Things you need to know before driving in Panama
The rules for driving in Panama are not much different from those anywhere in North America. And you can drive here on a foreign licence for three months. (Or you can use an international license and totally confuse most local police officers.)
We drive on the right side of the road. Maximum speed limit on the open road is 100 kilometers an hour (62mph). There are freeways (usually toll roads) where the maximum speed is 110kph (68mph). The limit drops quickly entering communities and in areas under construction. Watch out for Transitos (traffic police) who frequently stake out these areas.
Horns are a fact of life when driving in Panama. You will hear them a lot more than you are used to. No, the drivers are not swearing at you, they are warning you that they are about to pass. Don’t swerve, looking over your shoulder to see what’s wrong. Nothing is wrong, at least not unless you swerve.
The spirit of helpfulness
Horns will also sound the instant a light changes to green – just in case you were taking a nap and had not noticed. Simply accept it as part of the culture, in the spirit of helpfulness.
A far greater percentage of Panamanian drivers are more aggressive than you are probably used to. Watch out for taxis and buses that bully their way into spaces half the necessary size, causing you to jam your foot on the brake. (And note how many taxis are bent and battered.)
Here for just a short time? You may want to stick to taxis in Panama City. (Look for those with closed windows. They are air conditioned.)
Some of Panama's streets are insane and can be dangerous until you become acclimatized to the macho world of driving in Panama. Via España is a definite no-no. Five lanes of one-way traffic are in an almost perpetual snarl that will fray your nerves, consume your gas, and likely terrify you if you are not used to it.
If you have the misfortune to have a fender bender while driving in panama, no matter how slight, stop immediately. Do not pull to the side of the road unless ordered to do so by police. The fact that you might tie up half the city’s traffic in rush hour is of no importance; stay where you are until police arrive.
Horns will blare, and traffic can be backed up for miles. The advantage is that the more messed up the traffic the more likely it is that help will arrive in a hurry. Waiting for seemingly-undamaged vehicles to be moved is one of the hazards of driving in Panama.
Useful phone numbers
If you have a mobile phone, call the police dispatcher at 232-5614 or 232-6845 in Panama City, 441-4197 in Colon, or 776-8125 in David. It's a good idea to have these numbers handy when driving in Panama.
If the police fail to show up and you think you might be responsible for the accident, take the other party to your insurance company office to make a formal report. If the office is elsewhere, phone to ask what you should do. If the other driver leaves the scene, contact local police to report colision y fuga (hit and run). This may protect you from potential legal problems.
Get the names, phone numbers, cedula (identity card) or license numbers of the drivers involved. Note the license plate number and the province in which it was issued. (I failed to take note of the state named on a license plate in Mexico, and there was nothing police could do to locate the truck driver who sideswiped me.)
Get as much information as possible from witnesses, including names, addresses, phone and cedula numbers.
Don't accept responsibility
Do not accept responsibility for the accident. Take pictures if you can. Do not offer or promise to pay for damages.
Call your insurance broker. Keep his or her number in your car. If the broker is in Panama, the company may have a mobile unit that will come to the scene of the accident. If yours is a rented car, be aware, when you pick up the vehicle, of the procedure to follow in case of an accident while driving in Panama.
If someone is injured, you must render first aid. If the person can be moved without injury, take them to the nearest hospital and pay initial emergency expenses. Do not offer money to the injured person. Get a copy of any police report, and keep all receipts. These will help when you file your insurance claim, and be useful to you in traffic court.
Refuse to be flustered
Driving in Panama takes some getting used to. Don’t allow yourself to be flustered by impatient drivers. Take your time, drive defensively, and allow others to pass when they can do so safely.