Mexico's most annoying tradition

Much more dangerous than incendiary salsas, tainted water or marauding bandidos, Mexico’s hundreds of thousands of speed bumps—in many sizes and shapes, sometimes marked but usually not, and lurking anywhere frequently for no apparent reason—stand at the ready to jolt motorists into fits of cursing.

This morning’s New York Times carried a brief piece by reporter Damien Cave about the curse of Mexican speed bumps. Damien, you don’t know the half of it.

At their most basic, speed bumps or topes (toe-pays) are a cheap and nasty Mexican solution to the very real problem of speeding cars.

On the way to the nearby town of Celaya, in the middle of nowhere and with little warning, you run into a string of five or six topes—and five wooden crosses huddled on one side of the road that tell the reason why they were installed: Apparently five people lost their lives trying to cross the road.

Topes near schools, busy pedestrian crossings or construction zones make sense. But the vast majority just pop up overnight, unexplained and at apparently illogical locations.

On the Richter Scale of topes, the ones on San Miguel’s Calzada de la
Luz are relatively benign, except there are more than a dozen
on a piece of street less than a mile long. 

Several years ago San Miguel drivers celebrated the opening of a marvelous silk-smooth highway that shaved ten or fifteen minutes from the drive to nearby León airport. Within a week or five, however, a series of ten or fifteen topes appeared. They seemed to be of the homemade, asphalt variety which suggested neighbors had taken matters into their own hands.

The screeching of brakes and teeth-gnashing all but eliminated the time savings and convenience of the new road. But just as quickly, someone—the government? irate drivers? the Almighty?—went by and scraped up most of the offending speed bumps. Some survived and others were replaced, and at the end of this brief but intense speed bump war we are left with five or six of them.

A double string of little turtles looks innocent but it can
bring out every rattle in your car. 

There are no engineering standards governing the height or width of topes. The most innocuous ones are simply a length of thick rope across the road, usually to signal a military or police checkpoint ahead.

Most colorful are the tortuguitas (“little turtles”), or metal half-spheres, yellow when new and imbedded in the pavement. They can deliver enough of a jolt to spill your coffee but at least you can see them coming.

The most lethal tope is the combination speed bump and crosswalk, up to nine or ten inches high and with a flat top four to five feet wide. Unless you approach them almost dead slow, your car’s front end will be on one side and your rear wheels still on the other—while your muffler and undercarriage scrape bottom. The deep gouges on many of the topes around San Miguel tell that story.

Our first car in Mexico was a VW Passat stationwagon that suffered innumerable scrapes. The low-slung profile made it a great road car with handling so sure its wide tires seemed glued to the pavement. But in San Miguel—Mexico’s national obstacle course with a combination of cobblestones, potholes, narrow streets, cyclists and topes around every corner—the Passat didn’t stand a chance.

Many other low-riding car models are similarly vulnerable. Toyota Priuses are hopeless and even most of the menacing Dodge Chargers of the Policía Federal seem to have had the bottom of their fiberglass noses chewed off by topes. 

A little-used road leading to a subdivision on the edge of town.
Why is a speed bump needed here? Because, why not?

A fun aspect of this tope mania, though, is to watch visiting chilangos—a not too endearing moniker for blowhard Mexico City visitors—in town for the weekend and trying to wow their girlfriends with their Mercedeses, BMWs and the occasional Ferrari, and instead losing parts of their mufflers in our little jungle of pinche speedbumps.

Topes, annoying and destructive as they are, survive because they are cheap and effective. They save the cost of installing traffic lights (San Miguel has none, and its many Stop signs are mostly decorative) and certainly of having a trained police force to prosecute speeders.

So the problem feeds on itself—drivers ignore speed limits because they know the police is not going to do anything. Even when they spring into action, cops often are out to collect bribes rather than enforce speed limits or other traffic regulations.

On the approach to the U.S. border, near Laredo, there is a stretch of road notorious as a shameless speed trap. There are curves, exits, lane changes, loopy loops and other traffic features—each stretch with its own speed limit—and an endless stream of clueless gringo drivers who neglect to speed up or slow down accordingly. Like shooting fish in a barrel, many get stopped by the police though usually a cash contribution to the officer makes the problem go away.

And to the New York Times reporter, here’s a free piece of advice on clearing topes without wrecking your car. First, slow down almost to a crawl. Then tackle them at a sharp angle, so at least one of your tires remains on the tope and you don’t bottom out.

If that doesn’t work, I dunno, have you considered buying an SUV?


5 thoughts on “Mexico's most annoying tradition

  1. We recently spent three months in San Miguel, while walking the streets in the begining I always felt like someone was in a car was following me just slightly behind me at slow speed. Rather unnerving! It only took a short time to realize they were slowly down for the topes. Here in Vancouver if a car follows you like that it spells trouble.That road to Celaya is crazy. Peter was the lookout for topes for our crazy american driving friend but her reaction time varied to his shouts. Amazing her car is fine. Thinking back this makes me laugh.Cheers


  2. I have a tope story to share. I test drove a new SUV in Tijuana and hit one going 40 km/h when I should have probably hit it at 20 km/h. I learned my lesson. By the way, I was impressed as to how the SUV handled it.


  3. Anonymous

    You write, At their most basic, speed bumps or topes (toe-pays) are a cheap and nasty Mexican solution to the very real problem of speeding cars.They really are a cheap and nasty solution to totally ineffective policemen. Put out a few US trained cops and an effective method to enforce fines, and you wouldn't need topes. Saludos,Kim GCDMX, MéxicoWhere we have the gall to walk out in front of cars in the crosswalk.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s