Driving in Rio de Janeiro
We do not recommend that visitors to Brazil attempt to drive. It is confusing, dangerous, nerve wracking, and a great way to ruin your otherwise stress-free tropical vacation. If you are determined to drive, we strongly recommend that you read below. Some of this information was written in a humorous vein, but it is just not funny when you are stuck someplace in an unfamiliar situation.
What's it like to drive in and around Rio? First, you should understand that driving in Rio is not recommended for tourists. It is very fast paced, confusing, and dangerous if you are not familiar with the local area and driving customs (notice that I did not say laws). In general driving in Rio is a good way to ruin your entire vacation by interweaving it with a layer of stress that is not necessary. Do not consider a rental car unless:
1) you are familiar with driving in high stress and high traffic areas, like midtown Manhattan during rush hour
2) you speak at least some Portuguese so that you can understand directional and safety signs, buy gas, etc.
3) you drive a stick shift very well (automatics are rare in Brazil)
4) you are somewhat familiar with where you are going and how to get there
5) you have a lot of patience and a lot of nerve
Traffic in Rio de Janeiro
There is a form of martial arts in Brazil called the Capoeira, similar in some ways to kick boxing and in other ways to ballet. It was started as a dance by slaves that wished to disguise the dangerous nature of this method of fighting from the masters. This art is fascinating to watch because the two (or more) participants whirl and kick very rapidly, with the object being to come as close as possible to the opponent without ever touching. This is also an excellent description of traffic in Rio.
Traffic lanes, directions, rules, and even stoplights are mere suggestions and not to be taken too seriously. Even the street planners seem to understand this when they design a 3 lane street to make a sharp right turn in which there is room for only two lanes. It is not uncommon to have someone pass you at high speeds on the left, challenging oncoming traffic around the next bend. Motorcyclists with strong death wishes weave in and out of traffic California style, between cars and even between busses. Bicyclists drive at night with no lights or reflectors, coming head on against traffic in the rain. Percentage wise, very few people here have actually ever sat behind a steering wheel. They simply have no idea of how dangerous their habits are and how near they come to a fatal accident every day. In some areas at night, people are afraid of being robbed at a stoplight, so they simply ignore the light if they think they can get away with it.
The Driving Game
Many drivers in Rio seem to fall under the heading of what I would call “immature” in the US. They believe that driving is a game, with winners and losers. They are willing to risk their lives and the lives of anyone around them to get just slightly ahead of everyone else. Part of this is due to the fact that by convention, you are responsible for any accident that might occur in front of your nose, the other guy must take care of things that are behind your field of vision, and lateral and peripheral vision zones fall into a grey area – literally. This can mean that people will do almost anything to get ahead of you. Passing on the right or left, cutting you off, driving on the shoulder, creating lanes between other cars, driving across the yellow line, running traffic lights or stop signs, and speeding are all on the menu. In fact, the whole idea of lane driving has generally not caught on in Brazil. To commit to driving in one lane will limit your options in case you want to quickly move to another lane, so it is most common to see Brazilian drivers straddling lanes. Of course, in any “game”, you are at a distinct disadvantage if the other players can anticipate your next move, so this rules out turn signals and most forms of courteous driving.
The Short Arm of the Law
Brazil has traffic laws that are similar to most other countries with a driving population. The difference is a matter of enforcement. There is no such thing as a traffic cop, so there are no tickets for reckless driving, speeding, or any other violation. In short, any respect for driving laws is accidental and coincides with the desires and goals of the driver. Do not expect that because something is illegal, that people will not do this. There are two exceptions to this rule. The first is radar. Yes, the Brazilians employ this for speed control and if you go through a radar controlled area, a camera will snap a picture of your license plate and you will get a hefty fine in the mail. If you are renting a car, they will add this to your bill up to a month after leaving Brazil. However, hidden radar is illegal in Brazil, so all of these areas are clearly marked. This leads to the comical fact that the speed limit is ONLY observed in these areas. The second exception is the Blitz. This is essentially a road block by police as they attempt to find cars or drivers that are doing something illegal. Your car can actually be impounded if there is an irregularity in your documentation (for example, the car color is marked differently on the license than the actual color). Police are also alert for drug traffickers, overloaded vehicles, and the like. Blitz’s are a hassle that usually create significant traffic jams. Unfortunately, Brazilian police do not make much money, so shake-downs of solitary drivers are very common. Whether guilty or not, the only way to avoid a huge hassle is to pay a “fine” on the spot. When this happened to me, there was no paperwork, no taking of my name, just a friendly smile.
There are a few oddities that deserve special mention. The first is the use of headlights. Brazilians seem to feel that they are wasting money or energy or something if they have their lights on. If you believe that your lights should be turned on at dusk or anytime that you want increased visibility, you can expect to be notified by passengers, oncoming traffic, and even pedestrians that your lights are on. Anyone that thinks about it for a few seconds can tell you that headlights serve two purposes – they show you the road, and they help others to see you at night. In Brazil, it is not uncommon to see cars driving without their headlights on at night. What is the simple reason? They say that there are sufficient street lights to light up the road. Brazilian vehicles have an additional level of low-beams that we are not familiar with in the US. It is almost like parking lights and it is frequently used by night drivers to keep from blinding oncoming traffic. It has the unfortunate side effect of reducing the visibility of the offending vehicle. While making a turn, you must be very careful that someone is not barreling along at twice the speed limit with their lights off or reduced. You haven’t lived until you encounter your first oncoming or passing bus that has no lights.
The second oddity is the use of the horn. Brazilians are taught from birth that their first reaction in an emergency should not be the brake or the steering wheel, but the horn. A friend of mine was driving my car when another car made an illegal u-turn in the middle of the road and backed into us. My friend actually made the argument that it was his fault because he could not find the horn on the unfamiliar steering wheel. The horn can mean anything from thanks to references to the circumstances of your birth. I sincerely believe that many Brazilians believe that a slight beep on the horn when approaching an intersection is the equivalent of “immunity”, yielding both the driver and the vehicle invulnerable to cross traffic.
Another odd, but very common thing is the concept of rules by convention, rather than rules by law. For example, there are many areas where the street signs say “pare” (stop), but if you stop you will cause a huge pileup. Actually, the people in the crossing lane are stopping and yielding, even though their traffic markers say go. When I have asked my friends about this, the answer is usually something like – “oh, everyone knows that you don’t stop there.” Caveat Visitor.
Now for the surprising part – people take all of this in stride. They are cutoff regularly by cars or busses, but aside from the occasional beep, they don’t shout or flip people off. Amazingly, accidents are rare. Brazilian drivers tend to be better than average because they are used to operating in this anarchy of driving rules, where it is literally everyone for themselves. It works, but the stress level is unnecessarily high and traffic does not move efficiently.
Having said all of this, I must confess that I drive in Rio and Niteroi all the time. Really, this is no more difficult or dangerous than driving through the Bronx without a map and without street signs in an open jeep with a sign – Rich American. Now that I am used to this, I feel strangely empowered.
Parking in Rio will be a challenge to most drivers. In some areas, parking spots on the street are nearly impossible to find and they are sometimes not a good place to leave your car. Whether you like it or not, you can expect to be “assisted” by a person on the street. This person will want one Real in Niteroi, and 2 or more in Rio for taking care of your car. It is just easier to pay them, but do this when you return (“depois” or later in Portuguese or a thumbs-up sign). Most of these people have never been behind the wheel, so their assistance is laughable bordering on disastrous. I have seen many assistants motioning people into oncoming traffic without a care in the world. Why? They really don’t have an inkling of the process and have seen people give money to other assistants for waving their hands at the driver. I am not kidding. In especially crowded areas, you may be asked to leave the car in neutral with the hand brake off. This is so that two or three guys can roll your car out of the way in case they double park you. Again, this is done frequently, and is not a sign of mal-intent. Note that there are some parking attendants that will be wearing an official vest or other marking. They actually are legitimate and will want your money in advance in exchange for a ticket to be placed on the dash.
There are both self-park and valet-park garages called rodaviarios. These can be good, but expect the parking to be tight and the turning allowances inside the garage to be ridiculous. Some hotels offer parking, but it is usually at an extra charge. Personally, I would not consider parking a car on the street overnight in Copacabana, Ipanema, or Leblon. The exception to bad parking in Rio is the larger shopping malls. They generally have excellent parking facilities, but you will probably have to pay by the hour.