This tope looks particularly nasty. This tope looks particularly nasty.

Stop signs, red lights have limited effect

But the tope is tried and true and the only traffic control device that really works

In some areas of the world they are called sleeping policeman, while north of the border they are called speed bumps and are normally only found in parking lots.

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In Mexico they are called topes and they are everywhere.

My first experience with this roadway impediment was in 1984 while cruising toward the tip of Baja California. This tope did not have any warning sign, nor was it painted to stand out for the unsuspecting driver.

My truck survived the brutal impact but every egg in my ice chest was prematurely scrambled. Ever since that abrupt introduction to the proactive Mexican traffic control device, I have endeavored to become an aware and wary motorist whenever south of Tijuana.

Now that I live in Mexico I fully understand the genesis and purpose of the lowly tope. This is a country where the general population disregards all forms of passive traffic control devices; stop signs, speed limit signs, signals, etc.

The topes are the only active deterrent to diminish the velocity of most Mexican drivers, period. In my life north of the border, I rarely witnessed a vehicle run a stop sign or run a red light. However, here in Mexico all intersections are potential death zones regardless of passive control devices.

The world’s first traffic control device was a stop sign erected, appropriately enough, in Detroit, Michigan, in 1915. Initially, the stop sign was deployed as a safety measure in residential neighborhoods and around school yards.

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However, if stop signs and speed limit signs were the only form of attempted traffic control in neighborhoods and around schools here in Mexico, the body count would be astronomical; hence topes.

I have come to the conclusion that there is an aspect of this culture which renders some drivers helpless in overcoming the sensation of raw crushing power when enveloped in an anonymous steel conveyance with a couple hundred horsepower at their command.

The open defiance of the passive attempt to control the actions of individual drivers is how some deal with the lugubriosity of a stratified society. When I asked my friend Juan why many Mexican drivers fail to use their turn signals, his response was classic: “What someone is about to do is nobody else’s business.”

This lackadaisical attitude towards passive traffic control actually causes some traffic lights to always look green and some stop signs to become completely invisible to most people.

Several years back I discovered a stop sign that is absolutely unseen by any driver in a car or bus. It only exists for people trying to cross the street.

A couple of months ago I witnessed something that brought it into focus for me; it was a quintessential “you are in Mexico” revelation.

While my Captured Tourist Woman and I were waiting for the traffic to subside so we could cross the street, I spotted a driving school vehicle approaching the corner.

I instantly thought to myself that finally here was a driver who would actually see the sign and stop. I could not have been more wrong.

As I watched in stunned amazement the student driver, along with the instructor, approached the intersection without slowing and just trundled on through like everyone else.

So I have come to the realization that if a person has learned to drive in Mexico, stop signs are treated like a minor nuisance; a meaningless accoutrement of the urban landscape. But since I learned to drive in a place where traffic laws are actually enforced, I still have the knee-jerk reaction of obeying these silent sentinels of orderly behavior.

As I attempt to blend into this laid-back culture, I struggle with my demons every time I force myself to run a stop sign or blow through a red light.

I find it helps if I just close my eyes for a few seconds as I, very hopefully, merge into the traffic flow. Going native is becoming easier every day.

Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at buscardero@yahoo.com.

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  • K. Chris C.

    Topes will continue to be used until the various Mexican governments figure out how, like the US tyranny has, to use traffic control signage as a means to mulct the citizenry to death.
    An American citizen, not US subject.

    • daniel pugh

      Oh for Gods sake Chris. Lighten up. Of course your a US subject. You’ve been brain washed since preschool.

      • Happygirl

        Actually, Chris calls brainwashed Americans “sheeple” so he is an American sheeple…he doesn’t even understand what a citizen is, what is required of a citizen, the rights and obligations of citizenship…he is an American citizen by birth only. He hates everything about the USA…you won’t hear him say anything positive about his homeland. He can even turn topes into a American plot….the tyranny of it all. You are right he is brainwashed…he has brainwashed himself…poor little sheeple.

  • I like topes for the very reason you state. It’s the only way to slow down the locals. And the reason that so many people ignore stop signs and stop lights is because there is zip traffic enforcement. You run one, and what happens? Absolutely nothing. You don’t get pulled over. You don’t get ticketed. Nada. There is no fear factor for drivers.

    You want to see where stop lights are ignored massively? Go to Mexico City. It’s incredible. Much worse than anywhere else I’ve seen in Mexico.

    • cooncats

      I’m not fond of them and there needs to be some standardization as to their design and spacing. Having said that, they beat the heck out of the alternative, an army of money extracting cops like they have NOB. And humor aside, the writer is correct–Mexicans do tend to ignore passive devices. If it is any consolation, there are far worse places in the world. Try Italy for example.

    • Rob Mellors

      I can testify to your comment regarding Mexico City, I live here and the abuse of the red light and traffic regulations in general is mindblowing. You can’t afford to be a shrinking violet driver in Mexico City, but the general attitude is one of “dog eat dog” and based upon pure selfishness. That said there are odd occasions of courteous, thinking driving and it brightens my day when I see it, or it is acknowledged by another driver.

    • MortimerSnerd

      Felipe, topes do nothing to discourage drivers from ignoring traffic signage or traffic lights… different problem,,, they are simply speed bumps… many topes not even marked, were installed years ago by some taco stand that is long fallen into disrepair… so there in the leafy shade of a tree… you ka-bang and you didn’t even know it was there…They are deliberately put in to slow traffic so some idiot can dangerously stand in the middle of they highway selling fish, camerones, sugar sweets, cocos frios… you name it …Many topes were deliberately installed to slow traffic so the drivers would see the plethora of mom n pop stands selling goods, and the drivers were moving slow enough to think about about pulling over for the a purchase. That’s why 50% of them are there… it’s not about safety. In some cases libre highways have unnecessary topes installed to discourage through traffic from using them…. encouraging the use of the expensive cuota highways

  • kallen

    Great piece and I agree with everything you said!

    Actually, the US could learn a lesson here because we’ll hire cops, give ’em a car, training, health care, pensions and a bezillion other costly benefits just to keep drivers honest. It seems to me a tope would be much more cost effectivo.

  • RickDrake

    A fairly new investigation about smog in DF found that the topes play a major part in the smog problem there. It’s the constant acceleration after going over the tope that creates the smog.

  • Bob Scran

    Just a small point: the world’s first traffic control device was a stoplight installed in London, England in 1898. Not all firsts occur in the U.S.

  • MortimerSnerd

    ….just try driving a tope infested 2000km highway in Mexico… you’ll soon learn to curse these suspension busting relics with a passion. Mexico City has 30,000 of them and they are being ground off as they are a major source of pollution and smog in the city. Constant acceleration and deceleration totally ruins a vehicles fuel mileage exacerbating Mexico’s already high fuel shortage. They cause more problems than they solve Brodie… The sooner they go the better

  • Happygirl

    My husband has become a better defensive driver because of Mexico…he has learned to mind read…signal lights mean nothing, lack of break lights don’t phase him…he can sense when they will turn the opposite way of their flashing signal lights , stop suddenly, turn suddenly, shoot across several lanes, speed up to pass on a two lane highway and miss the on coming moped by a hair…nothing bothers him. He shoots thru stop signs like a pro…merges into round abouts with nerves of steel…he can read a coming hair bend turn by the tire marks on the road and srapes on the guard rail. Topes occasionally surprise him…but he has memorized the location of everyone within our driving range. He knows not to drive in the early morning on Monday when every drunk is heading to work…and knows that night driving is for the insane. Yes, Mexico is the best defensive-driving instructor. But, I have to remind him to obey the road signs when we get back home…”Dear we’re not in Mexico anyone”.

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