Brazil Targets Drink Driving on the Road to Fewer Deaths: Despite a Longstanding Commitment to Improving Road Safety, Brazil's Numerous Initiatives Have Suffered from Weak Enforcement. Tough New Legislation Backed by Even Tougher Policing Promises a New Start
Jurberg, Claudia, Bulletin of the World Health Organization
Jonas Licurgo Ferreira was drunk the night he crashed his car. The 41-year-old resident of Rio de Janeiro had been drinking heavily with a soldier friend who was messing around with a gun in the car when it happened. He hit a post. The gun went off, putting a bullet into Ferreira's spine. "Now I am paraplegic because of a gunshot" he says. But he knows that the real harm was done by the alcohol. "If we had not been drinking so much my friend would not have been playing with the gun, and I would not have hit the post."
Ferreira is just one of 600 000 people involved in crashes on Brazilian roads each year who live to talk about it. Another 40 000 are not so lucky. Brazil, the world's fifth most populous country, ranks also fifth in terms of annual road traffic mortality with 18 deaths per 100 000 inhabitants, according to WHO. Until recently those numbers were getting steadily worse.
In February 2011, a traffic collision monitoring system was launched by Brazil's justice ministry in collaboration with the Sangari Institute, a non-profit organization. The system found that between 1998 and 2008 the number of annual deaths on Brazil's roads had increased by 20% (from 31000 to 39 000). Within that steep increase were hidden some even more alarming trends, notably a fourfold increase in cyclist fatalities and more than a sevenfold leap in motorcycle deaths to nearly 9000 in 2008. The principal victims were teenagers.
Apart from the price paid in human misery, disability and death, road traffic collisions cost Brazil about US$ 32 billion a year, according to the Institute of Applied Economic Research. Otaliba Libanio, director of the Department of Health Situation Analysis at the health ministry, says that the high toll of road traffic injuries and deaths has long been a matter of concern and that several federal, state and municipal initiatives have been launched since 2001 to bring about change.
Two core problems have hindered progress in Brazil: the first is inadequate enforcement of the laws in place; the second is entrenched attitudes to drinking and, particularly, drinking and driving--although this may be changing. Brazilians love to party and alcoholic beverages--an important part of this festive culture--are cheap and widely available, even at gas stations (on state, municipal and urban roads but not on federal highways). In recent years, it has been during the famous Brazilian carnival that the toll of road deaths and injuries has hit some of the highest recorded levels.
To address both weak enforcement and drink-driving, the government pushed through new legislation in 2008. The Lei Seca (Dry Law) makes it a criminal offence to drive with a blood-alcohol concentration of 6 decigrams per litre or higher. The penalty for infringement is six months to three years imprisonment, although tines and driving bans can also apply. As currently applied, the law is even more stringent, setting the limit at 2 decigrams, well below international best practice, which requires a blood-alcohol concentration limit of less than 5 decigrams per litre. "Brazil is one of a handful of countries that has gone beyond the maximum recommended blood-alcohol concentration limit to institute a stricter limit for the general population," says Alison Harvey, a road safety expert at the World Health Organization (WHO). "It's an indication that drink-driving is taken seriously as an important problem."
Just how seriously was shown by a 2008 presidential decree calling for zero tolerance of alcohol in the bloodstream while driving- an idea that was not taken up for reasons of workability. "Zero tolerance sends a useful message, but in practice blood-alcohol concentration limits of 0.0 can be difficult to enforce since blood-alcohol concentration is most often estimated using breath analyzers," Harvey explains. Even when a person has not consumed alcoholic beverages they may still test positive for a small concentration of alcohol or similar compounds in their breath for a variety of reasons, such as using an alcohol-based mouthwash or eating chocolate liqueurs. …