Driving in the Baja peninsula of Mexico has changed a lot over the last two decades I've been here. Baja's Highway 1 has improved dramatically, with smoother pavement, nearly every arroyo now bridged and many places even exhibit shoulders and passing lanes. Roads to remote locations have opened coastal areas that use to take hours of bone-jarring treks and soon the completion of Highway 5 will trim time from the journey from California to Baja California Sur along with opening much of the northeastern coast to exploration and development.
The number of vehicles on the road has increased dramatically as well. Since nearly all commodities for life on the peninsula are delivered by truck, commercial traffic has grown too. All this growth has come to local streets and traffic patterns designed with small town mentality bringing what some might even call rush hour traffic in some urban areas.
With more cars, better roads and higher speeds Baja has also taken steps into the current century with enforcement. Without a doubt, you will still find unregistered vehicles, some with missing parts and others that will leave you wondering how they will reach their destination. It also remains a reasonable assumption that a violation with a North American face behind the wheel is more likely to be enforced. So to avoid those DWG tickets (Driving While Gringo) here is a rundown of some transit laws that might surprise you.
Who can drive your car: Perhaps the most costly infraction and its enforcement is a spin-off of the new vehicle importation requirements, although it has been on the books for years. Mexican nationals can not drive foreign registered vehicles, not even with a note from the owner. This will result in immediate impound of the vehicle and a stiff fine of up to 19% of the value of the vehicle and potential incarceration of the driver. Technically this applies to those on permanent residency visas and was enforced in more than 30 cases in Los Cabos in 2013, according to the US consulate. The policy was suspended in late 2013 although there have been rumblings in the national assembly to have the Federal Highway Patrol to resume the practice in 2016. Only Federal officers, military and Immigration officers may request your immigration status.
Your license and registration must be current, regardless of where they are issued from. In Baja California Sur at least, legislators are hip to the South Dakota plates trick and have tried on a couple of occasions to enact laws to stem this practice but so far have been unable to come up with a workable solution since state and local officers can not yet issue tickets for insurance or ask for your immigration status.
Minimum liability insurance in mandatory to operate on Federal Highways, Baja California was the first to enforce this requirement, but now it is required throughout Mexico. It has always been our recommendation to purchase Mexican Liability Insurance when driving in Baja. Although it remains unlikely you will be ticketed for this alone, it can literally be a vacation and even lifesaver should you have an accident. You can be detained until restitution for an accident that is determined to be your fault, even if you wish to leave Mexico for medical treatment.
Cell phone usage while driving is something that Mexico has led the US on legislation but also faces challenges on enforcement. Officers may ask for your phone on a traffic stop to check the last phone usage timestamp. In the City of La Paz, the fine started out at $800 pesos, but recent changes in the Federal fines are likely to be matched locally.
Seat belt usage is mandatory and has been for several years now and is aggressively enforced both federally and locally.
Driving while intoxicated enforcement has taken a dramatic change since my arrival in Mexico. The original joke was if you are too drunk to walk to the store for beer take the car. Several years ago they announced suspension of checkpoints for the holidays because they didn't want people to spend Christmas in jail. I think the term is pretzel logic. This year La Paz announced additional enforcement and Constitucion announced broad testing of drivers in that central Baja city for the Semana Santa week. Fines for DWI are the most significant of all infractions and accidents resulting can result in criminal charges. In the event of even a minor accident, you may be required to follow the police to the local office for a blood test.
Speeding has become of more importance in Baja. Previously the conditions of the roads limited the velocities. With improvements in the roads, increased traffic volumes and demands of commercial transportation speeding is the #1 cause of accidents on the peninsula. Federal Highway patrol now uses radar and laser velocity checks. Use of a radar/laser detector in Mexico is illegal. Often the opinion of the attesting officer is all that is required and contesting an infraction is usually a waste of time.
Handicapped Parking spaces have long been utilized by just about any lazy person in a hurry. January 1 this came to an abrupt end in Baja California Sur with the enforcement and significant fines and even in-place booting of violators in Constitucion. Only local state-issued handicap placards are valid. Obtaining a Mexican-issued handicapped placard is done through the local DIF office. You must have Mexican issued plates and driver's license to obtain one, along with paperwork and an official formed completed by your Mexican doctor.
Window tinting on all side windows was made illegal during the height of the drug violence in both Baja California and Baja California Sur. Today this tends to be an add-on infraction, but in 2014, Baja California Sur had instituted checkpoints where your tinting was removed on the spot. Enforcement of this has diminished.
Drivers must stop in urban areas for pedestrians in crosswalks. This has been a big money maker in La Paz in the last few years, and besides, it is so hard to get all of the mess out of the grill work, so give them a break.
Pardon periods exist for many traffic violations. Prompt payment of your violations can get you a significant discount on certain infractions. There are no pardons on handicap parking and driving while intoxicated infractions.
Renewal of Annual Registration Stickers begins after the first of the year for Baja registered vehicles. Enforcement of the new period usually begins on April 1 and checkpoints are put in place with active ticketing on July 1 of each year.
Mordida remains an issue of course in Baja, certain cities such as Constitucion, Tijuana and Catavina remain epicenters for these practices. However, cities discovering that fines are a source of civic income is discouraging this from the inside out. Federal officers are much less likely to 'solve the issue' on the location and Federal fines can be paid in locations in most major cities. We have always discouraged paying mordida and it is as illegal to pay a mordida as it is to accept one.
Many of these infractions may seem unusual as you drive about the peninsula when you see local vehicles with no plates at all or those missing structural components. But it remains a fact that North American plates and faces behind the wheel will tend to garner you an infraction quicker than the locals. One good way to reduce your driving while gringo infractions is to drive a Baja registered vehicle. It also helps pay your way for your use of Mexican roadways. Drive safe and obey the laws.