Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Driving in Brazil

For visitors to Brazil, there is one essential piece of advice that you need – Don’t. But if you’re going to be staying for some time, you may not be able to avoid it forever. There are a few obvious points of which you should be aware – nobody stops at red lights in the dark of the city night, they just slow; signs help for the first turn-off but then generally leave you to fend for yourself; those five lanes each side highways, with cars crossing like ribbons on a maypole; motorbike and scooter riders all seem to have a deathwish, which is regularly granted; helped by the potholes big enough to bath in after rain; and the fact that almost everybody in Brazil who drives and drinks, drinks and drives. The recent police clampdown on drink driving has made the news but will take a long time to change cultural habits, especially until late-night public transport improves.
Glossing over all these minor quibbles, I’d prefer to pick up on the not-so-obvious traits. As with job titles, cars in Brazil are a very important status symbol for those who need material goods to boost their own self-worth. Which is everyone. Might is therefore right in Brazil and the big important people drive big important cars, and it is up to those lesser mortals to stay out of their way. This can be seen outside the gates of the underground car parks of every city block in the country. The two lights flash, the siren wails, the gate rises, and out of the darkness bounds a blackened 4x4 which bounces across the pavement, oblivious to the old dears and pregnant women with prams hurriedly moving out of its path. The signs tell you all you need to know – ‘Cuidado Veiculo’ not ‘Cuidado Pedestres’. There are no signs on the way out of the garage.

Once those cars hit the open road, this aggressive driving style lends itself very well to accidents, which is lucky as Brazilians love to see the aftermath of a good accident. Driving along the notorious BR101, at various strategic points where speed cameras might be useful, the accident blackspots instead have a television van waiting for the call. You can’t call them ‘Ambulance Chasers’ as they usually arrive long before the emergency services, filming the wreckage for live news programmes and interviewing shaking, blood-covered victims awaiting treatment. Death doesn’t make a difference to the coverage, except for the dearth of interviews. I saw some dramatic footage of a motorbike that had crashed in a tunnel, starting with huge smears of blood that led eventually to the bike and a still warm, possibly twitching corpse, lying in a huge pool of sangue. Just to confirm for any watching loved ones, the reporter also held up the photo id of the deceased, and that of his passenger friend, whose body was wrapped around the fence a metre above the road surface. Wonderful afternoon viewing.

I recently enjoyed a journey being driven by a Brazilian surfer. In holiday weekend traffic on the BR101 and in torrential rain, he was driving so close to the car in front that he couldn’t see its brake lights. Any sudden stops in the queue in front brought a slamming on of brakes and a few expletives about the abilities of the driver in front. After two hours of this he started to fall asleep at the wheel. I didn’t want to wake him as his driving had improved. Driving like this isn’t unusual. Brazilians are terrible drivers who all seem to know that every other Brazilian is a terrible driver, except themselves. You may counter this with a Senna, a Massa and a Piquet or two, but I would argue that the careless, aggressive driving style coupled with fantastic natural ability would likely lead to the best Brazilian drivers being amongst the very best in the world. The rest, though, leave me wondering if the Driving Test of Brazil consists of a question – ‘Que é isso?´ If you answer ´Carro´, you pass.

So this is what you have to contend with if you want to drive in Brazil. Don´t worry too much though, because worst comes to the worst and you have a tragic accident on a Brazilian motorway, at least you´ll be famous for 15 minutes in Brazil.

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