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The perils of 'car culture' in Brazil

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 Brazil’s road traffic accident rate is almost three times what it is in Canada, Japan or Sweden, at 24 deaths per 100,000, which according to one source, is the third highest rate in the world. A recent research paper on the subject, by Giancarlo Bacchieri and Aluísio JD Barros, shows that the absolute numbers of accidents and deaths has gone up over the last ten years. Car deaths accounted for 22 percent of total deaths in Brazil during 2008, whereas they were 12 percent in 1998. Much of this increase is attributable to a sudden jump in the number of motorcycles on the road, according to the authors, as well as the persistence of drinking and driving.

Brazil’s figures are nonetheless surprising. If not because I am nearly three times more likely to die in a traffic accident here in Brazil than at home in Canada, than at least because government initiatives to diminish accidents, such as a comprehensive traffic reform enacted in 1998, have so far failed to make significant inroads. Positively, Congress enacted a “zero tolerance” law in 2008 that may help diminish the number of accidents and deaths related to alcohol.

Highways and Drivers in Brazil

Despite the steady advances of GDP and government tax receipts, Brazilian highways remain poor in many parts of the country, even in the rich southeast. Brazil is not an easy place to build highways: the terrain is mountainous, and mountains tend to be covered in thick capes of soil which, especially when deforested, often collapse under the heavy rainfalls of the wet season. Rain also tends to wash out the substrate under asphalt, leading to potholes of ever-larger proportions. Add to this high levels of corruption and contractors that are widely believed to skimp on quality road construction materials, and you have a serious problem.

Here in Minas Gerais, mining trucks are believed to do considerable damage to public highways. Appropriate rail lines should have obviated the need for mining trucks altogether, but the rail lobby has not fared as well as the motor-vehicle lobby – as we who live in the Americas know all too well. I have never seen a weigh-station here in Brazil, a control mechanism that might prevent overweight trucks from wreaking havoc on roads and public safety more generally.

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