Multi-Tasking Leads to Auto Accident

by Mari Pintkowski (First published Dec. 2008)

It was a combination of the dental work, a credit card SNAFU, and radical multi-tasking that led to the accident. My husband, Lou, had dropped me and our friends off at the Costco store and went to have some dental work completed. When Lou was finished at the dentist, he planned to call and meet up with us later. The credit card was denied at the dentist's office, which seems to happen quite often in Mexico, blaming it on a "fraud alert." Without acceptance of the card, Lou was going to have to pay the bill with cash and he did not have enough pesos in his wallet. The dentist was a little leery of allowing him to leave and come pick us up so that he could return with enough money to pay the bill, but he finally agreed.

While driving back to the dentist's office, Lou had me call the credit card company. The operator wanted to speak directly to him, so I handed over the cell phone just as our friend Brendan, in the back seat, was passing Lou 5,000 pesos.

I guess I don't need to tell you what was wrong with this picture. Being in taxi-driver mode, Lou tried to beat a red light just as another driver was trying to jump a green light at a busy intersection. He dropped the phone and the money with an expletive. It was too late to do anything but brace ourselves. After hitting a new model mini-car, our powerful tank-like vehicle crashed into a curb.

We quickly assessed ourselves for any injuries before being approached by a police officer. He asked if everyone was all right, and Brendan responded with "Estamos bien." (We are fine.) The officer kept telling us not to worry; it was JUST an accident.

Immediately after the accident occurred, the first policeman on the scene roped off the area and looked for witnesses. When a young man approached us and offered to help, we quickly found out that witnesses can be bought on the spot, to verify your idea of what happened. The policeman told us to call our insurance company. We still had Sanborn's insurance that we purchased a few months before at the border when we entered Mexico from Laredo, Texas. Within minutes they dispatched an adjuster to the scene of the accident.

Armando waddled out of his tiny, white car, introduced himself, and acted as our adviser. He spoke little English and all communication was in Spanish, accompanied by a few hand signals. We were glad when Brendan, who had a command of the language, stepped in to help, as we had no idea what was happening. It is the job of the adjuster to remain with the clients at the police station until all the paperwork is complete. We were also informed that our adjuster was also responsible for helping us in the days to come with getting our car released from the police impound lot and into a repair shop. We were never offered choices as to where to take the car for repairs, and until we read the fine print on our policy after the fact, we thought there were none. It turned out that we could have taken it back to the nearest U.S. state for repairs if we wanted. The policy indicated that the insurance company would pay the towing. Since we had not read our policy beforehand, our car was towed to a shop in Cancún that must have paid the adjuster a finder's fee.

After sending our friends back to Tulum in a taxi with all our purchases, we climbed into a police car along with the driver of the other car, and the three of us rode silently to the station. Without Brendan along to translate, we felt the pangs of nervousness take over when Lou was informed that he was at fault because an amber light is considered red in Mexico. The police officer in charge told us that there was no problem because this was simply an accident.

Jorge, the driver of the other car, and Lou and I were put into a small, well-lit, locked room with windows facing the offices across the hall. The room was barren except for a half-dozen chairs and a chalkboard on one wall with two cars on strings attached to a board. Jorge, a non-Maya-looking Mexican, was as tongue-tied as we were. Luckily for us, Jorge did not have the temperament of a cunning jaguar with us as his prey. We only could assume that he was feeling a bit guilty himself for jump-starting the green light. No one attempted to talk about what had just happened. I looked at the young man and said, "Lo siento" (I’m sorry) but could not put together any more words of compassion. Neither Lou nor I understood a word of his response. We found out later that we were put in that small room together to settle any problems among us. This procedure gave one the opportunity to offer some type of settlement for causing the problem, but neither of us knew the purpose at that stage of the process. After 15 minutes, Armando, the insurance adjuster, saw us through the window and got an officer to unlock the door and release us. He told us that we did not have to be in this room since both parties had car insurance and no one was injured.

We were told that automobile insurance was not required in Mexico, but you could be asked for damages on the spot or go directly to jail. Needless to say, paying the $250 a year for full coverage is not an option that should be passed over.

The police then took us all in to see a doctor in another part of the building. The doctor gave Lou and Jorge sobriety and blood tests. If either party failed these tests, he would immediately go to jail. It had been about four hours since the accident had taken place before we were finally allowed to leave.

The next order of business was the damage our car had caused to the curb on the city street. Lou was told that an inspector would return to the accident scene and assess the damage before he could figure out the cost incurred. Lou would then have to pay this fine in another municipal building, where the papers would be stamped. At that time he could return to the impound lot to have the car released.

After five trips to Cancun over five days and $40 to the right person, they finally let Lou pay less than $60 for the curb damage and dismissed him along with the signed paperwork. It was Friday and the police impound lot closed at 3 p.m., which required a race in a taxi to get there before closing time, and payment of another $15 to the man at the gate.

It was more than six weeks and many unsuccessful visits to the mechanic before we were able to drive our car again. When we finally received the reimbursement check from the insurance company and took it to the bank, we were told the check had expired and we never got our money. We did learn an expensive and frustrating lesson, but it could have been much worse. Was this a clue that we needed to either become more fluent in Spanish or stay off the road?

Mari and her husband, Lou, own and operate a B&B, La Selva Mariposa, 12 miles from Tulum on the Cobá Road. The above story is one of the many Mari tells in her book, Embarking on the Mariposa Trail, which is available on Amazon or at local book stores.

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