07 November 2011

Driving in Brazil

My mother taught me that if you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all. So because I like to think of myself as an obedient daughter — and because I think it was good advice —  I'm tempted to hold my tongue on the subject of driving in Brazil. But I won't. I can't. Brazilian driving is the bee in my bonnet, the pea under my mattress, my pet topic, my bugbear. It is the only stress in my stress-free life. I can't get through the simplest outing in the car without screaming some choice epithets, flashing the finger, gesticulating, yelling, or holding my breath in mortal fear (and I'm not even driving, I'm just the passenger).

Brazil does have a Traffic Code, and it is based on the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. There are extensive Rules of the Road, including long sections on Defensive Driving and First Aid. In order to receive Brazilian drivers licenses Mark and I had to study these rules, then take a sophisticated computerized test, a difficult psychological written exam and an eye exam. The Motor Vehicle Bureaus around the country perform rigorous annual vehicle inspections. There are radars and speed bumps everywhere, and heavy fines for scofflaws. It is not for lack of regulations, enforcement or will that Brazil has plunged so far down the traffic fatality slope, fatalities which last year alone totaled upwards of 40,000.

So what is it? Aggressive tailgating, reckless passing — on the right, on the left, into the oncoming lane — it just doesn't gibe with my sense of the Brazilian spirit of paz e amor. I was baffled until one white-knuckle ride into Rio, when it came to me in a flash. Futebol. The national sport, the national passion. They're all playing soccer. The drivers are forever cutting in front of each other to take any field advantage they can, they're passing with reckless abandon to get to the imaginary goal posts. One car scrapes against another? Just a rebound, the ball (or in this case the car) remains in play. Driving at breakneck speed on the shoulder? No worries, that's just an offside position, which is not an offense in itself.

Sir? Sir? I believe that's called the Oncoming Lane.
Mandatory traffic rules I learned in high school Drivers Ed are treated by many drivers here as optional. Stop signs are just a  suggestion, observed by only a few. A Yield sign is observed by no one. Emergency Vehicle Priority? That's just a challenge for a driver to maneuver behind the emergency vehicle and ride its coattails. Pedestrian Priority? You're joking. And weren't we taught that to keep a safe distance from the car in front of you, you had to be able to see the car's back tires? Brazilian drivers tailgate close enough to smell the alcohol on the breath of the driver in front.

I've lost count of the number of near accidents I've witnessed. But since they were only near accidents, since the drivers maneuvered and veered and avoided and stopped just short of the actual accidents, there is an argument that can be made that Brazilians are excellent drivers. I even see the logic there. Apologists cite the poorly maintained roads, the bad or misleading traffic signs, and some blame the weather. Huh? The weather? But nobody is forced to put the pedal to the metal. That's cultural. After all, Brazil ranks second in the list of foreign-born winners of the Indy 500, and third on the Formula One list. They love speed. It's not for nothing that the soccer breakaway is one of the most exciting plays in the game. 

One thing for certain, no one in Brazil has ever watched "Signal 30," the driving safety film they forced us to sit through in Drivers Ed. Remember? A film so graphic for its time, so horrifying, that even the most macho football team captains ran out of the classroom vomiting and girls fainted in their seats? Well, I remember it. And I think it should be resurrected in Brazil. So right here, right now, I'm going to do my part: 

Alert: Strong Content, Parental Guidance Required


  1. I've probably said that already, but I will say it again: it is sad when you hate certain things about your own country, but you want to believe it must be the same all around the world, and then a foreign comes and tells you that it is not: your country is indeed bad at something.

    Here is a piece of travel advice from the UK government website:

    "Brazil has a high road accident rate. In many rural areas the quality of roads away from the main highways is poor, and standards of driving, especially trucks and buses, is low."

    Kind of goes in line with what you said, doesn't it?

    1. Yes indeed! But to be honest, I had a slight change of mind in 2014, when I wrote an update to this blog (June 2, 2014). I'm still a very nervous passenger, though!