The driving game is played differently everywhere you go, be it California freeways, New York City, or Paris. Santo Domingo is no exception. Hand signals for right and left turns and for stopping are, technically, exactly the same here as in the United States. So, a person can drive here with no genuine problems.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of signals unique to this country. These would be helpful to know, too, if you are going to drive here. And they are not in the books.
One rare signal is not made by the driver of the car at all. The person in the passenger seat usually makes it. He sticks his arm out the passenger-side window and, keeping it straight, palm forward, waves it up and down. Usually he looks back at the cars behind to see if they will heed his signal and communicates his observations to the driver. His arm waving means: “We want to turn right,” or “We want to move into the right-hand lane. Let us move over.”
Hand signals in general are rather ambiguous in this country. The top signal often gets confused with the left turn signal. And the right-hand turn gesture is seldom used. This is especially true of women, a man would say.
The driver’s arm out the window may mean he is going to stop or pull off to the right, if he is moving; or it may mean he is going to go, as with a cab driver who has just stopped to take on a passenger. It may also mean he is turning or pulling to the left—even though the arm is in the same posture as when the signal means “stop.” That is, the arm usually has only one position: straight out at window level, palm forward.
Someone once said that to drive in Santo Domingo you need a horn more than brakes. Was he right! Dominicans use the horn from dawn to dusk. And there are innumerable varieties of beeping.
One little short beep: “I’m here: do you see me?” This signal, however, if used at a stop light, is particularly insulting to foreigners. Yet Dominicans love to play the game this way. It then means, “The light is green, stupid. I saw it before you did. Now get moving!” At least, that is how foreigners interpret that beeping. Of course, Dominicans want motion, but they mean no offense.
Two little beeps, for instance at an intersection: “I’m coming through.”This is an announcement of intentions subject to last-minute change. Whereas...
Two long beeps: “Out of the way” or “Watch out! I’m coming through, and if you get in the way, we will have an accident.” Maybe it is part of the “machismo” phenomena. Maybe not. But for sure, Dominicans play a lot of “chicken” on the road. The driver with the most nerves of steel gets to go first.
This is not only true at intersections, but with passing everything else. “He who hesitates is lost.” The thing to remember here is that hesitation on your part is read immediately as a “go” by the other driver. So you cannot hesitate and then “go” yourself.
One long honk of the horn means, “Danger, stupid; can’t you see!” Breathe easy if you hear this one, because 80 percent of the time the danger has just passed, like the thunder after the stroke of lightening that did not kill you.
For most of the time, this is the Dominican driver’s only revenge, his only vent for the anger, when you have just cut in on him, putting both of you in danger.
That you have scared him to death does not matter to him so much. What matters more, deep down inside, is that you were more “macho” than he. And you won the game. His only recourse is this horn honk —and perhaps a few select words yelled out of the window if he can catch up to you.
Lights blinking at you during the day mean two things. The first is not too interesting. It is: “You have got your lights on by accident.”
The second is a social phenomenon. Dominicans have spontaneously developed a form of self-defense against the radar speed control units. The daytime-blinking lights is it. It warns on-coming drivers that they are approaching a radar trap, or even a parked police vehicle.
One respects authority. One even recognizes that these speed traps have had a sobering effect on speeders and truly reduced accidents since their arrival to the Dominican Republic. Just the same, one has to smile at the blinking lights. (Of course, it’s up to you to pay back the service in the same coin.)
At night, these same blinking lights (or low-beam, high-beam alternation) have a different meaning. Usually used at intersections, they are blinked by a driver who considers that he has the right of way and is going through.
On the other hand, if the driver behind you blinks his lights, it means, “I’m going to pass in a hurry.” Probably there is an emergency. So pay attention to incessant blinking lights.
After dark, and even sometimes during the day, the headlights are used to signal drivers' messages. Pay attention, also, to one long light flash. It means, “I’m coming through, no matter who has the right of way.” At night this may be an oncoming car switching from low to high beam. He may be on your side of the street and unable to get back into his lane in time (because of a big hole, for instance).
Sirens and improvised sirens
Speaking of emergencies... As soon as you have driven a few days in Santo Domingo, you will notice a surprising phenomenon. Dominicans do not pull to the right for sirens because ambulances are often used as hearses, especially in the countryside; and because frequently people in possession of sirens abuse the fact by using them unwarrantedly. Furthermore, several cars will take advantage of a speeding ambulance to get behind and make it to their destination faster. So for these and other reasons, Dominicans do not respect the siren.
That does not mean you should not. Dominican law is exactly the same as the United States law with respect to sirens. People should pull to the right, and they should yield the right of way to the vehicle with the siren. Just look around before you pull to the right. Since no one else will be pulling over, you could cause an accident for being a good citizen!
Ambulances are still scarce here. The majority of emergency cases (sudden illnesses, accidents, etc.) are taken to the hospital in private cars, taxis or believe it or not, pick up trucks. The drivers of these cars honk their horns incessantly. And the person in the passenger’s seat may wave his arms franctically out the windows directing cars to yield the right of way as his car whips in and out of the traffic. These improvised sirens definitely are respected —at least to a greater degree than the conventional ones.
Drive a truck
There is at least one more sign drivers in Santo Domingo should be aware of. It is neither horn nor lights nor hand signal. It is the position of the car itself. Many drivers (wrongly, according to the law) consider it more prudent, especially in heavy traffic, to pull off to the right before making a left-hand turn. Thus, a car stopped momentarily on the right may suddenly swing across all lanes of traffic to make a left turn.
So, for safety’s sake, before passing any stopped car on its left, honk one or two little beeps to let him know first.
A modification of this posture is the driver who swings into the right-hand lane just before executing a left turn —as if he were driving a truck, not a bad suggestion for a foreigner who cannot remember all these signals. Just drive a truck. And let the others read your signals instead of the other way around.
Unfortunately for most of us with our small cars, we just have to learn to play the game —and the quicker the better.
Watch out when you go back to the States, though. It is another game there, you know. As one American visitor exclaimed after riding ten minutes with an American friend resident of Santo Domingo, “Why driving like that, you wouldn’t last ten minutes in the States before the police picked you up!” (Kathleen Mitchell)