International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Brazil
Thomas Hobbes School of Driving Like a Carioca
husband and I almost died the other day. Again. We were
driving a car in Rio de Janeiro, so near death experiences are just
one of the costs like gas and wiper fluid. On this particular
occasion, we were almost broadsided by a delivery truck pulling
out of parking lot and directly into our lane.
This happened only
minutes before we were cut off by a bus driver and almost hit some guy
on a motorcycle who cut across the space left after the bus pulled through.
After nearly flattening the motoboy, I released my death grip from my
seat and asked my husband, Why is it drivers in Rio seem to use
their daily commute for an adrenaline fix? My husband, a
native of Rio, shrugged, Traffic in Rio is a perfect example of
a Hobbesian state of nature.
Given the fact Thomas Hobbes lived through the English Civil War, when
it was the King against Parliament, the gentry against the nobles, the
Puritans against the Catholics and everybody against haggis, it is no
wonder he concluded human nature is violent, brutish and driven by self
interest. While I would like to believe we humans have improved
upon ourselves since the 17th century, a year of riding around Rio has
brought me to the same conclusion. With millions of people, buses,
taxis, cars and motorcycles all fighting for the little road space left
between the pot holes and parked cars, civility breaks down quickly.
Social niceties are out, screamed obscenities and masochistic tendencies
are in. The end result is as Hobbes described mans natural
state, every man against every man.
In a natural state, according to Hobbes, man lives in continual
fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor,
nasty, brutish, and short. Amazingly, these lines are almost
identical to the opening of a drivers manual here. The
life of a driver is one of continual fear and danger of violent death.
It is solitary, nasty, brutish and short. This is a pretty
accurate assessment of the situation. The International Association
of Public Transport estimates the average daily commute in Rio is two
and a half hours. Lock people up in a small box in ninety-degree
heat for hours and theyd run over their blind grandmother if it
means one minute less in the car.
Much of the congestion in Rio is the result of a bus system governed
only by the laws of physics. Buses in Rio are privately operated
and, throughout the city, bus companies aggressively compete for passengers.
Generally, Im in favor of open markets and competition but the
competing buses in Rio create more of a public safety hazard than a
public transit system. The most successful companys drivers
get between stops fastest and complete their circuit the highest number
of times in a day. What this means for the passengers is an adrenaline
pumping thrill ride typical of the best amusement parks but without
the safety harnesses.
Bus drivers take corners at break neck speeds, red lights are run, brakes
are used sparingly, and passengers are frequently let on and off without
even coming to a full stop. Once, I could swear I felt the g-force
increase as the bus rounded a traffic circle. In the race for
passengers any lane is the bus lane. The right lane, the left
lane, and occasionally the sidewalk. Frequently, a bus driver
will pull into the two feet of space available on the other side of
an intersection where traffic has completely stopped. Then the
light changes, the bus still cant move and now, neither can anyone
else at the intersection. Im not sure if blocking the intersection
is some clever strategy to delay the competition in gridlock or an example
of what Hobbes believed is mans natural indifference to others
and irrational pursuit of self-interest. Whatever the bus drivers
motives, the subsequent traffic jam does not bring out the more civilized
side of his fellow drivers.
Taxi drivers in Rio are also prone to displays of complete indifference
to other drivers and, sometimes it seems, human life in general.
Like buses, taxis are also competing for fares but lack the overall
tonnage to dictate the flow traffic. They get stuck in the jam
left in the buss wake. As a result, the one rule every taxi
driver seems to follow is Never get behind a bus.
Taxi drivers will turn left from the right lane or floor the accelerator
for the one block between lights in order to cut in front of a bus.
More than once I have been in a taxi and found myself staring out the
back window, able to count the bus drivers missing teeth as he
yells at my cab driver all the while going fifty miles an hour.
To be fair, taxis drivers are not the only ones cutting people off.
The concept of following at an appropriate distance hasnt caught
on here in Rio. If a driver tries to allow several car lengths
between herself and the car in front, inevitably another car will cut
into that open space. The trick is to follow a car too closely
for another to cut in front but with enough space that you might have
time to hit the brakes in the event of an accident. Unfortunately
theres not much you can do about the tailgaters except hope they
eventually get frustrated with your reasonable driving speed, change
lanes, and fly past you.
Then there are the motoboys. At least they wear helmets. Motoboy
is the term for the many, many motorcycle drivers. While its
true the majority of these drivers are young males, any age or gender
can be found steering a motorcycle in the narrow space between cars
and buses. Motoboys handle most of the deliveries in Rio and all
of these deliveries fill the streets with motorcycles zipping in between
cars, around cars, and passing cars on the sidewalk. Ive
been told it is illegal for motorcycles to be driven on sidewalks, which
surprised me a great deal. I hadnt realized there were any
laws regarding traffic in Rio.
My ignorance of Brazilian traffic laws is vast. My husband
has pointed out traffic cameras, which implies there are traffic laws
and people who want to catch those who break them. I just have
no idea what these laws are. I also must acknowledge a large cultural
gap between driving styles in my hometown of Snellville, Georgia and
Rio de Janeiro. I learned to drive amidst Puritanical rule followers
who will stop for a red light in the middle of the night at an empty
intersection. Doing the same thing in Rio is setting you up for
a carjacking. In Snellville you change lanes only when necessary
and use a signal when you make the change. I think Brazilian car
manufacturers have just stopped putting turn signals in cars.
Cariocas seem to prefer using telepathy to know when someone is changing
lanes. If I had learned to drive in Rio maybe I too would have
developed the same sixth sense the locals use to know when and by whom
they are going to be cut off.
But I dont have a sixth sense so, Im left in the passenger
seat, buckled in, arms braced, asking, Where are the police?
Drivers seem to operate with a sense of immunity to any traffic laws
that may in fact exist. Hobbes argued that in a state of nature
notions of right and wrong
have there no place.
Laws must be created to define right and wrong. It is the job
of the state, according to Hobbes, to ensure people follow these laws.
Which would explain why most drivers in Rio dont. In over
a year in Rio de Janeiro, I have heard of one person receiving a ticket
for speeding. She wasnt even caught by the police.
A traffic camera spotted her.
I am aware Rio has problems with drugs and gangs which keep the police
busy. Still, I see cops all over the city chatting amongst themselves,
reclining against their cars. Their crossed legs and slouched
shoulders dont say to me Major drug bust happening here.
Maybe theyre protecting the parking lots from carjackers but personally
Id prefer the police keep my car safe while its moving as
opposed to when its parked.
Unfortunately, without any authorities to enforce the laws, Rios
drivers will continue to resort to their brutish nature. The only
thing to do is buckle-up or grab a helmet. Maybe both. Because,
just as Hobbes would have predicted, in Rio its every driver for
Barineau Jan 2009
Rio de Janeiro
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