Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Brazilian Way: Driving

Riding in a car here is not for the faint of heart...or stomach. To start, the traffic is horrible in Rio (though, admittedly not as bad as in Sao Paulo). If you're turning onto a street, you really just inch the car out and insert yourself into the lines of traffic. And speaking of inches, after some serious observation I would estimate that "assured clear distance ahead" here means something in the range of 2-6 inches. And that's being generous.

Once you are in traffic, the lines on the road really mean nothing at all. For example, if you're in traffic and inching forward, usually a third lane will open up on a two-lane the middle. This is especially true when an ambulance or police car comes through; the cars barely attempt to get out of the way for the emergency vehicle and as it slowly makes it through traffic, cars just form a line behind it and 2 lanes become 3. And when you actually get moving, it seems that the lines on the road are merely suggestions for a region of space that might be nice to drive in. This is particularly troublesome because of the motorcycles. As in any city with a lot of traffic, motorcycles are incredibly popular here because they can slide in between cars which is so dangerous, especially given the lack of a driver staying in his lane. On the way home from Buzios a month ago (wow, I have been here for over a month...) we saw a fatal motorcycle accident; the body was covered and laying on the side of the road as the police waited for an ambulance. At least almost all motorcyclists wear helmets, but still...

Buses and taxis are their own special kind of ride. The buses can make you physically sick with the way they accelerate quickly to high speeds and then stop so abruptly you are flown forward. And because the roads here are very bumpy and the pavement incredibly uneven, when the buses go so fast you are flying up and out of your seat! Riding in a taxi here is similar to in any other city, I think, but the drivers are incredibly friendly and talkative. They ask for your input on the route they are taking, and they always strike up conversations. I like riding in taxis here as I consider it an educational tool; I have created a Portuguese learning game I call "faking it with the taxi driver." From the moment I get into the taxi, I try to go as long as I can before breaking down and having to tell the driver that I don't speak Portuguese. I can tell him where I am going, and when he asks my opinion on the route I tell him to go whichever way he thinks is best. I can even manage conversations about the weather. And when he starts in on something I don't understand, I start pretending. I use non-verbal clues as to what he is saying and I just agree and nod my head a lot.

Driving late at night is interesting, too. Nobody obeys red lights at night. You approach it and slow, but if there is no car coming you can proceed through. I think it is technically against the law, but they do it for safety to avoid getting robbed on the side of the road while you are sitting there so I think the police overlook it (the other thing they overlook is the people selling things (coco water, soda, snacks) on the side of the highways...and in the middle of the highways...because though it is illegal, it keeps them from selling drugs in the favelas). The other interesting thing you see driving at night is the sobriety checkpoints. They take drinking and driving very seriously here -- there is a no-tolerance policy so if any alcohol is detected, you go to straight to jail. And they set up sobriety checkpoints on all of the major roads that take you to different parts of the city. It seems to work, too, as when I have been out with friends I have heard people say they are not drinking because they know they have to drive home and they might get stopped at a sobriety checkpoint. As I am against drunk driving, I think this is a great system.

The funniest part about how scary their driving is here is that the driver's education system is fairly intense. They can't get a license until they are 18, and they have to go through a lot of classroom and practical training.

So I guess that is my take on driving...sometimes it is best to just look out the window and try to concentrate on something else!

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me SO MUCH of what it is like to ride in taxis in Shanghai. My first couple weeks here I almost had a heart attack every time I got in a cab. Now I'm used to it, but worried about how my family will handle it when they visit. I might have to blindfold my mom during car rides...

    What I found especially amusing here is that it seems like they think people will be more likely to obey red lights if they have extra warning about when a red light is coming. So the light is green and cars are driving. Then it's flashing green (to warn you that yellow is coming) then yellow and then red. Some lights even have a countdown clock to warn you how many seconds you have to accelerate through the intersection before the light changes. But none of it makes any difference, People just run the lights no matter what.