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The International Writers Magazine - Our 24th Year: Brazil

The Thomas Hobbes School of Driving Like a Carioca
Brynn Barineau

My 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 man’s 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 driver’s 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 they’d 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, I’m 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 company’s 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 can’t move and now, neither can anyone else at the intersection.  I’m not sure if blocking the intersection is some clever strategy to delay the competition in gridlock or an example of what Hobbes believed is man’s natural indifference to others and irrational pursuit of self-interest.  Whatever the bus driver’s 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 bus’s 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 driver’s 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 hasn’t 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 there’s 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 it’s 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.  I’ve been told it is illegal for motorcycles to be driven on sidewalks, which surprised me a great deal.  I hadn’t 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 don’t have a sixth sense so, I’m 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 don’t.  In over a year in Rio de Janeiro, I have heard of one person receiving a ticket for speeding.  She wasn’t 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 don’t say to me “Major drug bust happening here.”  Maybe they’re protecting the parking lots from carjackers but personally I’d prefer the police keep my car safe while it’s moving as opposed to when it’s parked. 

Unfortunately, without any authorities to enforce the laws, Rio’s 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 it’s every driver for himself.

© Brynn Barineau Jan 2009
Rio de Janeiro

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