Driving in Panama – watch out for hefty fines and some cattle!

Blog by Joy Huppe

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Police check-points are not uncommon. Be sure to have all your paperwork in order!

Ah, the pleasure of driving… the wind in your hair, tunes on the radio, that feeling of freedom when seated behind the wheel with nothing but wide open road and adventure ahead. More or less, we have all experienced this sense of motorized liberation in some form or another, even if only in daydreams. Here in Panama, as well in the U.S., the reality may be markedly different. Traffic, construction delays, unexpected police check-points with…what’s this?… a mandatory breathalyzer test? Thankfully you know better than to drink and drive, so you feel confident as you approach the blockade. You hand over your passport with a smile and a “buenas”…   and wait while the man in uniform flips through its pages. Hmmmm, there seems to be a problem. You’ve been in Panama exactly 3 months and 2 days… and suddenly you are facing not only a ticket with a fine, but your car is going to be towed. Also, because you were feeling so free and that pesky seat-belt was just a bit too confining, you had decided to skip the click that day. You were only traveling a few short kilometers anyway, and isn’t everything more relaxed here in Panama? In an attempt to smooth things over, you slip a twenty dollar bill out of your wallet with a wink, because you heard that this was an acceptable practice in these parts.   Well, the officer isn’t having any of it. Not only have you insulted him, you have incurred several traffic violations and are facing a potential suspension of your license.

Okay, so maybe this didn’t happen to you, but it could! Knowing traffic law in a foreign country isn’t just helpful, it is imperative. Luckily the rules of the road in Panama are similar to those in the U.S., so you should already have a grasp on the should and should-not’s. However, for visitors and residents alike it is easy to slip into a vacation frame of mind while traveling in this beautiful country, and neglect to be as vigilant as one should.

For starters, if you are here on a tourist visa, you are only legal to drive if you have a valid license (yes, your U.S. license is acceptable) and are within a 3 month time frame of the entry stamp in your passport. Now this may be a bit confusing to some, as a tourist visa is valid for 6 months, but that is just the way it is. If you get stopped and cannot prove you fall within the 3 month time-frame, you will not be able to drive away. Your vehicle will be towed, though you may be allotted 10-15 minutes to make arrangements for a friend to come to your aid and retrieve your vehicle instead. How do you prove you are within the 3 month limit? Carry your passport! Some folks advise that a copy of the photo page of your passport, along with a copy of the page with your latest entry stamp will be sufficient. However, this is not guaranteed to be accepted. Having your passport at all times is a better bet.   Also graciousness and honesty go a long way. Bribing officers is a thing of the past, and now may land you in hotter water than you already were. Do not think that you can buy your way out of a situation.

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He may not be real, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an officer around the next corner…

It is important to note that the penalties for breaking traffic laws here in Pamana have become more strict in the past few months. Fines are higher and the police are on the look-out for offenders. Know the rules, and use caution and common sense.

One such no-brainer is wearing one’s seatbelt. Every time you get in your car, make it a habit to put on your seatbelt… even if you are just going down the block.  If you are stopped and not sufficiently strapped in, you are facing a $100 fine, 6 points on your insurance record, and possible suspension of your license for 6 months with required attendance in traffic class. As the saying goes: Click it or Ticket it. Take it to heart. It could not only save you money, but save your life!

Another no-brainer: don’t run a red light. Panama Traffic Law #60 forbids this, and you are looking at 8 points on your record and a $200 fine. If the traffic light is yellow, that does not mean speed up! Since we don’t have any traffic lights in Boquete, and in David there are only a handful… most of us will not even have to worry about this. Yet in Panama City it is a different story. Just because you think you can beat the light, ask yourself… is it really worth it?

Next up: Panama Traffic Law # 36. This law prohibits the use of a cell phone or technological device while driving, and is taken very seriously. If you need to use your phone, pull off to the side of the road. And it goes without saying, don’t attempt to make any status updates to your Facebook account when you are behind the wheel – even if you are sitting at a standstill on Pan American Highway due to current construction, restraint the urge to check your email, send a text, or make a quick call.   Doing so will result in a hefty of $300 fine, 6 points on your record, and possible suspension of your license with mandatory attendance at talks to reinstate.

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Sometimes signs can be confusing… when in doubt, slow down!

As mentioned previously, it is not uncommon to encounter a random traffic check-point. The Transit Police will ask for your identification, driver’s license, and possibly paperwork for the vehicle. There may also be a mandatory breathalyzer test. Be warned that driving with alcohol on the breath will elicit a $200 fine, 10 points on your record, and required attendance at talks. Furthermore, driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics will get your vehicle impounded, your license taken away, and a fine will be determined by a judge. This is not something you want to have happen, so if you are going to be enjoying a cocktail or two or five – have a plan!   Just like in the U.S. a designated driver is always a good idea. Or better yet, take a taxi to and from your desired location.

Other traffic violations include driving on the shoulder (Law #51) and driving in lane reserved for designated persons, such as police, firemen, etc. (Law #50) – each of which will earn you a $200 fine with 4 points, and $150 fine with 4 points, respectively.

Last but not least, there is Law #66 which states that driving over the speed limit will result in a $150 fine, 8 points on your record, and possible attendance at talks. Be warned that the speed limit can change several times on one stretch of road, so be on the lookout for signs. A good rule of thumb is to slow down when approaching and entering a town, even if no sign is visible.

Traffic laws aside, driving in Panama can have unique challenges of its own. Some quick tips are as follows:  Don’t be afraid to use your horn! Drive defensively.  Be ready for the unexpected.   (You might not imagine turning a corner to find a herd of cattle in your path, but that is exactly what can and does happen!)  Leave enough distance between yourself and the vehicle in front of you. Keep both hands on the wheel.  Obey the law.  Do not make assumptions.  And always err on the side of caution.  For more information, a great article about driving in Panama can be found here.

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A road trip in Panama can reward you with spectacular views!

All that said, driving can be a highly enjoyable experience. Here in Boquete, it is almost impossible to get lost, as all the roads loop around and end up more or less in the same place. The vistas from the drive through Alto Jaramillo or Upper Volcancito are not to be missed. The drive across the mountains from David to Bocas del Toro is even more spectacular! Even the cross-country drive on the Pan American Highway is an event in itself. Granted, current construction to expand the road may slow down your pace, but at the same time you get a first-hand look at one heck of an impressive undertaking!   And at the end of the day, when you reach your final destination… at Casa de Montaña you can take comfort in knowing you have correctly followed the rules of the road, and climb into your comfortable bed with dreams of unfettered road trips dancing in your head.

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