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
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.