Monday, April 30, 2012

Is driving in the US really all that dangerous?

By Cliff, resident storyteller and regular contributor to UpShift.

It seems not a day goes by that somewhere in the news, there isn’t some reporter talking about the crumbling condition of our roads and especially our bridges here in the US. Texting while driving is now verboten in 37 states, DC and Guam. Yes, you read that right, Guam. If I ever find myself on Guam, I think I would be a hell of a lot more concerned about one those 155 howitzer shells left over from WWII going off than texting. But I digress.

OK, We all know texting is dangerous and you shouldn’t do it while driving. And if we are really being honest about it, we all know that the driver’s test is a nothing but a bad fucking joke. Don’t agree? Put any 16 year old with a newly laminated license into a skid, and watch them shit their pants while returning to the fetal position all safe and secure in Mummy’s tummy. You were saying?

But folks, I am here to tell you that we live in a dream world of driving safety compared to Latin America where I’ve spent a fair amount of time driving and being driven. Latin American life expectancy must be shorter by a year or 2 just on general driving principles.

Being that they are our neighbor just to the south, let’s start with Mexico. The vast majority of Mexican Nationals do not have a drivers’ license. Unless, of course they live in NY, Chicago or LA. Anyway, in Mexico, if you can afford to buy the car, you’re driving. If you are from the US and plan to drive in Mexico, you are insane if you don’t buy Mexican Car Insurance. You see, in Mexico, when there is an accident and no bribes settling up who’s at fault aren’t paid on the spot, everyone goes to jail. And one guess what speed the Mexican judicial system runs? BTW- you’ll never catch a Mexican prison guard buying Viagra . . . . not to put a fine “point” on it.

Click "read more" after the jump to continue reading.

Most metal road signs in Mexico are stolen within hours for their scrap metal value, so unless you have compass, you are pretty much screwed for directions unless you speak Spanish and ask someone for help. Out on open stretches of the many 2 lane roads Mexico calls “highways”, you can see vehicles coming from a long distance off. Trucks and buses tend to have not only completely bald tires, but can and do take up both sides of the road as their suspensions and steering are so bad along with the excessive speeds they are being driven, the drivers or “Pilotos” as they are called in Mexico are doing everything they can just to keep them on the roads; ANYWHERE on the road. So, when you see in the distance some truck or bus that looks like it is going from their side to your side, it is. Cowardly, spineless Momma’s boy wimps of drivers, simply pull as far off the road as they can and let these road warrior behemoths go by. Brave, Gung-ho, principled drivers that stick to their rights and stay in their own lane get to go home in a body bag. The choice senor(a), is yours.

Oh, and did I mention that many of the roads in Mexico are of a petroleum based material that without sufficient rain to wash away, secret oil under the non-stop sun they receive. So, on a nice sunny day, you can be driving on a surface that makes black ice look like traction heaven. Even better is if and when they finally DO get rain, the rain brings even more oil out onto the surface. Add bald tires and voila! Demolition derby day!

Ah, now my favorite, Brazil. To best understand driving in Brazil, one needs a little history and cultural perspective. First, Brazil prides itself in being probably the most “European” of the Latin American countries. Fiat is the #1 selling car in Brazil, followed by Volkswagen. And they don’t sell the mamby, pamby Americanized versions like many car makers do in the states vs. the European versions, these are the real deal, European models made and assembled in Brazil. Secondly, Brazil has a long history of producing world class racing drivers including many current day drivers. Of note, Emerson Fittipaldi was a Formula One champion and a 2 time Indianapolis 500 winner. I sat next to him on a flight from Miami to Sao Paulo once and he was a nice of a guy as you would ever want to meet. But, it was Ayrton Senna, 3-time Formula 1 champion, born in Sao Paulo, and as close to being truly considered a living God in Brazil as any in it’s history. His incredible life and mind boggling racing and incredibly generous civic achievements were tragically cut short at the age of 34 in a solo accident in 1994 in the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy. The Brazilian Government ordered 3 days of nationwide mourning starting on the day after Ayrton died. There is a monument to Ayrton in the center of Sao Paulo made of concrete in the shape of the front of a F-1 car with a Brazilian flag waving from the cockpit. In 2009, Ayrton was voted the greatest Formula 1 driver to have ever lived by current and past Formula 1 drivers. And every Brazilian, every day, truly believes, when they start their engine in the morning, THEY ARE, Ayrton Senna. And, they will happily kill themselves to prove it.

One need only to take a taxi ride from the sprawling International Airport in Guarulhos, a suburb of Sao Paulo to any number of hotels in downtown Sao Paulo, 20 miles away to understand this impact on Brazilian society. You see, you don’t have a choice about taking a taxi as there is very limited public transportation nor subway to get you downtown. I say “limited” public transportation because you may just be sharing your seat with a goat. Upon entering your Taxi, pray like hell, pray as you have never prayed before. And what are you praying for? You are praying that a virtual parking lot to exists on the highway between the airport and downtown, some 20 miles away. This may be the most important 3 hours of your life to get to downtown if it’s backed up. Because if it’s really, really early in the morning, and the highway isn’t jammed with every known Fiat and VW in Brazil, Ayrton Senna lives again in your taxi driver. And unless you speak Portuguese, he won’t give a rats’ ass what you say or how loud you scream. He’s gonna’ get you to your hotel as fast as he can so he can pick up another faire. Even if that next faire is in Heaven. Ayrton died at 34 and like Tom Berenger said in the movie “Platoon”, “ . . . . Everybody gotta die sometime . . . . .”

So that pretty much covers the real highway driving scene. They are always jammed packed with traffic. And when they’re not, they are dangerous as hell. Now, let’s talk about the secondary highways. On a business trip, we flew from the city center airport in Sao Paulo called “Congonhas.” Congonhas, I was told was built on a mountain of garbage on a former landfill site and the City has grown up all around it. Upon approach for landing, you will be eye to eye with many a high rise tenant. Some even wave. Anyway, we flew to a City south of Sao Paulo called Curitiba. Curitiba is living proof that not all the former Nazi’s went to Argentina. Little hints include passing several full scale working Dutch Windmills from the airport to the city center. And once in Curitiba, virtually every sign, menu, and set of instructions are printed in both Portuguese, and German. At the hotel that night we had one of the best German meals I had ever had in my life and some damned fine beer. German Lager, of course.

Anyway, we had a scheduled meeting with a Customer in Paranagua that next morning about 3 hours away out on the Atlantic Ocean coast. Our local sales representative, Ernesto, met us at the hotel early in the morning as scheduled, driving a Fiat Uno. So, as many of you already astute readers have figured out, like most car companies, at Fiat, the smaller the number, the smaller the car. And last I heard, Fiat doesn’t make a media-Uno, or a .5. No Virginia, it starts with the Uno. So, it took us about 15 minutes to shoe horn 4 full size adults with brief cases into a 2 door, 1000 cc, 4 cylinder shoe box of a car. My 2 business associates, who were both Female, assured me that I would be much more comfortable up front with Ernesto, as long as I moved the seat up to make room for them. I have never wanted to be that close to my knees . . . . . ever, in my life, but there they were, millimeters away from my nose, all the way to the Atlantic coast.

A second generation FIAT Uno.

The good news was, the road to the coast was a smooth 2 lane road, with wide side berms on both sides of the road. Lining both sides of the road however, were sugarcane fields without any end with few, if any side roads. I also noticed that there was a lot of truck traffic both ways as we started out. About an hour into the journey, Ernesto said something to our Brazilian Business partner that turned her white as a ghost. After a couple of minutes to compose herself, she fessed up with a translation. She said, “Ernesto informs me that the next 2 hours of our journey is known as “The Highway of Death” and that there were more fatal traffic accidents that occurred in that stretch of road, than anywhere else in Brazil. Nice. Now you fucking tell us this? I mean, come ON, REALLY??????
Literally, within minutes, we found out why. Two tanker trucks, filled with the resin they cook from sugarcane to make alcohol that the Brazilians use in their cars and national drink, side by side, were bearing down on us. Ernesto pulled off on the berm and let them both pass, like any American would simply make a lane change to let another vehicle pass on any highway in the US. No big deal at all. I believe there were at least 2 or 3 other similar incidents on the way there. After meeting with the Customer at the most God awful plant we had ever seen; a cat food plant that bought the fish that the other canneries wouldn’t take and cooked and canned it on the spot, we went to lunch where nobody ate a damned thing. Now started the jockeying for the seating arrangement for the ride back to Curitiba. It got downright ugly and I am not embarrassed to say I stuck to my guns that I had paid my dues in the front seat on the drive out, and deserved one of the seats in the back. The truth be told, had we been hit head on by any one of those tanker trucks, the truck might have started slowing down by the time it got to the back bumper of the Uno, but probably not. My argument for the back was based upon the fact that I had children that might actually miss their dead father. It worked.

That’s when Ernesto dropped the big one. He informed us, through our Business partner, that the drive back would be much more dangerous as there would be much more truck traffic at that time of day coming towards us. I hate when people are right. Now, drivers were using the berms like any other lanes. Sometimes it was 3 lanes going our way, and sometimes 3 lanes coming at us where we were forced to use the berm as the only lane available. Then came the one that had Ernesto screaming, all 4 lanes, both regular lanes and berms were side by side by side by side trucks coming at us. Instead of slowing down, he actually sped up! And at the last second, darted into a side road that literally saved our lives. He later explained that it was our only option as the sugarcane fields that lined both sides of the road were loaded with poisonous snakes and spiders and had killed many a hapless driver that got stuck and couldn’t get out alive. We arrived back in Curitiba, completely drained and if I recall correctly, ran up one hell of a bar bill that night with that God awful stench of that cat food plant still stuck in our nostrils.

So, yes, dangers do exist on our roadways in the US. But cousin, you ain’t seen nothing yet until you’ve driven in Latin America.

Drive safe.

1 comment:

  1. Hilarious, this reminds me of the time I drove to Mexico for work and was told it was not a lot different from driving in the US. I later found out that the coworker who told me this was obviously playing a mean trick on me.


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