I’ll Leave The Lights On For You

Every country has a slightly different approach to the enforcement of vehicle traffic laws.  The most authoritarian I’ve seen must be Australia, where drivers have been conditioned to drive no more than 5 km over the limit by pervasive and effective use of radar cameras, and to watch their drinking by random breathalyzer stops.  Many other countries post signs announcing radar cameras, but if drivers keep going 140 kph by them, you know that either the fines aren’t serious, or that they don’t work.  I think my credit card got charged $10 or something from a speed camera in South Africa in 2002.

The US isn’t quite so automated, but there are lots of hidden police and highway patrolmen with a thick sheaf of laws they can follow you in their high-speed vehicles and pull you over for violating.

Other countries seem more relaxed, and many of them seem to have particular fetishes they care about a lot.  For example, in Spain, no one seems to care how fast you drive on the freeways, but if you pass on the right, you’re screwed.  In 1997, it was $175 on the spot.

The style in Argentina (outside of Buenos Aires) is different.  Most grids of streets in small towns are uncontrolled intersections, and whoever didn’t get there first has to yield to whoever did.  Or who’s going faster.  Or who has a more expensive or indestructible car.  There didn’t seem to be many accidents, but there did seem to be several near-accidents.  There aren’t police in high-powered cars to pull you over (they mostly seem to have rickety small trucks).  Instead, there are numerous checkpoints where they’ll stop you maybe one time out of twenty, and see your license and registration, and ask where you’re going.

Because of this, there doesn’t seem to be enforcement of speed laws.  And the speed signs are a giant example of crying wolf — do they actually expect you to slow to 60 kph and then to 40 kph before every intersection?  Or to slow to 20 kph anywhere there might have been construction or might be in the future?  And how long are these signs in effect?  There are so many overly low speed limit signs that no one pays attention to any of them.  Lane markings for passing are a little too conservative, and they are treated as suggestions as well.  But there is one law that policemen standing there are in a perfect situation to enforce:  the law that requires that you drive with your headlights on at all times on the open road.

This was pointed out at one stop, when I learned it for the first time, and I was reminded gently at another stop.  But at yet another point in Mendoza, the policeman wanted to give me a US$100 ticket.  (Do Argentineans pay in dollars?)  This is where complete and utter uncomprehension of the Spanish language came in handy — he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to tell me how to pay the fine, and gave up and let me go.

But I’ve been very careful with the lights ever since.