This was my 20th or so trip to Jamaica and I have only driven a couple of times before, and generally short distances. My husband liked to drive there and so I let him most of the time. I've rented scooters for a day here and there in the past.
But this was my first time renting all by myself, alone most of the time, for over a week, and traveling all over the island. I was a little nervous about it, even called a friend who drives herself about for a little pep talk. It worked.
This trip I rented from Sparks in Negril (great company, great car, call Omar for a quote: 876-312-8351). This is a Toyota Corolla "Fielder" - a hatchback sort of Corolla that I'd never seen before. I loved it, it had power everything :)
I am comfortable driving in Jamaica. But I grew up in NYC and drove there for many years, some of those years for a job that required daily driving throughout the 5 boroughs. NYC driving isn't for the faint of heart either, and most tourists choose not to drive in NYC for the same reasons they don't in Jamaica.
I also have been to Jamaica so many times that most places I am driving I have been to before, several times, so I know my way, more or less. I have landmarks I recognize and knowledge of what is coming next and that allows me to drive with more confidence than someone who is trying to find their way AND drive at the same time. I can't say how many times I found my way by noticing a mountain or sea view or other landmark and placing myself in relation to it. Those new to Jamaica don't have that sense, and it will make it harder.
Also, as the main "navigator" on previous trips and an obsessive map-studier for years, I know the roads as well as anyone can from maps and guiding another driver. I know what towns are along the routes, what island cut-throughs are coming up and where they go, when the road will go inland or along the coast and when it will switch back. I didn't even carry a road map with me this trip, I basically have it memorized, at least in terms of the coast roads.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see the roads marked at most major roundabouts and intersections. Kingston this way, Buff Bay that way and so on. If you know where you are in relation to these places, and where your destination is in relation to them, you can follow signs on main roads quite easily. The secondary roads, not so much. But there, I rely on people. There are always people along the road to ask, and though directions are often vague ("just go along for a bit and you will see it" or "after you come over the big hill look to the left"), stopping repeatedly and asking again always got me where I wanted to go.
I could rarely go on autopilot when driving as I can here at home a lot of the time. I was always conscious of what's going on around me, there's no way not to be. Only on certain north coast highway stretches between MoBay and Ochi could I drive with the same kind of "not really thinking about it" that I do at home. Even on that nice highway, in every town I passed through, it was necessary to deal with parked cars, taxis and trucks that often completely occupied one lane so all cars going through in both directions had to share one. Pedestrians and bicycles were often on the roadsides, often IN the road, and had to be stopped for or given space as I passed.
On the south coast highway, the roads are generally narrower and somewhat more potholed, so there was the matter of staying more or less in my lane while also moving around potholes but NOT into oncoming traffic - a good sense of timing is required here to avoid crashes and also not mash up your car in large holes. And in the towns I went through, same deal with parked cars and pedestrians and one lane to share with all.
And taxis, just like in NYC, are either in a huge rush to get where they are going and thus passing you or passing oncoming cars in your lane OR cruising slowly for passengers and pulling over or back into traffic at any moment.
But I was impressed with the way taxis drove, for the most part. There are rules people seem to follow. They always honked when pulling out and if I honked as I passed they let me go by first. They signaled ("indicated" in JA) when pulling over and pulling back out into traffic. They passed, yes, but generally only when there was enough space to do so safely and legally. The exception would be on wide roads where it was possible to create a "third lane" for passing by cars in both directions staying to their lefts thus creating room in the middle. This happened most often on long stretches where passing lanes were rare but the road was also wide enough, or had good enough shoulders, to permit it.
How that situation came up for me personally this trip, would be one in which I (or a car in front of me) was driving the speed limit more or less, and someone would come up behind fairly close and perhaps blink their lights, thus letting me know they would like to pass but there was not space to do so on the right. I'd pull over to the left, partially on the shoulder or maybe just to the far left part of my lane. Oncoming cars seeing this would also pull to their lefts. Thus enough space - a virtual middle lane if you will - was created for cars to pass.
This truck is sort of to the middle of the road because of the rocky cliff to the left. Can't pass until the road widens or he moves left.
I was impressed with the lack of road rage and politeness of the drivers I encountered.
For instance, when several cars are backed up behind a slow vehicle, usually a truck, there is a passing protocol. If the road is wide enough, the trucks (or other slow vehicles) will move to the left so that third lane is created and everyone can pass. If there is not space, cars wait for an opening to pull out into the right lane to pass and when a car approaches from the other direction, the other drivers in the line allow the car back into the line. That would NEVER happen in the US, at least not without a lot of cursing! In this manner, all cars that need to get past the truck or slow vehicle can do so in a fairly orderly manner, even if there aren't real passing lanes on that stretch.
Now driving on secondary roads is a different thing and requires a completely different set of skills. For one, you are theoretically driving on the left side but what you are most often doing is staying sort of left while avoiding the far left edge of the road which is usually very rough, and avoiding potholes as best you can. Sometimes that means you are on the right or in the middle or even off the road because it is smoother.
On these roads (like in Treasure Beach or in the Cockpits or Duncans Bay or Robins Bay or Portland past Port Antonio), I found myself just staying very loose...watch the road carefully, stay left as I can without hitting the edge, if no oncoming cars then drive around the holes, if there is an oncoming car either time the move properly or brake and slow down until there is room. And when approaching a blind curve or crest of a hill on these roads, ALWAYS honk and try to stay left a bit more. The honk lets cars know you are coming so they can get left as well, because often you are both using the middle.
In fact honking is a critical part of driving in Jamaica. I honked when approaching a blind curve or hill crest, when passing another car or truck, when a car passed me, when I wanted a car to know I was there for whatever reason, to let someone in. Jamaican drivers honk far more often, to say hi to people or to see if potential taxi passengers need a ride. But still, I honked pretty often.
Or maybe I should say beeped. A light tap on the horn makes much friendlier sound than a prolonged pushing of it, and I got the feel for that a day or so into my driving. What i wanted was a "beep" - not a "HONK". A honk sounds angry, a beep is just a friendly "I am here".
This site goes into some depth on the subject of the various Jamaican honks: http://thenewblackmagazine.com/view.aspx?index=154
Sometimes you can't avoid a pothole, either because oncoming traffic is too heavy or because it is just too large or several are too close together. My tactic then was to slow down as much as possible and take it, when possible, with two tires straight on at the shallowest point with the least height at the front. Sometimes a pothole was just narrow enough to take the car right over it and the wheels would stay on the edges of the hole. Judging this got easier the longer I drove that same car.
Also, roads I drove on more than once I got a much better feel for...I came to know when I could go fast to take advantage of a smooth stretch, and when I had to slow down to deal with potholes.
Also staying aware of how close I was on the left got easier the longer I drove and got the feel of the car. On the left there is often rough road edge/potholes, sometimes scratchy bushes, and sometimes stone wall or cliff. When there is a center line on the road, this is not hard, I used that to judge my right side and the left took care of itself. But there was rarely a center line...so I had to get a feel for the space I took up. I never scratched my car, got a flat, or hit anything so I think I did pretty well.
In Jamaica gas is pumped for you. You pull up to an available pump and the attendant will ask you which gas you want (80-something octane or 90-something octane) and how much. I suppose you could say "fill it up" but i always asked for a specific amount. Many stations take credit cards (you have to go inside), but not all. I often tipped the attendant.
After hours - at night, you often deal with an attendant inside the locked up convenience store part of the gas station. There will be a drawer that you pass money through and they give you whatever you want from inside (near Discovery Bay, one Texaco sign at the night drawer announced that there was 24 hour availability for non-alcoholic beverages such as juice and soda, beer, spark plugs, headlight lamps and condoms - everything you'd need at night, really :)) . I didn't get gas at night so I am not sure what the protocol is there but I know you can get it. I assume they pre-authorize the pump in some way.
My friend observed that gas stations at night seem to be THE spot to hang out for some reason...they were all pretty crowded with people just chilling the night we were out driving the north coast road.
Air for your tires is often located right on the gas pump, sometimes to the side, and seems to always be free. I filled a couple of my tires after a drive on a very rough road in the cockpits left them a bit low.
Rental cost...it is a LOT cheaper to rent a car if you are going to certain locations that are far from an airport and not as popular for tourists, Port Antonio or Robin's Bay, for instance. Private drivers want like $250 each way for Port Antonio from Montego Bay. Even Treasure Beach from MoBay is $120 each way. (For comparison, Negril from MoBay is about $20 per person or $50-60 for up to 4 people) I went to all of these places with my car this trip, and many in between.
My car was less than $50 a day, all taxes and insurance included. I got this rate partly by reserving an older car that was unavailable so I got a free upgrade, and by renting for a long time, over a week. I ALWAYS take the insurance. Most US credit cards do NOT cover Jamaica so without that insurance you are liable for the entire cost of the car should you wreck it or it is stolen. I paid $5 a day to limit my liability to $1,000US. That amount was held on my credit card until I returned the car unscathed. Some companies allow you to pay more for insurance and have zero liability and almost no deposit, so shop around for what's best for you. Taxes are 17.5% so see if those are included in your rate or not. FYI a US or UK driver's license works fine if you are in Jamaica for less than 6 months.
Police. Well I got pulled over twice.
The first time I was on the north coast highway doing absolutely nothing wrong. This was a "spot check" which Jamaican police can do at any time. They (on foot) wave you over and you pull to the side. They took my license, rental papers, and searched the car for ganja (they mainly looked in the ashtray, and asked if my friend or I smoked - we don't). They asked where we were coming from and where we were going. They attempted to give me a hard time about the fact that my insurance paper from the rental company was a photocopy and not the original. I called Omar from my rental company and let him talk to them, and they "decided" not to ticket me, though they threatened it more than once. They were VERY obviously looking for a bribe. (I learned later that there is NO PROBLEM with carrying a photocopy of the insurance, that's what all the rental companies do.).
Still I am sorry to say, I did give the cop $1000J "for lunch" because i really wanted to get back on the road and they seemed so displeased to not have found any drugs or other issues with us that they would have continued searching and generally hassling us if I didn't. I'm sorry about that choice now, because I know I had done nothing illegal (though i really wasn't sure about the insurance thing at the time), and what I did perpetuated police corruption. They did let us go right after that though.
On the lighter side, when I palmed the cop $1000J (about $11US), he dropped it and the wind picked it up and he had to chase after it for a few dozen feet...that was pretty funny (as funny as a cop in a group of cops with machine guns gets, anyhow).
While the one cop and I dealt with that, the other two cops at the stop flirted with my friend in the car and told her she really should try dating Jamaican cops. Oy.
Later in the trip I did get a traffic ticket, legitimately. I was passing a truck in the manner I described earlier - he was going very slow, was slightly to the left allowing me by, there was no oncoming traffic. But this was on the new highway and there was a center line and it was solid. As soon as I passed the truck I saw the roadblock and the cop waved me over. My ticket was for "disobeying a continuous white line" - aka passing in a no-passing zone and it cost me $11 US. This police officer (from the highway patrol) was extremely professional...just gave me the ticket, had NO ISSUE with the insurance photocopy at all. I was told I could pay it at any tax office. As I was leaving Jamaica the next day, I gave the $ to my rental guy so he could pay it - the license of the car was on the ticket so a future renter might have had a problem if pulled over.
In most cases drivers let you know when police are set up ahead by flashing their headlights at you. My friend actually saw a car do this as I passed the truck, but I was so focused on passing the truck that I didn't notice.
I will say I NEVER drove after drinking ANY alcohol. I don't smoke but if I did, I wouldn't drive after that either. I wanted all of my senses engaged. For that reason I basically put the car away in the evenings and only drove during the day. I also gave my car back for my entire week in Negril - there are so many route taxis and private drivers available there, and distances are so short and rides so cheap, it makes no sense to have a car there.
I did drive once at night, we were late returning from Robins Bay to Duncans Bay so it was unavoidable. I did it, I can do it, but it was pretty stressful not to be able to see the roads and people and bicycles and things as well as by day. Fortunately most of that drive was on the north coast highway where there are side lines, center lines and even reflectors embedded in both, so it wasn't too rough.
On another occasion at night we - I wasn't driving - came up behind a VERY drunk driver who was weaving all over the road. We stayed well behind him and he eventually pulled over, to sleep it off I hope. That kind of thing is obviously more likely to occur at night, so one more reason to put the car away at dusk.
Many drivers do not put their headlights on at dusk (or dawn, or in fog), not until or unless it is full on dark, so extra caution is required. Also many drivers go right to brights, thus making it difficult to see against oncoming traffic at times.
If there is construction blocking a lane, often there will be a flag man with red (stop) and yellow (go slow) flags. Of course often someone will just double park and block a lane for no good reason, to chat with another driver or a pedestrian, so I always had to watch for that.
You might notice I never mentioned driving on the left as an issue. It isn't. It is the LEAST of conditions to consider in driving in Jamaica. Very soon after i got in the car, I stopped thinking about it and it became natural. Occasionally at a roundabout I'd think of it as I merged in (FYI cars already in the roundabout, aka cars on the right, have the right of way), but that was about it. Related differences...when you turn left that is the easy turn, only one direction of traffic to consider. Turning right is harder, you must wait for a clearing in both directions of traffic. If you happen to be on a 4 lane highway - and they are rare - the right lane is the passing lane, slower traffic stays left. But that kind of thing was just natural to me after a short time.
To US drivers - everything is in kilometers...distances on signs, and speed limits. 80 km is about 50 mph and is the highway speed, 50 km is about 30 mph and is the "town" speed. When you see "mile markers" they are kilometer markers and thus a bit more than half what you think miles might be. But will take as long as miles in some cases ;)
If there is construction on the road you will encounter a flag man...red is stop, yellow is go slowly.
When I pulled up to a gas station, restaurant, whatever destination in my car, people did not automatically assume I was a tourist...not at all like coming out of a JUTA bus or taxi. Even if I was pegged as not Jamaican, I was treated differently. I loved that.
So given all of that, would I drive in Jamaica again?
Absolutely. There is nothing like the freedom of having your own car. You can go where you want, when you want, stop as you like, no need to check with anyone, wait for anyone, feel you are inconveniencing anyone, think about if you have the right change to pay or how much to tip. I loved it when i was alone, I loved it when my friend was with me, I just loved it. Windows down, music cranked, these are some of the best memories I have of the trip.
I have taken a few videos driving over the years...not while I was driving of course, but they may give you some idea of what the road conditions are like:
Check out the chickens at 35 seconds...this is in eastern Portland, near Manchioneal.
This is also Portland, but on newly constructed "superhighway". Other than being pulled over for a paper check, this was a smooth trip:
Sometimes you get stuck behind a truck on a curvy mountain "highway"...that's just too bad unless you are willing to take some serious risk passing, which undoubtedly some drivers behind you will:
One of the better roads into the Blue Mountains from Kingston...the road got MUCH worse further on and we turned around so as not to harm my driver's car.
...and finally, in New Kingston. We're mainly waiting to make a left turn here.
PS: The largest car rental company in Jamaica is Island. They have several offices around the island and offer newer vehicles and several different insurance plans including one that limits your liability to $0. They will also deliver cars to you. http://www.islandcarrentals.com/.