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.
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.
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.