02 June 2014

Driving Update

One of the principal reasons I started this blog, believe it or not, is simply that I felt like railing about the reckless way Brazilians drive. And I did so (blogpost of July 11, 2011). And, if I hadn’t been so afraid of exhausting my readers’ patience, I could have railed plenty more. But given that I’m generally an honest person, I must now give credit where credit is due. Or give the devil his due. One of those two. Brazilians do not yet drive in as disciplined a manner as the North Americans. Driving here is still in many respects a sport and, for many people, maybe even a blood sport. It calls for skill in the manipulation of a manual transmission, skill in maneuvering in tight spaces and problem roadways, skill for laser-quick judgments of times and distances. It is not yet, as it has become in the U.S., just a means of getting to and from work, getting the kids to soccer practice, and getting the groceries home from Trader Joe’s or WalMart.

"Smile, you’re being fined"
But in the twelve years I have lived in Brazil, I have seen real, positive, tangible changes in the way Brazilians behave behind the driving wheel. Much of the credit goes to government — at federal, state and local levels alike — for getting on the bucking bronco and whipping it into submission. For one thing, there are traffic-calming devices like crazy — speed dips, speed ramps, speed bumps, speed humps, speed tables and speed cushions, all of which are marked pretty clearly. You see them coming. But if you don’t see one of them and you hit it hard, ouch. You’re going to keep your eyes peeled in the future. There are also speed cameras and radar equipment like crazy (both visible and hidden). These enforcement devices may not jar your spine the way flying over a speed hump does, but they sure hurt you in the pocketbook! For example, between us and the town of Macaé, about an hour away, we’ve counted over 25 of them. And, though we ourselves drive with a cautiousness bred in the land of Driver Ed and the famous Signal 30 scare-their-pants-off film, we’ve gotten enough citations in the mail so that we don’t drive to Macaé anymore unless we absolutely have to.

To these measures, add breathalyzers, and a permissible blood alcohol level lower than you’ll reach on a single beer (0.1 mg of alcohol for liter of air expelled). For that one beer you can end up paying a large fine, losing your license for up to a year and even serving some jail time. Then add mandatory driving schools. Add rigorous practical and psychological testing for new drivers. And public service announcements on television. Add mandatory retraining for drivers who rack up over 20 points on their licenses. There’s some serious enforcement here and I, for one, welcome it!

Drive right in here, and take a deep breath

Interesting, and effective, public service campaign

When Mark and I moved here the idea that a driver might stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk was almost ludicrous. It was the motorist who claimed the right of way, and pedestrians were wise not to trust their luck. But, while we still haven’t reached Californian levels of compliance with crosswalk laws, the situation has quite unmistakably taken a major turn. It’s as if stopping for pedestrians was contagious. One person did it. Everybody else copied. Brazilians now seem in effect to take pride in the courtesy they show.

But let me go back to where I started. Driving here is still neither as disciplined as it is in the U.S., and neither is it consequently as safe. But most new drivers in the U.S. had parents who were drivers and probably grandparents who were drivers. Driving as well as car-ownership have long been routine in the U.S. Here many drivers are first-generation drivers, and widespread car ownership is a function of the only recent emergence of a vast middle class. I don’t know the Asian countries. But, if what I hear about driving in India and China and Vietnam is true, Brazil may still be some distance from U.S. standards of behind-the-wheel prudence, but it’s at a far greater distance from the amazing mess you see in this picture from India. And this pretty much reflects just where we stand on the development scale. Down here in Southeastern and Southern Brazil, we’re not yet 100 percent First World. But we’re getting really close.

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