Driving in Brazil is not for everyone. While some towns have a safer driving tradition than others, traffic in Brazil is, to say the least, undisciplined and challenges drivers with many adverse situations.
Getting around Brazil doesn't necessarily require a car. While there are few passenger trains, travel buses can be very reliable and comfortable. A growing number of tour companies take travelers to places that can only be reached by 4-wheel traction vehicles anyway. The largest cities have subways and even small cities have bus systems.
However, there are times when a rental - or borrowed - car does come in handy, for example on beaches where buses don't run often.
Every day, responsible Brazilian drivers need to face the traffic conditions around them. You may need or want to do the same. Here are some particulars of Brazilian traffic conditions you should be aware of and some safety tips to get you started.
Reckless and Aggressive Drivers
Driving behavior in Brazil can be dangerous, ranging from bad habits such as tailgating to road rage.
A 2004 study by SOS Estradas, a road safety program sponsored by Estradas.com.br, the largest Brazilian online road travel resource, pointed to a yearly death toll of 42,000 in traffic accidents in Brazil.
According to the study, 24,000 of those deaths occurred on roads and highways. SOS Estradas linked 90% of deaths to road behavior and concluded one of the reasons the problem is so severe is impunity.
Car Theft and Armed Robbery
Driving a car in Brazil involves the risk of theft and robbery. Although many cars in Brazil don't come with air conditioning, drivers in large cities may keep their windows rolled up at traffic lights known to be more dangerous even on the hottest days, in an attempt to minimize the risk of having either the car itself or the driver's valuables taken by an armed individual.
Motorcycle riders often make their way between lanes when traffic comes to a halt and even when it’s flowing at regular speed. The problem is particularly serious in São Paulo, where motorcycle messengers – "motoboys" – do the riskiest moves in order to deliver their charges.
Mototaxis, a popular alternative to unreliable public transportation or traffic jams in Brazilian cities of all sizes, can be just as daring. Apparently many mototaxi passengers would rather risk their safety than be late to work.
Some truckers in Brazil are safety-oriented drivers who watch out for smaller vehicles. Others are overworked or intoxicated people. Just in case, be constantly alert to all trucks.
Slow traffic at different times of day is a routine in large Brazilian cities. Holidays, storms and accidents often cause monster traffic jams in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Pedestrians and Stray Animals
Most streets in commercial districts are packed with pedestrians. Don’t expect people to cross exclusively at pedestrian crossings. They may dodge cars, sometimes stopping in the middle of a street without a median while waiting for a chance to finish crossing over – and if you stop for them, you could cause an accident because most drivers don’t expect anyone to do that.
Children in Brazil go to school for half the day. Several public high schools have classes in three periods – morning, afternoon and evening. That's four different times a day when the streets around schools are full of kids walking home or waiting for the bus. Many schools are located on busy avenues and they may have police officers on duty as crossing guards - or not.
Unfortunately, there are thousands of stray animals in the streets of Brazil, posing the risk of distractions and the need for sharp reflexes.
Inadequate Road Maintenance
Brazilian roads range from very well-kept highways to roads with potholes the size of craters and impassable mudpits. Travelers must know road conditions.
In many Brazilian towns, following signs to your destination may work very well for a while, until they disappear all of a sudden and you have to stop at gas stations and roadside bars to ask for directions - probably from someone who doesn't speak English.
Speed Bumps (Lombadas)
As an alternative to hiring a larger police force, many towns in Brazil resort to speed bumps. Some are huge and so steep they look like concrete cylinders. In theory, lombadas should be painted with bright stripes and there should be warning signs as well as signs at the bumps. But that doesn't always happen.
Drivers in Brazil need to be prepared to do parallel parking on narrow streets while traffic waits; maneuver in tight shopping mall garages; park far from their destination and walk; find a business that sells parking cards which must be filled out and left on the dashboard; pay for a parking lot with valet services.
Driving Safely in Brazil
Here are some things you can do to increase your chances of having a safe driving experience in Brazil:
- Read the U.S. Department of State Safety and Security Guidelines for Travelers to Brazil, which cover traffic safety and road conditions as well as a host of other issues.
- If it's your first time in Brazil, don't try to drive right away. Ride buses, take a taxi, get a feel for the local traffic scene.
- Learn basic Portuguese. Test your newly acquired skills at your hotel. Ask someone if they understand you as you practice asking for help.
- Consider buying a pre-paid cell phone. Check out shops in the larger cities, where there's a higher chance of finding English-speaking salespeople.
- Learn to use public transportation in the major cities, especially the subway system wherever it's available.
- Don't drive during holidays that are known for a high intake of alcohol, such as Carnival, New Year's Eve and Oktoberfest.
- Don't drink and drive.
- Avoid driving at night.
- Get familiar with Brazil traffic signs.
- To essential auto theft prevention tips, add local knowledge and advice. Anyone willing to drive in a busy Brazilian city must be prepared to know about how to deal with someone threatening you with a weapon. Ask locals for tips about places you're going to.
- Update your defensive driving skills. If you're lost, stop and get your bearings.
- Learn as much as possible as local weather conditions and road conditions.