There are plenty of perils when getting around Rio: flooding in the streets during rainstorms, the risk of getting held up at gunpoint at a stoplight or having your car stolen, or getting robbed on a bus, amongst others. Sometimes there are fender benders on buses, or an occasional kombi crash, just like anywhere else. But this week was an unusually deadly week in Rio transportation.
On Saturday, a bondinho, one of Rio's iconic trolley cars, was en route from Santa Teresa to Centro when it derailed and crashed, killing 5 and injuring 57. The crash scene was one of carnage, and one of the first responders described it as "a war scene." A witness said that there was blood everywhere. There was an infant with head trauma, and victims with exposed bone fractures and head wounds. A police officer at the scene said it was the worst call he'd been on in six years, and a resident said he still couldn't get the screams out of his head. The streetcar itself was completely destroyed, a wreck of twisted metal.
Initially, there were theories: overcrowding could have been the problem; there were around 62 people on board, when the allowed maximum is 40. Another theory was brake failure; after the crash, they found a wire in place of a bolt under the brake pads, a type of improvised fix. But today, the State Transportation Secretariat announced that the streetcar in question had been maintained properly, and had very recently had its brake pads replaced. But since the cars are very old and are made with hard-to-find parts, it's possible that it was given used brake pads. Then it was revealed that the streetcar had been in an accident with a bus the same day, and instead of returning to the garage to be checked (without passengers), it continued circulating with passengers, since it had been looked over by another driver who deemed that it was still operational. Authorities are still investigating the exact cause of the crash, and admitted there are problems with the streetcars.
Going downhill in a tram, bus, or car always feels perilous going downhill in Santa Teresa: the sharp curves and steep inclines make you hold your breath, especially if the driver is going faster than you'd like. It can be especially scary in a crowded, antiquated streetcar speeding around a bend; that much even the most seasoned bondinho rider can attest to. This week's accident is the third fatal streetcar accident in the last few years (a tourist fell to his death recently, and a collison with a bus in 2009 left one person dead). But the bondinho is a Rio institution, a literal remnant of the city's rich history. Depending on the season and time, it can be a faster and easier way to get to Santa Teresa from downtown, and is cheaper than the bus. There's a charm to it that makes riding it fun, even if you have no exact destination in mind. While I was in Rio, there was a lot of work done on the bondinho tracks, and also some reforms of some of the cars.
Evidently, there hasn't been enough done to modernize the cars to make them safe, or to put enforceable rules into place to protect the passengers (there was a police officer on board the ill-fated tram to "protect against overcrowding"). The bonde is usually filled to maximize the number of passengers when it comes from Centro, though there are a number of people controlling the flow of passengers. But when the bonde returns from Santa Teresa, it's up to the driver, his cobrador, and supposedly the accompanying police officer to control the number of passengers, and the control is lax. It's not just the streetcars that need to be upgraded; there also needs to be better safety measures for passengers.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, a Rio state deputy secretary who had recently acted as a coordinator of Rio's Dry Law (the anti drunk driving law and campaign) ran over five people with his car, killing one. He was visibly intoxicated, and didn't stop to aid the victims, speeding away and then crashing into a post. The man who died was a 56 year-old construction worker, and a mother and her two young sons, aged five and two, were amongst those injured. Today, the deputy secretary was sacked, and the officer investigating the case says he will eventually be charged with homicide.
The Lei Seca has been controversial in Rio, and drivers have devised high-tech ways to avoid checkpoints, using Twitter and other social networks to warn drivers which areas to avoid. Quite a few celebrities, athletes, and high profile politicians have been caught drunk driving in Lei Seca traffic stops, and many have paid the nearly R$1,000 fine and got points on their licenses. One of the best known cases was of former Minas Gerais governor and current senator Aécio Neves, who not only was caught and fined, but was also found to be driving with an expired license. In April, a federal police officer (the equivalent of the FBI), was arrested at a Lei Seca stop, after cursing at officers and pulling a gun on them. Some drivers view the law as inconvenient and restrictive, but hopefully the tragedy and hypocrisy of this week's accident will show that at best, it's meant to provide more safety for drivers and pedestrians.