Jaywalking in Guatemala

As a visitor to Guatemala, I’ve often heard cautions from Guatemalans to be extra careful crossing the road because cars have the right of way and might run me over.  Although cars give very little regard to pedestrian safety, there don’t seem to be any laws against jaywalking.  Pedestrians jaywalk across any street or highway anywhere at their own risk because cars clearly have the right of way.  In the US, it is illegal to jaywalk, but it is also illegal (more or less) for cars to run over pedestrians, so whenever a pedestrian does wander into a street, cars tend to try to give them the right of way.

On my first visit to Guatemala in the early 1990s, I was waiting for a bus along a two-lane highway in a small town that lined the highway with small businesses on the shoulders of both sides of the highway which were bustling with pedestrians.  At one point I heard a semi-truck blaring on its air-horn and I looked up to see an old indigenous man slowly walking across the highway in the middle of the small town.  The semi was barreling down the highway towards the old man who seemed oblivious to the traffic as if he were deaf.  The truck kept blaring its horn as it barreled straight towards the man without slowing.  As it approached, it didn’t swerve an inch and it ran right into the man, tossing his shattered body into the air like a flailing rag doll.

As his body flopped down on the gravel along the side of the road, the truck stopped blaring its horn, but it just kept driving down the road as if nothing had happened. Nobody chased after the truck and no police ever showed up.  It was the only time I’ve seen someone die right in front of my eyes.

A small group of bystanders immediately gathered around the dead man on the side of the road and a short time later someone came with a pickup truck and they loaded up his body and drove him away.  Someone told me that rural people died frequently in accidents like that because they weren’t used to seeing much traffic and the traffic that they did encounter in their rural areas couldn’t drive much faster than walking speed anyway because the dirt roads are so badly potholed.

When they encounter the new, smoothly-paved highways where cars drive at ungodly speeds, they are as unprepared for how to react as a deer caught in headlights and sometimes drivers give them less respect than they would a deer.  After all, an impact with a full-grown deer weighs 200 pounds and will dent a vehicle worse than a thin, little indigenous person, and we all expect that people will get out of our way whereas it is harder to know what to expect from deer.

The unfamiliarity with the highway among the rural indigenous has caused collisions with urban Guatemalans who are unfamiliar with traditional rural norms where vehicles drive slowly and get out of the way of the pedestrians.

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Posted in Development, Public Finance

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