A Guide to Safer Driving in Buenos Aires

(This article was written for the Buenos Aires Herald on May 17th, 1997)

While not yet having had the pleasure of being in Rome, where I am told the drivers are quite “interesting”, I have been lucky enough to experience many different cities around the world, both as a pedestrian and as a driver. In Auckland, the drivers are rather peaceful and there aren’t a lot of them as the city only has about 1 million people. In Sydney, they’re generally law abiding with the odd reckless maniac, which is to be expected with a population of about 4 million. In Boston, another city with about 4 million inhabitants, they’re generally “Driving While Clueless” and in San Francisco, they’re often trying to avoid their hallucinations. In Manhattan, they’re driving with intent to be somewhere else, know where they’re going and are doing their damnedest to get there as soon as possible. Both Paris and London have lots of traffic but they still manage to provide the air of ordered chaos that is common with driving in a large city, provided we ignore Hyde Park corner and the Arc de Triumph.

Of course, all this fades into insignificance when compared with driving here in Buenos Aires. Statistically speaking, driving in this city should be similar to driving in a city like Manhattan: lots of traffic with a bit of excitement but no real problems if you keep on top of things. This naive concept was forcefully driven from my mind on the first day I arrived as I took a taxi from the airport to my hotel in the center of the city, arriving at about 5pm on a Monday. Over the past fourteen months that I’ve been living here, I have been reminded on a daily basis just how dangerous it is to be in any way involved with roads here in Buenos Aires, either as a driver or as a pedestrian.

The “Lonely Planet Guide To Buenos Aires” book states that more people in Buenos Aires would die from lung cancer if it weren’t for the number of people killed by traffic. I would tend to believe this as I have spoken to many locals and the majority of them have had friends, friends of friends or family killed or maimed in automobile accidents.

To say that drivers here have a death wish is probably in the extreme, but they certainly drive as if they are invincible. I’m not sure where this “invincibility” comes from, whether it comes from religion, ego or reading automobile advertising brochures which make big issues of the “safety factors” built into their products. Regardless of its source, the results can certainly be stressful, if not terrifying, for the non-native driver.

In an effort to assist those trying to survive their walk or drive in Buenos Aires, I have the following advice:

  • If walking, avoid all pedestrian crossings as they are the ultimate tourist traps in Buenos Aires. They are the watering holes of the jungle, the buses are the lions, the taxis are the hyenas and you are the zebras. Don’t assume that cars will stop, even if there is a little light with a cute picture showing a human walking. This is just to further lull the tourists into thinking that Buenos Aires is like their home town where the cars will stop for them.
  • When driving, think and act like an asshole. No-one is more important than you and your needs are above all others, thus making it legitimate for you to make that six lane turn across 9 de Julio at rush hour when you realise that the street you wanted was just back there.
  • Ignore those stupid lines in the middle of the road as they’re obviously only there for decoration. I’m sure you can get at least two taxis and a bus side by side where those lines say there is space for only one vehicle. To paraphrase a U2 song, Buenos Aires is the city “Where the Streets have no Lanes.”
  • Traffic lights are guides for the weak. Why wait for the amber “get ready to go” signal when you know that the other side is about to get their amber or nothing is coming? Another option is to use the fact that traffic is stopped and nothing is coming towards you so you can race up the outside of all the other cars and beat them all across, changing back to the correct side of the road when the lights do change.
  • When arriving at an intersection, be tough and keep going, the other guy probably doesn’t have insurance either. If you want to practice your mathematics, balance the size of your ego and desire for adventure against factors such as the size of the opposing vehicle, whether it is a bus or a taxi and how old it looks. The latter is important as drivers of newer cars have more to lose and will probably stop sooner.
  • If the lights are green, drive into the intersection, regardless of the three blocks of stopped traffic in front of you. Eventually you’ll get across and besides, while you’re stuck in the middle as the lights change, you can turn up your stereo and ignore all those annoying noises from the cars who are now trying to move from the other direction.
  • If you’re a bus driver, yes, you are Fangio and your enormous, stinking, noisy pile of rust will handle exactly like a Ferrari. Drive as fast as you can and don’t worry about stopping in the middle of the road to pick people up, you can always blame it on the empty taxis crawling along by the sidewalk that made it impossible to pull over.
  • The speed you travel at is determined by you, not the traffic conditions or official limits. If you think you can do 200kph down the highway in the pouring rain, dodging around the slower traffic like a downhill skier, go for it. On the other hand, why not drive at 40kph in the fast lane? It will certainly give the speed freaks another obstacle to practice with.
  • Don’t bother watching the road as there’s nothing to see except other lunatics. Look around you at the sights, the people and the accidents.
  • Turn indicators are obviously something from a previous age that evolution never took any further and hasn’t bothered to remove, much like a human’s appendix. Their main use is to get in the way when trying to turn the wheel or to be left on continuously. Don’t worry about it, because no one else will believe you if use them.
  • Headlights let others know you’re coming so don’t use them. Surprise attacks are always the most successful.
  • Don’t be afraid to drive while under the influence of various mind altering substances. In this city, no one will notice the difference.

Having said all this, I must admit that I quite enjoy driving in Buenos Aires as it lets me do all those things that I can’t do in other cities without getting thrown in jail. My friends here say that I have become a real Portenyo as I’ve mastered the art of flinging colourful epithets at other drivers without stopping my conversation or interfering with my driving ability. I guess it was all those Mad Max RoadWarrior movies I watched as a kid.

In summary, I think that the only way to drive safely in Buenos Aires is by driving an Abrahms tank, as used by the US military with devastating effect in the Gulf War. If such a vehicle is beyond your means, just make do with what you have, follow the above guidelines and make sure your medical and life insurance are fully paid up.