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BRAZILIAN DRIVERS DRIVE FOREIGNERS CRAZY

SHARE BRAZILIAN DRIVERS DRIVE FOREIGNERS CRAZY

Race car drivers arriving for Rio's first Formula-Indy Grand Prix received a booklet with a warning: Beware of driving in Brazil.

They didn't take it lightly."I've never seen such dangerous traffic and lousy roads in my life," said two-time Indy champion Bobby Rahal.

Brazilian veteran Emerson Fittipaldi agreed - he took a helicopter to the track.

This country has produced some of the world's best race drivers and also has its worst safety record: 50,000 killed and 350,000 injured in traffic accidents each year.

By comparison, the United States has nearly 10 times more vehicles - 198 million to Brazil's 20 million - but just 41,000 traffic deaths a year.

"There are few laws, little enforcement, awful roads and drivers uneducated about the ABCs of traffic safety," said Ulisses Iarochinsky, vice president of the National Traffic Safety Institute. "It seems the government simply doesn't care."

In the "no-rules" world of Brazilian driving, the 50 mph speed limit is widely ignored. Stoplights often are a matter of consensus - drivers routinely jump a red they consider "too long" or, at night, too risky because of muggers.

Driver courtesy can be taken as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Fights are common, and many motorists carry weapons.

More than 50 million of Brazil's 160 million people drive, and at least one-third of those motorists don't have a legal license, Iaro-chin-sky said.

Corrupt police and motor registries make it easy to get papers, and a lack of central controls makes detection haphazard. License plates can be ordered from the corner keymaker or knife sharpener.

"Some drivers don't even use their headlights at night," said Evan Sponagle, an American financial consultant who has lived in Rio for 25 years. "I had to stop driving defensively and adapt to the all-offense approach. You get bumped off the road if you're in someone's way."

Traffic experts say it's likely to get worse.

Since 1994, when inflation - and gasoline prices - were stabilized, the number of vehicles on Brazilian roads has climbed 30 percent. Mass transit is woefully inadequate: Greater Sao Paulo, for example, has only 27 miles of subway for a population of 16.5 mil-lion.

Drunkenness is a frequent cause of accidents, but drunken-driving laws are rarely enforced. When they are, violators often get off with a slap on the wrist.

In one case, police charged real estate broker Luciano Ribeiro Pinto with being drunk and drugged in June 1992 when he ran a red light, jumped the curb and plowed into nine people on a sidewalk in Rio's Copacabana beach district. Three were killed, including a mother and her 7-year-old son who had gone out to buy a school notebook.

Pinto was freed the same day on bail. When he finally went to trial earlier this year, he pleaded temporary insanity. His license was suspended and he was put in a mental hospital, where he is eligible for release after six months.

That sort of leniency could be changing. On May 28, Brazil's Supreme Court upheld a murder conviction and a 10-year prison sentence for Jorge Bavaresco, who ran over and killed two people while racing with friends in a game called "catch." It was the first time a driver had been convicted of anything more serious than manslaughter for a traffic fatality.

Last year, the government took other steps toward tightening traffic safety rules and their enforcement, under a program called "Pare" - Portuguese for "Stop!"

Since mid-1995, seat-belt use has been mandatory in Rio and Sao Paulo, Brazil's two biggest cities, but observance has been spotty at best. So the penalties have been raised sharply.

Congress also is debating new traffic laws that would raise the speed limit to 68 mph (110 kph) but also increase fines and jail terms for violations.