Apr 03

Rio Buses: Accidents waiting to happen

As someone who uses Rio buses every day, this is a rant that has been building up for a while. I started writing this last night and finished it off this morning. 

Back in November last year I found myself waiting for the bus after work. It had been a long day in the office and by the time I got to the bus stop it was already dark. At that time of night, with steady traffic, my journey home would take around 2 hours.

I waited and waited, watching eagle-eyed for my bus. It is important to stay alert when waiting for buses in Rio. If you don’t pay attention, a bus can easily fly past – they won’t stop if you don’t stick your arm out and at the crazy speeds they travel you can blink and miss one. On top of this, some buses just don’t stop – this is incredibly frustrating, especially when you’ve waited a long time and you’re at the start of a long slog home.

On this particular occasion I had waited about 25 minutes when my bus finally came into view. The guy in front stuck his arm out at the same time as me and we both frantically waved, willing the bus to slow. At the last possible moment the driver slammed on the breaks and pulled to a halt about 3 bus lengths past the stop. We both turned and ran along the dark road to get to the open doors of the bus.

The other guy had run on in front of me and jumped up into the bus first, but as I was jumping in through the open doors behind him, I realised that the bus driver, oblivious to my presence, had already started to pull away, accelerating hard. I was half in the bus with my left hand on the bright yellow hand rail but the other half of my body was still outside the bus. The acceleration of the bus slammed me into the side of the doors that were still open. As the bus picked up speed I clung on desperately with my left hand and tried to swing the rest of my body in while the bus continued to accelerate. It was touch and go for a moment and I came very close to falling out on to the road and possibly under the wheels of the bus.

After a few of seconds I managed to grab onto the hand rail with my right hand and pull myself in. I was in a dazed state of shock as I stumbled up the stairs, past the surprised driver. I paid the attendant and pushed my way through the turnstile. As I sat down I realised that I had just come very close to having a very serious accident. The bus driver was shouting something back at me and although I couldn’t make out the words, I got the impression from his defensive tone that he was telling me it was my fault. It was only after I had sat down that he pulled the lever to close the doors.


Fast forward to tonight, 2nd April 2013, and I’m waiting at my bus stop again. A few hours ago I heard the news that a bus had fallen off an overpass in Rio’s Zona Norte, killing at least 7 people and injuring who knows how many more. The full details aren’t in yet, but it sounds like this accident was caused by an argument/fight between a passenger and the driver, possibly because the bus was going so fast that it had missed the passenger’s stop. Reports from the survivors say the bus was travelling at high speed and several passengers actually got off the bus before the crash because they were afraid of the situation.


The Rio bus crash of 2nd April 2013. Vanderlei Almeida / AFP – Getty Images

With the accident fresh in my mind, I find myself thinking about how riding Rio’s buses across town is so often a terrifying experience. I think about the time I saw a woman fall back and smash her head on the floor after losing her grip when the bus pulled away suddenly. I think about the countless times I’ve seen bus drivers talking on cell phones while driving, about the way many drivers drive at reckless speeds, often at night, in the rain on narrow roads.


A Rio bus driver talking a call on his cell phone.


My bus arrives and I pause to let an old couple on first. There is a delay as the passengers in front are paying. I only have one foot on the bus and already the driver is pulling away – this time I am able to nudge the guy in front and get onto the bus properly. Given the current context I’m really annoyed. I ask the driver “In a hurry are you?” but he clearly doesn’t give a fuck and ignores me. He proceeds to drive at crazy speeds all the way from Barra into Zona Sul. As we hurtle along Avenida Niemeyer (a sinuous, clifftop road) he takes the corners at such speed that the whole bus leans over on its suspension and all the passengers are forced to grab on to anything they can find to stop themselves from being thrown from their seats.

I would say approx 50% of the buses rides I take in Rio are driven like this, with reckless disregard for life. I think buses should form the backbone of the public transport system of every city, but the complete lack of professionalism on the part of the drivers in Rio is a big problem.



Am I blaming the drivers? Not really. I think the drivers are the main problem, but surely it is the responsibility of the bus companies to ensure that their drivers are trained properly, that they are given enough rest time between journeys. I expect the bus companies have some fine sounding safety policies, but without meaningful enforcement they are rendered irrelevant.

In 2011 there were 126 accidents which caused death or injury in Rio; in 2012 there were 84. Based on that small sample, things are improving, but this does not match my experience.

Nowadays it seems almost obligatory to link anything related to Rio to the effect it will have on tourists and Rio’s image in the run-up to the World Cup and Olympic Games, but I prefer to think about the ordinary Cariocas who have no choice other than to use these buses everyday. They deserve better.


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  1. anna

    have you seen this?
    I think brits are not very into visiting brazil according to the comments section

    1. tomlemes

      Hi Anna – I had heard the sickening story. It’s just so awful that it’s hard to dwell on it for too long isn’t it?

      Regarding the Daily Mail and it’s comments, this ‘newspaper’ is notorious for its sensationalist reporting, hideously poor ethical standards and horribly right-wing readers. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that the comments section of the Daily Mail is in any way representative of the British public as a whole. Imagine if we read the comments on Globo website and used them to form opinions on the Brazilians!

      1. anna

        which newspaper’s comments best represent brits in your opinion?
        thank you

        one thing I have noticed is that Daily Mail readers seem to hate eastern european immigrants even more than they hate african or asian immigrants . why do you think that is? Most Poles , Ukrainians ,etc are christians blonde blue eyed so why are they more discriminated than non-europeans by those readers?

        1. tomlemes

          Hmmm, a large percentage of people who comment on newspaper websites (even the more even-handed newspapers) tend to be slightly (or a lot) crazy! A case of a crazy vocal minority vs the sane silent majority.

          I am a Guardian reading liberal so from that biased viewpoint I would point you to the Guardian.

          Regarding the Eastern European immigrants, I think it tends to be the most recent immigrants that get the hardest time in most countries. The first major wave of Caribbean immigrants came to Britain in the 1950s, then people from India, Pakistan and Bangledesh arrived not long after. The wave of Polish and other Eastern European immigrants happened much more recently – in the last 15 years. It isn’t so much about appearance or race of the immigrants – it’s how long they’ve been in the country. There are plenty of examples of 2nd generation immigrants complaining about more recent immigration – people have very short memories! :)

          1. The Gritty Poet

            Gosh darn English immigrants with their marmite and fondness for courtesy behind the wheel . . . always trying to change traditional values like novela reviews by drivers, and among drivers.
            Seriously though I think you should buy a car and at least have some control over how you move from point A to B. The atrocious transport system you’ve described probably isn’t going to change anytime soon so a vehicle seems like a smart investment toward your safety and well being. Plus, if something were to happen to you is it fair to deprive your readers of my comments? C’mon, you are not an island . You should think of the euro-hippie chick readers crying my absence as I drink Nescau alone and analize my Nestlé stock options along with the latest company expansion plans into Bangladesh – all by my lonesome – without a blog to share my musings .

          2. tomlemes

            Ha ha ha! Where to start with this comment! 😀

            There are a bunch of reasons that I don’t want to get a car. 1) I’m a principled man and realised that abandoning the public transport system will simply lead to its further degradation; 2) Buses are cheaper; 3) I can write blog posts on my phone while I’m on the bus – that wouldn’t be possible if I were driving; 4) I can’t face the idea of going through all the bureaucracy required to get a car, insurance and a replacement licence from the UK (my original was stolen). [mostly 2 & 4]

            As for depriving EatRio readers from your pearls (presumably not Fair Trade pearls) of wisdom – you are right. I have a duty to carry on! 😉

          3. The Gritty Poet

            “4) I can’t face the idea of going through all the bureaucracy required to get a car, insurance and a replacement licence from the UK (my original was stolen).”

            All the info you need can be found in the link below.

            “2) Buses are cheaper;”

            Are you sure? How much do your fares add up to in comparison with car insurance, maintenance and fuel? Plus you can still sell a vehicle later on ( yes, depreciation in high but still).
            You can also buy a used car like a nice ol’ Fusca (VW Beatle) which hardly pays any tax due to age and is easy to fix and maintain. Plus for some reason the Fusca really impresses hippie chicks of all nationalities.

            “1) I’m a principled man and realised that abandoning the public transport system will simply lead to its further degradation; ”

            Yes, but according to your post you barely escaped being a principled man in a wheelchair on a number of occasions. The scary thing is that said scenario actually came pretty close to coming true. Is it really worth the risk?

            And yes, I do have a name for your Fusca: The Nescaumobile (but you can use Toddymobile for hippie chicks and Scottish visitors).

  2. Mauricio


    You’re totally right on your ranting. Whoever has had the “chance” of taking a bus in Rio has most probably gone through your very same experience. I did. Several times.

    The bus companies don’t give a damn and don’t take responsibility. So, obviously, it’s up to the authorities to take a better control of that, fining them, suspending concessions, etc. But Brazilian authorities, well… you know how it works by know…


    1. tomlemes

      Thanks Mauricio. As you say, it’s important to trace the blame upwards – drivers drive that way because they are allowed to; as you point out, bus companies don’t enforce professionalism among their drivers because the police force don’t enforce driving laws; the police are underpaid and underfunded. This all points towards government incompetence or disinterest doesn’t it?

  3. carlos eduardo

    The public buses are just part of a bigger problem, and that bigger problem is that whomever wants to can flagrantly violate any and all of the traffic laws without any fear of anything happening to them. How many times have I seen autos and motorcycles, on Av. das Americas and Linha Vermelha, go zipping along at terriying speeds, often right past police cars? Thousands of times. The motorcycles really take the cake, the way they pass cars in between lanes, on the shoulders, wherever and however they can, often at dangerously high speeds. Everyone knows all they have to worry about is the recorded speed traps. The bus drivers only do what pretty much everybody else already does also.

    1. anna

      like Carlos said I think the problem is many people think they are above the law in brazil…..

      they don’t think they will be fined for driving dangerously or for not paying income taxes etc .

      They know that in many cases they will get away with it and if they get caught they can simply give a “jeitinho” – call someone important who will help them out , bribe a judge or policeman etc

      1. tomlemes

        Good point Anna. So do you think this is this a cultural thing? Is it the Brazilian population that are responsible for corruption (by breaking the rules and then paying the bribes or calling their ‘friends in high places’)? Or is it the politicians that are causing this behaviour?

        1. anna

          poor , middle class and rich ( politicians included ) think they are above the law in BR. it is a vicious circle.

          have you seen a video of a policeman trying to help young drivers not to get caught for racing and drink driving? its unbelievable!!! disgusting

          1. tomlemes

            Like you say, a vicious circle. To be fair, I think many people (in every country) would cheat if they were allowed to get away with it. For this reason the government and police are central to finding a way to break the circle.

            But if politicians can make good money and be re-elected without pushing through this kind of change – why would they bother? So maybe it is the fault of the electorate for not holding corrupt/incompetent politicians to account. But then with such low levels of education for the majority, can you really blame the electorate? And why would politicians strive to improve education if it means that would then have a more demanding electorate?

            It’s a difficult, complicated problem isn’t it?

          2. PTRio

            “have you seen a video of a policeman trying to help young drivers not to get caught for racing and drink driving? its unbelievable!!! disgusting”

            Anna, is that the incident which occurred a few years back in the Zuzu Angel tunnel? The one in which a car racing in the closed tunnel struck a skate boarder, and the police agreed to accept a bribe for ignoring the bloody, smashed window and dead body and letting the driver go? Disgusting only begins to describe what happened. I do believe the police involved were fired, not sure if they ever did prison time but certainly they should have along with the driver.

            It is indeed a complicated problem, and a solution may take a generation or more to take hold. There seems to be a mindset of entitlement among some in Brasil, and that creates conflict with those who have so little. That conflict creates frustration and often turns violent. Simply saying, “Stop The Violence” will not solve the problem. Voting for illiterate clowns (though Tiririca has turned into a positive surprise) or trading votes for toaster ovens will not solve the problem either. Waiting for tragedies in order to push what are often only temporary reforms won’t cut it either. My great fear is that the progress now taking place in anticipation of the Copa and the Olympics, such as pacification in the favelas, will quickly disappear after these events are over and the oil royalty money shrinks . Maintenance has never been a strong feature of the Carioca way of life.

    2. tomlemes

      Hi Carlos,

      You’re right, traffic laws don’t appear to be enforced here at all. The police have an obligation to keep the roads safe for all users. But additionally, we are talking about public transport – the city’s government has a responsibility to ensure that contracts for public transport are given to responsible companies that take passenger safety seriously.

  4. PTRio

    The O Globo is reporting that 46 citations had been issued to this particular bus since 2008, though I suspect they were not all for the same driver. While that seems like a lot of traffic citations for a bus, I would not be surprised to learn there are other buses with far more. There is a bus wreck in Rio practically every single day.

    About six months ago, I told a friend that vans and taxi’s were safer than buses in Rio. (I know, the van ride from hell that happened Saturday, mentioned above in a post, blew my van argument all to hell). At the time of the discussion, he disagreed, claiming Rio buses were safer. To support my position, I have been sending him an email each day with that day’s “Bus Wreck in Rio”, copying the story from the online O Globo. None of these near daily bus wrecks have been nearly as serious as the one yesterday, thank goodness. But, nearly every day (including weekends) there are buses crashing into other buses, some that hit light or telephone poles, walls, parked cars, buildings, you name it. A BUS WRECK IN RIO NEARLY EVERY SINGLE DAY. That has to stop. The drivers need to slow down, stop eating and talking on cell phones while driving, and focus on safety. This should be a priority for the Prefeitura, it is a public safety issue just as much as pacification of the favelas is a public safety issue.

    I suspect bus drivers are under pressure from their employers to complete as many stops as possible per day, the more passengers they pick up the more money the bus company makes. However, if there would actually be some enforcement of the traffic laws in Rio, and collection of the fines (with increasing fines for each succeeding similar violation) it might just cause the bus companies to realize that safe driving is more profitable than running Formula1 Bus Races each day with passengers on board.

    1. tomlemes

      Well said PTRio! The drivers really do need to slow down – it’s crazy and counter-productive. I’m sure you’re right about the the companies putting pressure on drivers – I can’t imagine why else they would drive at the speeds they do.

  5. Marcos

    Hi Tom,

    I agree with you. I also think that the whole public transport here in Rio is shit. They offer a bad quality service , the owners of these bus companies are not interested in us because they’ve got a lot of money and I think the travel through the city by helicopter, the buses are always crowded and it’s very hot inside, tubes(metrôs), trains and ferries are the same. Have you ever seen the long queue at praça xv on weekdays?


    1. tomlemes

      Hey Marcos – I haven’t seen Praça XV on weekdays, but I can imagine it is chaos. Rio has a lot work to do with its transport system and particularly it’s public transport. I can’t wait for linha 4 to open! :)

  6. Eva

    god, I had literally just gotten back from Avenida de Brasil when the crash happened. though i agree that Rio buses are terrifying (the 485 to Fundao has got to be the worst, it’s like a rollercoaster), apparently in this case the driver was arguing with a passenger that had jumped the turnstile and got distracted (duh). Between the expectation that drivers will make change for the passengers (the ones without a cobrador), the total shit quality of a lot of the buses as well as the pot-holed roads, and the occasionally crazy/dangerous people who force themselves on busses, you couldn’t pay me enough to be a bus driver here. or drive at all, drivers here in general are crazy.

    1. tomlemes

      Hey Eva! I totally agree, it’s no easy job and I get the impression they have to work long hours for low pay. I’m not making any excuses for that crazy passenger (I heard he actually kicked the driver in the head! Unbelievable…) but apparently the argument started because the driver was going so fast that he missed one of the stops. Like I said, that doesn’t excuse the passenger’s behaviour, but it sounds like excess speed played a role in the accident.

      I’m on the bus as I write this and the driver I have this morning is a real chirpy, cheery fellow who is doing a great job. They’re definitely not all bad :)

  7. Shayna - Adventurous Soul

    Interesting… from my experience, the drivers’ behavior is not nearly as bad in Salvador. Then again, the buses I took were often stuck in traffic, so there wasn’t much opportunity for speeding and reckless maneuvers!

    Here in Bahia you hear of more accidents outside the city, on the highways, where you have truckers and long-distance buses jockeying for position at high speeds with cars.

    1. tomlemes

      Hey Shayna! :) Maybe you’ve got something there. I’ve really become aware of the dangerous driving since I started doing my mega-commute between Glória and Barra. This route takes in some bigger roads with fewer junctions and traffic lights, allowing the drivers to get up a really good head of steam and jostle for position exactly as you describe.

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