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New laws target wild Brazilian drivers

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Brazilians love cars but have little use for traffic laws, a combination that produces legendary race drivers and the world's worst traffic record - about 50,000 road deaths a year.

But driving in Brazil may now become a bit safer if a tough new set of traffic laws succeeds in breaking ingrained habits.It's a big question and not the only one. Days before the new "Transit Code" was to take effect, authorities disagreed on who would enforce the laws, which ones would apply and even whether they would be effective Thursday or Friday.

The confusion does not bode well in a country where traffic laws often seem a matter of consensus: Some "take," others don't. And Brazilians have never seen laws as demanding as these.

"Pragmatically, it's the most complicated traffic code we've ever had," said Samuel Dias Dionisio, director of vehicle registration at the Rio de Janeiro state traffic department, known as Detran.

The code has more than 300 articles covering four categories of infractions ranging from "light" to "very serious." Running a red light, previously a moderate violation, becomes very serious, while driving without a registration remains relatively minor.

If some of the offenses are still in the same category, the penalties are unprecedented. Parking too far from the curb can cost the equivalent of $43, nearly half the monthly pay of a worker earning the minimum wage of $107 a month.

For drunken driving, the fine is $772 plus loss of license and up to three years in prison.

On top of higher fines, Brazil for the first time has adopted a point system to penalize traffic offenders.

Each infraction counts from three to seven points, and drivers who run up 20 points in a year lose their license and must attend a special training course.

"The goal is not to hand out fines," Dionisio said. "It's to end the epidemic of highway deaths."

Speed is in Brazilians' blood, and the country has produced world champion drivers such as Emerson Fittipaldi, who won the Indy 500 twice, and Ayrton Senna, a three-time world champion of Formula One.

Still, Brazilians acknowledge that their safety record is atrocious. By comparison, the United States has nearly 10 times more vehicles - about 200 million to Brazil's 20 million - but fewer traffic deaths, roughly 41,000 a year. Brazil says its traffic toll of 50,000 deaths a year is the world's worst.

The National Department of Transit says Brazil spent the equivalent of $4 billion in traffic-related expenses last year, mostly to cover the medical costs of traffic victims.