Oh. My. God. These people wouldn’t last a DAY in California traffic! They’d either be in the hospital or dead, via car accident or road rage.

In a country where getting a driver’s license (officially named Carteira Nacional de Habilitação, shortened as CNH and translated as “National Qualification Card”)–which is required in order to drive cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles–is a major undertaking, it amazes me how bad the drivers are.

Getting a License

Prior to 2008, anyone hoping to get a CNH (minors, the illiterate and people without an ID card are not allowed to have a CNH) was required to have 20 hours of theory classes and 15 hours of practical driving training.

Courtesy of blogsite
Courtesy of blogsite

In 2008, this was changed to a required 50 hours of theory, classes now covering the previously optional subjects such as Brazilian traffic law, defensive driving and first aid. After attending the classes, students are subjected to a 30-question test, and are approved if providing at least 21 correct answers. Finally, 20 hours of practical lessons must be taken, accompanied by an instructor from a certified driving school. After that, a road test must be taken.

All told, this training can cost in excess of US$1,000 (depending on whether or not you pass your tests, and whether or not you cross palms with silver to guarantee that you pass).


When a vehicle is spotted (either by a traffic agent, the police or an automated system such as a speeding radar) violating traffic regulations, its owner receives a notification by mail, including details of the violation like its nature and location, the amount due as fine, and proof if available, like pictures taken by radars. Fifteen days after this notification is received, the actual ticket is issued. During these 15 days, the owner can submit a form to inform the traffic authority if they weren’t the one driving the car when the infraction was committed. For example, if Bob lends his car to Paul, and Paul commits an infraction, Bob will receive the notification. He then has to fill the form with Paul’s license information, have Paul sign it and submit it to the traffic authority within 15 days. Then, all fines and other sanctions for that violation will be issued to Paul instead of Bob.

Traffic violations in Brazil issue points against the driver’s license. Offenses are divided in four categories: “minor” (3 points), “medium” (4 points), “serious” (5 points) and “very serious” (7 points). The points for an infraction are considered for one year, starting at the day of the offense.

If at any time the total score passes 20 points (which means the driver has obtained more than 20 points within one year), the license will be suspended and the local traffic authority will notify the driver, who can enter a defense in the following 60 days. In any case, past these 60 days, the traffic authority will decide the duration of the suspension, which can be 1 to 24 months. Once the suspension period ends and the driver completes an “offender driver reeducation course,” the suspension is terminated.


This all sounds pretty impressive, neh? Not.

It seems that as soon as people get behind the wheel, all memory of any class instruction flies out the window. They don’t seem to know the fundamentals about rules of the road, much less instinctive safety.

If they’re in the right-most lane of four lanes and need to make a left turn, so be it. “I’m coming over!” They’ll put the nose of their car in your lane, blocking you, and then inch across and block you and the next lane, etc., until they make their turn. Then they wiggle their fingers in a quick thank-you, oblivious to whatever fingers might be waved in their direction (no, I am not guilty of that one). All the while, the SAME THING is happening in on-coming traffic, so you’re as likely to be looking at the front of a car as you are the rear. Fortunately, most traffic moves slower than a baby crawling on ice, so you have time to react.


I think it’s because traffic is so slow that most people don’t seem to know how to drive about 30 km/hr (18 mi/hr), even when the road is clear and traffic should be flowing. I’m not exaggerating. On a highway, where speeds of 70 km/hr are the norm, you’ll have someone in the “fast” lane doing 30 or 40 km/hr. Oblivious.

Signals here are just for signaling when you’re going to actually park in the lane, to run into a store. God forbid anyone use them to actually indicate an intended change of lanes or turn.

One of my particular peeves is that people don’t move apace when a light turns green, but seem to wait to verify that the car ahead of them is going to survive crossing the intersection before they venture out. This one makes me scream oaths to the heavens! “Move yer bloomin’ arse!” as Eliza Doolittle once put it.

Headlights appear to be optional, even in the dark. Maybe it’s because people are driving in the city and they think they can see just fine…not realizing that they themselves can’t be seen in many instances. Too many times, I’ve only learned of a car’s presence because they blocked the lights behind them. Sort of like identifying the presence of a black hole by the vacuum around it.

Then we have yesterday’s incident, not uncommon: the road in front of our condo was jammed with moving vans (it’s the first of the month), and traffic was crawling, as people tried to drive two-way on one lane. The lady in front of me decided she wanted to back up (God knows where to!), but that wasn’t possible, so she simply stopped and turned on her flashers, waiting. Now we have a parked car in the one open lane…and no amount of honking was going to move her. FINALLY, one of the moving vans pulled out, and we managed to snake around her as she blithely ignored the chaos she has caused.

Also yesterday: the fellow driving a work truck who appeared to be changing his clothes at red lights, first pulling off his work shirt and replacing it with a button-down shirt, and then, from what I could observe through the back window and the flash buns in BVDs, changing his pants. Hey, why not? The red lights last long enough.

The roads here don’t help with driving, with massive (I mean the size of a VW bug) holes appearing overnight on well-traveled roads, necessitating spontaneous lane changes in lieu of broken undercarriages. These gaps are quickly filled in with gravel and covered with a layer of asphalt within a day or to, sure to be stripped away in the next rain, exposing the hole once again, which, guaranteed, will have gotten larger.

Then you have the driving-texters and the driving-makeup-artists, whose car serves as transportation and office or salon. But, what I don’t see here is people drinking and eating as they drive, not like they do in the States. Oddly, that is a rarity.

Still and all, as wretched as they are at following rules of the road, Brazilian drivers are amazingly courteous in unexpected ways. They’ll run you over if you try to cross in a crosswalk, but they’ll stop and let you turn in front of them, or let you pull into the lane in front of them (NEVER happens in California!), or wait patiently as you try to park in a midget space on a sidewalk in front of a store.

Contradictions. They enchant and infuriate me.