Repost: Traffic Signs

Another re-run of an older post while I’m away studying in Belo Horizonte.  The true irony to this post is that after writing this and then surviving a year of driving in Brazil I returned to the United States and got into my first fender-bender in over a decade.  Sigh.  Should I take it as an encouraging sign that I’m finally becoming more Brazilian?

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The road signs are like driving with your father.

“Use luz baixa quando cruza os vehiculos.”

(Use your low beams with oncoming traffic)

“Evite accidentes. Respite a sinalização.”

(Avoid accidents. Respect the traffic signs.)

“Em chuva não ultrapasse.”

(Don’t pass when it’s rainy)

“Só ultrapasse com segurança.”

(Only pass when it’s safe)

“Use luz baixa sob neblina.”

(Use your low beams when it’s foggy)

And my personal favorite:

“Obedeçe a sinalização.”

(just plain, “Follow the traffic signs.” Because you need me to tell you.)

Of course, Brazilians approach waiting in line with the fervor of the last child in a large family and the rate of traffic fatalities is incredibly high, so maybe there’s something to the father-figure act. They press forward, blind to well-meaning painted arrows and lines, directional signs, or any other traffic indicator, eager to grab what is theirs before someone else gets there. Maybe Father Government had his reasons to white-knuckle the dashboard.

Motorized vehicles are still a bit of a novelty in this rural mining town. People still ride horses to market. A decade ago, everyone longed to own a bike. Now everyone works to own a motorcycle or a truck. The pedestrians demand their right of way with a bravado that makes me wonder if they understand that a ton of steel is going to win, every time. As a result, intersections have the following factors for your consideration: the traffic signal itself, the 10 pedestrians on the various curbs, two loose dogs, three motorcycles zipping between cars and pulling through your blind spots, and two oncoming cars that might or might not decide to follow the expected rules of transit.

Driving in Brazil is an adventure, a gauntlet, a whetstone for nerves of steel. It is a wonder that Brazilians entertain such sports as sky-diving and mountain climbing when a trip on their nearest estrada provides a similar and more cost-effective adrenaline rush. Bicycle lanes are fortified with concrete. Solid center-lines are considered polite suggestions for the driver’s consideration. Break-down lanes double as passing lanes–always. Dashed center-lines are license to pass regardless of the oncoming traffic. More than once I have watched two trucks drive parallel, filling the entire road, forcing oncoming traffic to the margin. I can already hear the two drivers arguing after an accident–“What? Why did you hit me head on? Why didn’t you move out of your lane? Didn’t you see that I had a dotted line?”

Obviously, this is not a land for pacifists. You cannot simply cruise along at the recommended speed. Driving in Brazil requires passion. You must match the traffic or perish. On downhills there are large, overloaded trucks with smoking brakes. On uphills there are road warriors from São Paolo determined to test the limits of their four-cylinder engines. There are pot-holes so deep and speed-bumps so high that they verge on geologic formations. This is the big leagues, people. Slam it into a lower gear for rapid acceleration, keep a toe on the brake, and never, ever drive with just one hand.

This is not to say that people on the road aren’t friendly. The cars talk to each other on the road. One short toot to say hello to a friend. Flash your lights in greeting, or to warn of an upcoming traffic snarl. A long honk to express frustration at an automotive acrobatic gone wrong. Truckers flash their turn signals to show you when it’s safe to pass them as they trundle up hills and around corners. Right: “Yes, go now.” Left: “Wait! Something’s coming! Not safe!”

Kings of the road in this enormous nation where most items are shipped by land, the truck drivers are your native guides to this wilderness. Watch them to avoid tire-devouring potholes, to slow for speed radar and speed-bumps, and to know which corners and hills have enough space to zip past someone and which don’t. Two short toots to them as you go by to say “thank you.”

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