Learning Uruguay

Every day brings ????

Driving and automobiles in general

Posted by urufish on April 28, 2007

Somewhere, on one of the other wonderful blogs about Uruguay, there was a great article on one person’s take on driving here.  I think it was a ‘her’ and I think this was a ‘0 to 100’ observation, (she’s talking about her experience from the viewpoint of someone brand new to Uruguay).  

My wife and I have been driving her for over 20 years, albeit for a few weeks a year, (on my part) until recently.  So our observations will be slightly different, perhaps a little more conservative. 

First of all, there is nothing threating or dangerous about driving in Uruguay.  Neither of us is aware of any place in Montevideo, (the biggest city), where driving could result in anything serious happening to you that couldn’t happen to you wherever you drive now.  There is no ‘really bad’ part of town you could wander into and come out less than whole.  There is no really insane traffic circle or otherwise impossible to understand and chaotic place to find yourself.  The worst that could happen to you is you will become disoriented and/or lost and that simply requires patience until you find yourself somewhere near a landmark you can fix your position from.  It may sound a little sick, but the few times that has happened to me, (never to my wife), it’s quite nice.  Adds a little excitement to an otherwise, calm to the point of boring, (we love boring), life. 

Like many other countries, Uruguayan drivers are aware of the rules of the road, but dont pay a lot of attention to them.  The main rule is if you have a relatively dent free car, make it a priority to keep it that way.  Since most cars here are not relatively dent free, and perhaps yours is, you need to be the one avoiding being kissed, as the locals call it.  When I’m driving (like a local), and creating a lane where there really isn’t one, and a ‘not so nice’ car gets near us, my wife always alerts me, fully knowing we’re the ones with something to lose.   Also… never challenge buses or taxis.  Regardless, you lose.  Some years ago, bus drivers started getting bonuses if they went accident free for a year.  Not because of repair or litigation costs to buses… but to make the public feel safer.  The could literally hit you or cause you to hit someone else with impunity. 

In all the time we lived in Toronto, we had 3 small accidents between the 2 of us.  In the past year, we’ve had 3, (all mine :-), and they were a real learning experience.  In one, I scraped the side of a car in a parking lot trying to squeeze by him, with a dozen cars honking behind me.  How I managed to that, to this day I still dont know.  Sometimes I think he backed up while we were going by him.  It was raining.  My wife refereed the dispute.  My spanish isn’t up to it..  Besides that, a gringo will always pay and pay more.  In the end, we took our car to a family friend who runs a body shop.  A scrape to the entire side of a new Peugeot was a whopping USD$200 to repair.  We had him take his car to our guy and he quoted USD$95.00.  He didn’t want to get the repair done we negotiated USD$50.00 cash and he was happy. 

The 2nd mishap was in Punta Carretas Shopping, the outside parking lot.  I hate to pull into tight parking spaces forwards.  Just a habit from home that I cant break.  My wife admonishes me for this, but I hold fast.  A couple of months ago, we were there on a day when there was a space available topside.  It was real tight so I asked my wife and daughter to exit the vehicle and I backed it in.  Everything was going real well, plenty of room on both sides and then a really strange sound, like a box being crushed… and then I realized, it was the rear window of the station wagon that was being crushed.  I stopped and got out and to my horrors, there was a huge fire hose box, protruding into the parking space at least a meter.  I turned to my wife and there was that look in her eye.. the one all husbands get a chill thinking about… ‘you moron’….  Fortunately, we had that window filmed the month before and we were able to drive around for a few days before we could get it fixed.  Same mechanic.  Maybe we should put him on retainer. 

The 3rd, (and most recent and last for a while we hope), occurred at a red light.  We were stopped on a slight incline, first car, waiting for the light to change.  Just as the light changes to green, we hear a crunch from the rear right.  My wife, (always the wife), gets out to survey the damage.  The girl behind us has hit us, (no we didn’t roll back – we have an AUTOMATIC).  Now, being a Canadian, (with extensive US driving experience), I’m feeling pretty confident that she’s in the wrong.  I mean, WHENEVER you’re hit from behind, it’s the person behind at fault – right???  Wrong.  This is Uruguay.  She’s screaming that the light turned green and we should have been long gone.  She even WAITED for the light to TURN green, insinuating we should have gone BEFORE the light turned green.  Well, this isn’t NA… and there’s no point getting insurance or police involved for a smashed rear quarter panel complete with lights.  As she put it, she had more damage than we did so we should be happy.  The next day we went to guess who?  The body shop guy.  Total repair charge?  USD$125.

Insurance here is interesting.  We’ve owned cars here for most of those 20 years.  Mostly Peugeot’s, (family bias – my nephew is a mechanic – but not a body guy – he only fixes things that break by themselves, not the ones we break).  Until we moved, we bought used cars here, worth about $10K.  We never purchased collision.  Only 3rd party, theft and believe it or not, fire.  For that, we pay about the same we paid back home for that and collision.  Want to invest in Uruguay… buy stocks in an insurance company.  The one we deal with, Royal Sun Alliance, left Ontario some time ago complaining they couldn’t make any money.  At the rates they charge here, I can see why. 

The other intersting thing about insurance here is the limit.  In Canada, (I would assume the litigation-happy US is much higher), liability of $1mil and $2mil isn’t unusual – or costly.  Here it’s much, much less.  That’s because awards here are much, much less than back home.  And there’s a tremendous inequality between poor, working class folks and those more financially fortunate in Uruguay.   If you’re not financially blessed and you are injured by someone who is, and he’s clearly in the wrong, good luck getting much out of it.  Even if you hire a lawyer, there’s a good chance your lawyer will find it financially more rewarding to work something under the table with the person who hit you than represent you the way you’d expect in Canada or the US. 

Cars are expensive to buy.  The taxes are horrific.  Many people buy used cars.  A ‘0’ km purchase is an uncommon event.  Car dealers seem to do OK on markups – not volumes.  We went looking for a new Peugeot 307 SW and honestly, we saw all the dealers (and some who weren’t dealers) in Montevideo and with a single exception, they all quoted the same price and there was no negociation.  We ended up buying from a ‘non’ Peugeot dealer who, we found out later, can buy a car from the Peugeot distributor at the same or almost the same price that a Peugeot dealer could .  In fact, when our salesman called the distributor, he was told, ‘so you got my customer did you’.  Turns out, distributors are also car dealers here and we’d been to see him the day before.  Canadians purchasing ‘automatic’ cars in Montevideo sort of stand out–hard to forget. 

While we’re on the subject, it’s interesting the way you buy a car here.  After the ‘negotiation’ (or negotiation-like process) above, you have to give the dealer a deposit.  Then he asks you to go to the duty free compound for you to take a look at it to make sure it’s what you want.  Clearly, honesty and ethics aren’t associated with car dealers’ in the public’s mind.  At least, that’s what I thought.  In fact, that may be true but it’s not really the reason you do that.  You do that because YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR THE CAR IN ADVANCE.  And who in their right (or wrong) mind would pay USD20K-USD100K on a promise you might get a car in a few days – HERE, (in fact, maybe anywhere). 

My wife says I’m a very trusting person, sometimes she even uses a derogatory term to describe that aspect of my character.  But in this case, my line in the sand had been drawn.  We told the dealer that there was no way we’d give him the money in advance.  We’d pay him when he gave us the car.  Well, guess what.  The main reason they do this is because, unlike business in the 1st world, most car dealers (not distributors) here dont have the money to risk to bridge the car until the purchaser pays for it.  

I guess the dealer wanted the sale because he said he has never done this before but he would take it out of duty free and we could do the deal at the showroom.  Turns out he talked the distributor into taking it to their showroom and the salesman met us at their dealership.  We showed up with a certified cheque and gave it to him after we saw the car.  The process was pretty informal at that point, like back home.  They showed you how the windshield wipers worked.  Then they gave you the keys and out you go.   One odd thing that we noticed.  The purchase document shows us buying the car from a person, not a car dealer.  We think it’s the owner of the dealership.  Probably some kind of tax-saving angle.  Perhaps they sell the car personally because there was no personal income tax in Uruguay until this year.   

Insurance had to be arranged the day before.  Fortunately we already had an agent.  We put the car on our existing policy, which because we’d been accident free for 5 years (or something like that), we got a 30% discount.   If you buy a used car, you have to take it to the insurer (they have shops around the city) to note all the damage to it so you cant claim for a dent that came with the car when you bought it.  That requirement is waived for a new car. 


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