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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.