Driving in Costa Rica can be, is a challenge. Besides the poor and often lack of roads infrastructure, the challenge is dealing with newbie drivers. As I have written before, the majority of drivers on the roads in Costa Rica are new drivers, first-time owners of a car and few have professional driving instruction.

I have no numbers to back me up, just my experience and head shaking at some fo the crazy sh*t I see daily on the road to know that the driver in front of me, the one behind, to the sides, across the street, even across town, has never driven before. The reason for the many accidents. And don’t get me started on the motorcyclists.

These new drivers, though they may have passed the driver’s test and have a license, they fail to understand three principles of good driving: timing, control and a good understanding physics.

Most of these drivers look at an automobile the same they look at an appliance, it gets them from point A to point B, just like a toaster or a microwave oven. Issues arise when using either when you don’t set the timing right, lose control and understand how the appliance works (physics).

The importance of timing behind the wheel is critical. Whether it be how much time you need to enter or leave moving traffic, braking. It’s all matter of seconds or fractions thereof between a safe trip and one that ends in an accident. The key word is safety.

Control is about not entering into a state of panic at that crucial moment. Wildly swinging the wheel and yelling to avoid an inverse speed bump (pothole), applying the brakes because you didn’t have the timing down, driving in the rain, it’s all about an exercise of managing control.

Understanding the Physics is perhaps the toughest for a new driver. For some seasoned and expert drivers, this comes naturally; others take the time to learn and understand the concepts.

One of the most common errors I saw on roads in Costa Rica is an understanding of how braking works. A semi-trailer barreling down the Ruta 27 at 100 km/h takes a lot longer to brake than say typical passenger automobile. A big ass SUV doesn’t stop on a dime, applying the brakes hard leads to loss of control.

The concept of braking is about speed, distance, surface type and condition (wet or dry), temperature, traction, and the brakes themselves. What condition are the brakes? Pads worn? The rotor warped? Brake drum and pads worn? Enough to say the car does not stop the second you touch the brake pedal.

Having a fundamental understanding how a car works and reacts in different conditions is the key. I see many, in the rain, driving at 100 km/h as it were dry, negotiating turns as if on a race track, or weaving through traffic like on a Formula 1 circuit.

How can you operate a machine without understanding its workings? Experienced and expert drivers have learned an important lesson: can’t fool the laws of nature, and you’re not going to out steer Newton’s Laws of Motion.

In my experience of driving more than four decades and many countries, defensive driving – not driving based on how things are, rather based on how things could be further ahead – is your best friend. A part of defensive driving is keeping your eyes moving including looking into your side and rearview mirrors, have a full picture of what is going on around you – the sides, back, and the front. Looking for things that could challenge your driving skills – another driver, debris on the road, a pothole, etc – is all about the timing, control and physical laws of driving.

It’s all about knowing your surroundings, obeserving other vehicles, and pedestrians and adjusting to driving conditions.

In Costa Rica, the rules of the road (speed,  stop signs, traffic lights) are seen mostly as guidelines. In many cases, the engineering and regulations (laws) are nonsensical.

The keys to good/defensive driving:

  • Good drivers know their surroundings. They are observant of what’s around them and adjust their driving.
  • Good drivers watch their speed and road conditions.
  • Good drivers do not tailgate. They find a way to pass the car in front of them.
  • Good drivers can change lanes whenever they want to, regardless of how busy the other lane looks.
  • Good drivers can predict or anticipate movements from other cars.
  • Good drivers use turn signals to communicate with other cars and people around them
  • Good drivers are always alert. If they are sleepy, they rest.
  • Good drivers do not make their passengers sick.
  • Good drivers, behind a bus, increase their following distance to get a better view.
  • Good drivers look beyond the car ahead of them, rather two or three cars ahead, a good way to predict what the car in front of you is going to do next.

10 Tips for best driving practices (from Quora):

  1. When a car is approaching on an intersecting road and you want to know if they are going to stop or not, look at the top of the hood of their car. If they are braking the hood of the car is coming down.
  2. When you approach a car to pass, look at their front tire. If they are going to cut in front of you, the tire will turn to the left or right before the car starts to move. Buys you precious fractions of a second to react.
  3. Constantly scan your side mirrors and your rear mirror and keep a real-time picture of the cars around you in your head. If something strange happens you can then switch lanes without having to look because you already know where the clear spots are (or are not).
  4. If you are driving down a highway with a concrete barrier in the middle of it separating the traffic going in each direction, the left lane is a bad place to be because you only have one direction to go (to the right) to avoid something bad.
  5. Always try to anticipate bad things. As you are driving, play, “what if”. Like what if a kid runs out between those two parked cars ahead of you. What if the car in front of you to your right on the highway has a blowout on a left tire and swerves in front of you.
  6. Learn to determine if the drivers around you are paying attention or not. Are they on their cell phones? Are they able to keep their cars a fixed distance from the dots in the middle of the road? If you learn this when bad drivers pop out you will learn to avoid them.
  7. When it is wet and raining (and it is hard to stop), you can see the reflections of the brake lights of the cars several cars in front of you on the pavement, and on windows of the car directly in front. Pay attention and this buys you extra stopping time.
  8. If you are going to use a GPS app like Waze have it talk to you. Get wireless headphones and put one earbud in one ear and listen to the radio or talk to your friends with the other ear and your mouth. Don’t try to watch your cell phone screen for directions and drive at the same time.
  9. Maintain your car. Maintain your tire pressure (in all five tires including your spare), your engine oil level, your coolant level, your transmission fluid level and your brake fluid level. Having your car die you in the middle of nowhere is not fun.
  10. Keep an emergency kit in your car. This should consist at the minimum of a hydraulic jack (the standard jack that comes with your car is worthless), flares, jumper cables, and if you are really smart a portable battery that can start your car if your regular battery dies).

What are your thoughts and experiences of driving in Costa Rica? Use the comment section below or post to our official Facebook page.