Brazil's Tough Drunken-Driving Law Collides With Carnival Culture

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec. 22 Of all the things you could say to a cop with an automatic weapon after he's pulled you out of the car on the side of the highway at midnight, Isaac Chaves chose: "I've had 15 beers."

And why not? This is Brazil, the land of samba in the streets, beer on the beaches and kiwis in your caipirinha, the place where festivals of debauchery last for days. Drinking isn't a source of shame here. It's part of the daily celebration.

Besides, Chaves, 27, wasn't driving. He never does. He's a lawyer; he knows there are rules, too. "I don't even have a license," he said.

"He likes to drink," said the man behind the wheel that night, Bruno Mendes, 26, an accountant. "A lot."

The important question was whether Mendes had been drinking, because this is the new, more sober Brazil, at least on paper. Six months ago, the government imposed one of the strictest drunken-driving laws in the hemisphere, what people here call the "dry law." Anyone caught driving with a blood alcohol content of .02 percent or higher (compared with .08 in the United States) faces a $400 fine, loss of their license for a year, an impounded vehicle and jail time.

Many welcomed the move, with 35,000 people dying on Brazil's roads each year. Others were skeptical, including many Cariocas, as residents of Rio de Janeiro are known, who said the law was too harsh for the capital of carnival.

"The culture of Cariocas is bohemian -- they like night life, they like drinking beer," said Cesar Augusto de Castro Jr., a chief inspector with the federal highway police in Rio de Janeiro. "This law asks for a behavioral change, and it's hard to change their behavior."

The dry law, introduced in June, hit the country like a cold shower. Police swarmed the streets outside night spots in major cities, setting up sobriety-test checkpoints, handing out fines and seizing licenses. More than 5,000 people have been cited under the law, which joined a measure this year limiting the sale of alcohol along federal highways.

Critics have compared the police crackdown to terrorism. The law has been called authoritarian and unconstitutional, and the restaurant association is working to overturn it. Others have tried to adjust. The city of Sao Paulo added night bus routes to get drinkers home. The Brazilian beer maker AmBev started paying 10 percent of taxi fares for imbibers. Some bars and restaurants began driving customers home, while others strung up hammocks for revelers to sleep off their inebriation.

But it is difficult to say how well the new law is working -- or whether Brazilians' behavior has changed much.

The statistics suggest the roads are no safer than before. In the law's first five months, the number of car accidents on federal highways in Rio de Janeiro state rose 17 percent, compared with the same period in the previous year. Injuries also rose, by 32 percent, although deaths fell by 8 percent, according to police.

Across the country, the picture appeared worse. In those five months, accidents, injuries and deaths on federal highways increased over the previous five months.

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