Driven to distraction, traffic cops get tough in Mexico City

By Oscar Avila

Tribune foreign correspondent

September 28, 2007


The young man on the motorcycle wasn't sporting a helmet but he was wearing a smirk as he got a ticket and a safety lecture from Officer Miguel Arredondo.

The driver admitted that he had been cited twice before but wasn't sweating it because the fines were only $20. "I'm going for 10 tickets!" he shouted as he sped away.

Fed up with this kind of defiance, Mexico City authorities implemented a tough law this month to ensure that this driver isn't laughing the next time. For the first time, drivers would lose their licenses if they accumulate too many points for traffic violations.

The goal is to change the culture in a metropolis where the roadways are like the Wild West. Drivers think nothing of parking on the sidewalks, barreling through crosswalks full of pedestrians or taking shortcuts into traffic on a one-way street.

Fear of shakedowns

Most city residents say they welcome the crackdown but fear that corrupt police will use the tougher penalties to shake down motorists even more.

Joel Ortega, the city's police chief, sees the chaos every day on monitors in his office. To him, safe driving is a life-and-death proposition, citing data that a Mexico City resident is twice as likely to die from a traffic accident as from a homicide.

"It isn't possible that someone is going to shoot you on Paseo de la Reforma. There are too many police. But it is possible that a bus will run you over on Paseo de la Reforma," Ortega said, referring to one of the sprawling capital's main thoroughfares. "This way of driving is costing us lives."

The traffic enforcement is part of a broader effort by Mayor Marcelo Ebrard to make the roads more peaceful. An avid cyclist, the mayor shuts down several major streets to auto traffic for hours on Sundays to let bikers travel without worry.

The city plans to hire about 1,000 traffic police officers and install about 150 cameras, in part to monitor traffic violations. Ortega said he plans to expand checkpoints for drunk drivers that have contributed to a 36 percent reduction in accidents caused by drinking.

Ortega said he plans to focus on speeding, double parking and driving while talking on cellular phones. Although most of the laws already existed, "people need to know that we are serious this time."

And if the new enforcement doesn't change habits, maybe Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden will.

A grass-roots group that promotes traffic safety has plastered their faces, along with those of other famous and infamous world figures, on public-service posters all over town. In one, Mohandas Gandhi says: "I can be very violent if you run the traffic light!"

The catch phrase for the campaign is: "Who else needs to tell you so you'll listen?"

Claudia Montero, director of the group Move Yourself for Your City, said she sees a domino effect of motorists and pedestrians who have little regard for each other.

"If you are hysterical because someone almost crashed into you or cut you off, you'll go to your work, your house or school already angry," she said. "I am convinced that many divorces have to do with the traffic chaos, that people take the stress wherever they go."

Arredondo, an officer for 22 years, shakes his head at what he sees every day. "When a person gets behind the wheel, they transform," he said.

Alberto Benitez, an analyst with Citizen Magnifying Glass, a watchdog group monitoring the new laws, said he hopes the tougher enforcement creates a sense that driving safely is the norm.

"It's not that we are disorganized," he said. "Sadly, it is actually a sign of rationality to break the law."

A poll this week in El Universal newspaper found that 76 percent of respondents with cars think the new laws are a good idea.

But many fear that the practice of bribery known as mordidas -- literally "bites," -- will increase.

A poll in the Reforma newspaper found that 77 percent of respondents thought the enforcement would lead to more corruption by police.

Police have given buttons to officers that show pears with a bite taken out and the warning that they do not take bribes.

High-tech traffic stops

But Arredondo said technology might be the best defense. He and other officers carry hand-held computers that send reports directly to headquarters. Once officers start entering data, the devices prevent them from erasing the violation, theoretically to take a bribe.

The same devices also include cameras that let officers take pictures of motorists without seat belts, for example, providing a layer of protection for drivers afraid of fictional violations.

Just to be sure, the city's Human Rights Commission said it will launch a 24-hour hotline for complaints against police who abuse the new traffic laws.

Montero, the activist, said she hopes drivers will not get hung up on blaming the police.

"In this city, sometimes we are like teenagers. Whatever they tell us to do, we rebel against it," she said. "We should take this challenge, as citizens, to make this a more humane and harmonious place."