Topes – Speed bumps on steroids
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  Posted May 8th, 2016 by Zdenko  in Travel | 2 comments

Traffic Control, Mexican Style

By: Zdenko Kahlina

Tope – Speed bumps on steroids in Mexico
Ah, topes. Gringos call them “speed bumps”. Mexicans nickname them “policia durmiendo” (po-lee-CEE-a dur-me-EN-do: sleeping policemen). The tope (TOE-pay), a speed bump in the smooth but occasionally potholed road of Mexican life, is an endless source of fascination for anyone, like me, who loves to categorize the phenomena of everyday existence.

You’ll go over dozens if not hundreds of them on any trip in Mexico. Speed bumps on steroids, someone called them. You’ll leave your running gear in a tangled heap on the road behind you if you don’t see one coming and slow down for it.

Like the rest of Mexico, Mexico City’s 20 million residents are struggling with an epidemic of cars and speed bumps. About one of every five Mexicans lives in the city. Car ownership in Mexico has skyrocketed in the past decade as more foreign brands set up shop here, driving down prices, and car loans have become easier to obtain.

There were 26.5 million vehicles registered in Mexico in 2007, more than double the 12.5 million in 1997, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information Processing. However, enforcement of traffic laws has not kept up with the boom, said José Luis Camba, a civil engineer and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Few police officers have radar guns, and speeders can usually get off with a warning by paying a bribe of a few dollars, Camba said. “So the government takes the easy way out and builds a speed bump,” Camba said. “Or sometimes neighbors just get so frustrated that they build one themselves. It’s a symptom of a lack of respect for the law.”

The government does not keep statistics on speed bumps, but in 1997, it estimated that there were 18,000 in central Mexico City alone. Phoenix, by comparison, has 2,429 “speed humps” on its public streets. For comparison, Edmonton has very few… I found them at the Kingsway mall parkade).

The sheer numbers have made speed bumps a part of Mexican culture. On remote Mexican highways, food vendors cluster around them to attract customers as cars slow. The rock band Sam-Sam has a song about speed bumps. In some Mexico City neighborhoods, residents decorate their speed bumps for the holidays, painting “Happy New Year” or “Happy Independence Day” on them.

Speed bump decorated with tiles

However and wherever constructed, speed bumps are self-regulation at its most basic. The faster you go over them, the more damage you do to yourself and your vehicle. They also help you to stay awake while driving, and to keep your mind on the road ahead. You don’t have to pay attention to them, but if you don’t, the mobs of muffler shops, shock absorber salesmen, and whiplash chiropractors that abound in Mexico will be waiting to welcome you with open arms.

In Mexico, there are many persons, living in small towns, without work. At those times when the TV isn’t working because they could not pay the satellite fee, they often hide themselves down to the highway, take a seat in sight of a tope, and wait for an inattentive motorist to go sailing into the air; or observe how well various models of automobile perform during panic braking in the time between when the driver belatedly spies the speed bump and the moment of impact. As entertainment, it certainly beats watching the milpa (house garden) grow.

Some are properly marked and some are not…

This “tope” was o.k. but not all of them are like that

Since many topes are neither signed nor painted, the careful motorist is on the lookout for tope watchers, a warning that a surprise may be coming up just ahead. However, most topes are painted, usually yellow, often in stripes; although some I’ve seen were blue or red. In the best of circumstances, there are warnings posted (tope 150 meters, etc.), and a sign right alongside, pointing at the tope. However, many topes come up without warning, and many have no paint at all. One of my favorite signs is on the street entering Teotitlan del Valle. It says “tope, 8 meters”. Not much time to respond. Fortunately, one is going pretty slow by then anyway.

Topes can be extremely bad in small villages

Topes are Mexican speed bumps that are 2-3 times larger than the usual speed bumps most folks are used to gliding over in the US or Canada. If you do not slow down to a snail’s pace before hitting a tope, you can expect to launch your vehicle into flight, potentially damage your suspension, and possibly bite half-way through your tongue.

In many areas in Mexico (especially throughout Baja), topes will be located at the beginning and ending of most towns along the major highways. They are not always clearly marked, so always keep an eye out for them. If you see any signs of civilization emerging in the distance on down the road, prepare to slow down! On my route from Huatulco to Acapaulco this year, I’ve seen more than 300 topes… almost one for each kilometer.

This “Tope” was dangerous…

On a nice highway, when traveling at high speed it is hard to notice “Topes”

The bigger the town, the more topes along the highway – generally. While one does occasionally find a one-horse town with six topes, it is not the norm. This is because of several factors, mostly having to do with cost. Unlike the highways themselves, topes are paid for by the people (or the town) who want them, and so a poorer town is likely to have fewer of them. The obverse of this is that since the builder must bear the cost, anyone with enough money can put one up if they want to. When I see two topes within twenty yards of each other on the outskirts of a dusty village with nary a school in sight, I imagine some bizarre family feud ending in the erection of rival monuments, four inches high, six inches wide, and thirty feet long.

If you don’t understand what “  E  UCTOR” means you’re in trouble…

Most topes are either concrete or bituminous in composition. The concrete ones tend to be thinner than their bituminous brothers, with squarer corners.

Topes come in several basic models. There is the common single strand tope, described above. There is the double strand, and occasionally the triple strand. After that there are vibradores.

A small sign “Tope” that’s easy to miss…

This one blended into the road surface…

Vibradores (Vee-bra-DOUGH-rays) are composed of several low, thin topes, with very small gaps in between. Much like the warning strips that US motorists encounter before they come to a stop sign on the highway, they differ in their severity. Often, vibradores are much harder on vehicle and driver than are topes. They are always concrete, and more expensive than topes to build and maintain.

For the really poor villages, there are Ropes (RO-pays). These are, not surprisingly, made of rope, often old ship’s hawser, or fiber strands, soaked in tar. Just as effective as single-strand topes, they have the added advantage of being mobile. That’s why the Army likes them.

Most often found in coastal areas, Ropes are one way the military check points have of letting you know they want to talk to you. (In the interior, there is more likely to be a couple of big boulders across the road, diverting you to the shoulder; in swampy areas there is no shoulder.) Ropes are every bit as jarring to drive over as are topes.

It’s a cultural thing – lacking concrete they make speed bumps out of thick marine ropes.

Banditos also use the tope system, although their usual choice of material is a tree dragged across the road. Unlike the vibrador, the tope or the Rope, the tree is neither a source of community pride and significance, nor a place where local idlers come for entertainment; nor is it meant to merely slow down the motorist. Fortunately, this device is rarely seen on the Mexican roadways; certainly not as often as certain alarmists would have us believe.

Whether tope, Rope, or vibradór, Mexican speed bumps, while annoying to the motorist, are a brilliant way to save lives and promote commerce in places where drivers would otherwise pass through at top speed. If you live in an area where children like to play near the street, or are crossing the street to go to playgrounds or schools, you can’t beat a good tope for getting people to slow down.

“Speed bumps are a way of delivering instant punishment,” Cano said. “But if the speed bump collapses out of your way, it’s delivering an instant reward. Gradually, we will change the driving culture, and slow down.”

Unmarked Tope

Hope you have a good year!

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2 comments to “Topes – Speed bumps on steroids”

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