One of the first pieces of advice I received when I arrived in Caracas, Venezuela, was, "There are no traffic laws, only suggestions." By the end of my six-month stay, I realized that a country's driving culture can be a window into the larger society.
I was doing an internship in Caracas as part of an MBA program, and the six-mile drive to work took anywhere from 15 minutes to more than an hour, depending on traffic. Although the Autopista Francisco Fajardo was built for four lanes, cars managed to form six lanes during rush hour, using every bit of roadway, including the shoulder. The lines painted on the highway were purely decorative and generally ignored.
Late at night, when there was less traffic, the roadway became a racetrack, with young men weaving in and out of traffic at terrifying speeds.
One night, there was a bad accident, and traffic on both sides of the divided highway came to a standstill for several hours because people stopped their cars and got out for a closer look. A crowd of several hundred people gathered on the hill overlooking the crash site to view the scene as if it were an extreme sporting event.
I also was warned to always roll up the car windows when driving. Friends said that motorcyclists zip between the lanes of cars, snatching jewelry from the necks of unsuspecting motorists stopped at traffic lights.
I didn't listen. One afternoon, while I was waiting at a red light, my sunglasses were grabbed right off of my face. The motorcyclist never stopped moving as he blithely continued on through the cars. After that, my windows stayed up.
The strangest situation was when I was stopped for speeding by the notoriously corrupt police. When the officer pulled me over, I pretended I didn't understand Spanish, hoping he might give up and just let me go. I ended up going native. I gave the officer enough money to treat himself and his senora to a steak dinner, then was allowed to go on my way. Of course, no ticket was issued. It was both frightening and amusing.
In retrospect, I learned more about the art of negotiation on the highways of Caracas than in the safety of the office where I did my internship.
I realized that their take-no-prisoners driving style was based on a fundamental rule. In Caracas, as on I-95, everyone drives to win the race - and expects all the other cars to do the same.