Driving and Roads

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Although we saw evidence of both a national lottery (a private not-for-profit corporation) and off-track betting, I decided that the most popular form of legalized gambling in Jamaica was driving (Slogan: “A miss is as good as a mile.”).

Our introduction to Jamaican-style driving was swift and dramatic. Evelyn Damdar met our plane and drove us to the Russells’ house, about a 30-minute drive, during most of which we were clutching our seats in panic. Our alarm and discomfort were caused by three factors:

  1. Jamaicans drive on the “wrong” (left) side of the road, and of course the driver is seated on the right. This was especially disconcerting to Barney, who was given the seat of honor, the front passenger seat. Unfortunately for him, not only did it give him a better view of the traffic, but he couldn’t help feeling he should be in control, sitting as he was in the position where he normally sits as the driver. And of course it didn’t help that it was dark.

  2. Jamaican roads in general and traffic lanes on multilane streets are narrower than in the States.

  3. Jamaican driving is very aggressive, with little regard for pedestrians and cyclists (some of them small children or elderly adults) near or even in the roadway. Rapid lane changes and sudden alterations of speed, accompanied by much use of the horn, are the norm.

I said that roads are narrower. So are parking spaces. Cars (and even trucks) are in general smaller. We saw some minivans in the mountains, but they were actually being used as buses. Four-wheel-drive vehicles tended to be the compact type of SUVs, such as Toyota RAV4s.

We saw only the eastern half of the island, and possibly there are better roads near Montego Bay, but we saw few highways better than the typical state or county road in the United States. A few stretches might have been comparable to a U.S. highway, but there was nothing remotely like an interstate—and for good reason: land is too precious to be devoted to the extensive rights-of-way required for construction of a limited-access highway. Except for some Kingston streets, multiple lanes were rare; a few stretches of the A3 between Ocho Rios and Kingston had a center passing lane, but for the most part two lanes were the maximum, and many of the smaller mountain roads had basically a single lane.

Any highway map of Jamaica that did not show topography would be very misleading, as the island is essentially one big mountain (the West Indian islands are actually the summits of a submarine range of mountains that in prehistoric times perhaps formed one large land mass connecting Central America to Venezuela). The Blue Mountain range sprawls across the eastern portion of the island for a length of 28 miles and an average width of 12 miles (the island is only 50 miles wide at its widest point). Once heavily forested, the mountains are now cultivated to within 2,000 feet of the summit on the southern slopes. The 194,000-acre Blue Mountain and John Crow Mountain National Park was established in 1992 to preserve some of the remaining forests and to protect the island’s largest watershed. The park comprises about 6% of Jamaica’s total land mass and includes the 7,402-foot summit, so it is mostly inaccessible by road.

When Fionn and Virginia expressed their intention of taking us to Portland, we looked at the map and saw that the northern coast appeared to be about 25 miles from Kingston over the eastern section of the A3. It was immediately pointed out that this road goes through and over the Blue Mountains and that despite appearances it would actually be much faster to take the A4 around the coast. Having experienced Blue Mountains roads on our way to Whitfield Hall, we immediately understood!

Driving in the mountains is certainly an adventure. Even in the foothills, the roads are narrow and winding, with many hairpin turns. The roadway is confined by a steep cliff on one side and a sharp drop-off (sometimes alarmingly undercut) on the other. “Driving with the horn instead of the brakes” was a new experience for us (Barney said he didn’t think he’d ever actually used the horn in his year-old Saturn), but it is a necessity when the road can barely accommodate two car widths at its widest point and drivers tend to swing wide around the hairpins, with absolutely no way to see what’s coming in the opposite direction. Use of the horn warns oncoming motorists.

The Land Rover driver who took us to Whitfield Hall was obviously very experienced, but the trip was still quite an adventure. The road hardly deserved the name—it was more like an unpaved spiral staircase, and the Land Rover literally climbed up it. Luckily we met little opposing traffic, as the road was barely wide enough for our vehicle (there are occasional turnouts where an oncoming vehicle can pull aside and wait). The road we took coming down was in much better condition but even steeper, which was probably, Fionn said, the reason we had not gone up that way.

Given the constant need to shift gears, I commented that probably most vehicles in Jamaica had automatic transmission. Quite the contrary, I was told. An automatic transmission would wear out quickly on Jamaican roads, not to mention the extra expense added to the already inflated prices of vehicles, all of which must be imported. In fact, the overwhelming majority of cars have manual transmission, and all Jamaican drivers learn to drive using them. Fionn contends that Jamaicans are actually (by necessity) much better drivers than Americans, who are spoiled by broad, straight roads and luxurious cars. That may well be true; certainly we concluded that, even though we might eventually learn to drive on the “wrong” side of the road, Jamaica would not be where we would choose to practice!