Travel Safety, Driving Abroad

vehicle crash in Torres del Paine NP,Chile

Trouble in paradise

Driving abroad is a fast, efficient and comfortable way to travel around a foreign land and can usually be performed in perfect safety. However, you need to be aware of car associated crime – whether it’s car jacking or just daylight robbery – especially if you’re travelling with all your possessions on board, and not just using a jeep for distant beach access.

The Bugcrew have experienced attempted highway robbery in Papua New Guinea, when masked men waving axes attempted to stop their minibus. Pedal to the metal sorted that encounter, but a more recent incident in Cuba was less easy to avoid. More on that below. . .

Travel safety is becoming more difficult to guarantee on the roads these days with smart highway robbers evolving round the world. Europe sees a lot of action, especially around Barcelona, Madrid, and the south of France. Beware the flat tyre and the helpful locals, for example, who distract you with fast talking assistance while an associate surreptitiously rifles your vehicle. In Barcelona it’s not unknown for a gang member to throw spikes under the tyres of expensive foreign vehicles, so his accomplices can ‘assist’ a few metres down the line.

Southern France, on the other hand, has a surfeit of car bumping, kindly warnings at speed, or full-on smash and grab car robbers, often on motorcycles.

Mexico, Columbia and Brazil too have car thieves of all kinds, while certain spots in the USA are no-go zones. Miami has improved a lot since rental cars are no longer identified as such, but carjacking still happens widely. And Johannesburg, South Africa, let’s not go there! Some locals have built-in flamethrowers to toast carjackers where they stand.

How to have a safe driving holiday

* Plan your route in advance so you don’t sit too obviously with an open map in your lap. As with foot travel, looking as much as possible like a local is an excellent safety strategy, so remove anything identifying the motor as a rental.

* Keep windows closed and doors locked, especially if you are stopping at traffic signals. Car jacking and bag snatching is most likely at that point. If you can afford it a car with air conditioning will obviously make life more comfortable with windows up.

* Keep anything remotely valuable out of sight, in the glove compartment or boot/trunk.

* If you get lost try to stop somewhere secure to read the map, like a gas station or bar car park.

* Park in well lit areas and preferably in view of CCTV cameras if there are any around.

* If your car is bumped from the rear, or a car flashes it’s lights repeatedly, or a passenger in another car shouts/points to a problem with your car, do not stop. Drive slowly on to a safe public area (restaurant car park, gas station etc) to check your car’s status. If the vehicle behind you uses red or blue flashing lights then it’s almost certainly police and you must stop. Perhaps carry a tyre repair aerosol for a quick fix.

* When returning to your car, check the surrounding area and inside the vehicle before unlocking it.

* Don’t pick up hitch hikers

A Cuba Car Robbery

Cuba

Cuba’s Carretera Central from Camaguey. Photo by LukaszKatlewa.

A couple of years ago bugbog went to shoot Cuba, though not with the same calibre as the CIA. After a busy but enjoyable time in Havana the photographer rented an airconditioned Toyota for a run around the island. Rental staff advised him not to give any lifts.

Cuba, however has two major problems for foreigners in cars. One is that outside towns road signs are almost non existent, as are maps (ask the CIA why that is! ), so asking directions is unavoidable (and if you don’t speak Spanish you are well stuffed).

Secondly, due to the disastrous public transport situation – again, outside towns – large groups of tired, overheated but amiable Cubans wait at most major junctions for a lift from passing government vehicles, such as gravel trucks. In fact the situation has been institutionalised to the extent that there is often a blue coated official who controls the queues, ensures trucks stop and packs the sardines in tight. All of this in searing heat.

So. . . . you stop to ask directions, some sad face tells you how to get there and then plaintively mentions they are travelling there too. You’ve got three spare air conditioned seats, you’re going the same way, you’re a positive person, the folk outside are clearly knackered but kindly, what do you do?

Well, the shootist resisted the first time, but after a few stops like that, moral obligation took over and he start carrying.

After a few days as unpaid taxi driver, he was carrying full loads considerable distances and one time various passengers got out, leaving one lean, talkative man. Suddenly, on a deserted stretch of road between orange groves he said stop here, this’ll be fine. Bigbug stopped and found himself with a broken bottle hovering in front of his face and a demand for money in his ear.
After initially considering options – such as grabbing the bottler’s quivering, adrenalin-pumped and muscular arm – the shootist decided not to fight. In retrospect, the right move and a common rule for travel safety – do not resist.

The two men then entered a lengthy period of negotiation, ending with an agreement to donate $10 to the bottler’s Save the Cuban fund, and not informing the police. The bottler then gave the Shootist the bottle, the Shootist gave him the smallest denomination he could find without pulling his wallet out of his back pocket, $20. For a moment the Shootist considered threatening the Bottler with the bottle, but common sense said get the f*** out of there and live to tell the tale.

p. s. Cuba’s a great country in spite of the hassles. Don’t hesitate, vaya te!