anywhere.  Find your interest and you find others interested, who happen to be Jamaican.  Then again, there’s many, many fine smaller sized conventional hotels and accommodation nowadays.  The roads?  Those on the north coast at least are hugely improved over what they were less than 10 years ago. Chu, man.

Linda Clarke 02.15.10 | 2:12 PM ET

There are tricks to driving in Jamaica:  Remember to stick to the left.  Know what roads to take beforehand.  Honk when going around corners.  Force your way into stopped traffic as they will stop since most don’t have licenses and don’t want their car taken by police.  Drive safely around potholes because you don’t want a flat in a bad neighborhood, even if the guy behind you is tailgating you.  Keep your windows rolled up when driving in crowds.  Drive during the day.  These tricks apply to other places as well.  I am a white female (Jamaican-American) that usually drives around Cornwall.  I do think if you are used to driving in LA or SF traffic, you will have no problem in Jamaica.

If you want to see the countryside, I recommend hiring a driver from a reputable tour company.  You can get one for the day, and just tell him where you want to go.  It’s surprisingly cheaper than a lot of tours, and the driver acts as protection or translator if you can’t understand thick Patois.  Tour drivers drive safer than taxi drivers.  Knutsford Express from Mo Bay to Kingston (stops in Ocho Rios) is very handy as well.

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