I’ve never driven in Rome, New Delhi, or Lagos. So, I can’t honestly say that
the driving in São Paulo is the craziest on the planet. But it’s up there… A
lot of this has to do with some basic characteristics of Brazilian society. Most
importantly, there is little sense of civic duty, of a shared public space that
is more than a forum for individualistic “me first” behaviour.
Home, family, friends and close colleagues define the sphere of educated, respectful, considerate, polite, amicable, in a word “personal” relations. The streets are something else entirely.
Of course, the rampant individualism of Brazilian public space, so visible in the streets of São Paulo, makes perfect sense in the context of Brazil’s history. Brazilian sociologists point, for example, to the historical lack of a centralized government apparatus.
In the colonial period, there was little to replace the local patriarchal patronage systems that centered around the power of the slave- and land-owning “colonels.” Strong echoes of this emphasis on patron-client relations rather than on anonymous structures continue to this day.
As Brazilians like to point out, the country is not based on the “meritocracy” that shapes Western European and North American bureaucratic systems. What matters here is your QI: not your “intelligence quotient,” but “Quem indica,” who you know.
Brazilians look to powerful individuals for favors rather than trusting that their merit will be recognized by “the system.” The personal sphere, not society or the public sphere, is the place of duties, reciprocity, predictability, responsible agency, etc. (Of course, this, or any other explanation, is only one small part of a complex story.)
So a “law of the jungle” approach to public space is rational in the Brazilian context. It fits. It is how things work, and you would be a fool not to act accordingly. You would be irresponsible not to teach your children to do the same. All of which makes me happy that it is illegal to turn right on a red light in São Paulo. That would ramp up the chaos level a bit too much.
Brazilian drivers do not calculate what is safe or responsible (e.g., how close to tailgate, how small a gap they can try to squeeze into, how much time they have to cut across two lanes of oncoming traffic to make an illegal turn). Rather, they push things as far as they think they can get away with, and then just a little further because they are in a hurry. One big difference from driving American or Canadian streets is that, in São Paulo, inconveniencing other people weighs extremely little in the quirky utilitarian calculations that rule these chaotic streets.
I have learned the hard way that, in some situations it is wrong, even irresponsible, to respect others too much. I have almost caused accidents by trying to let people merge in front of me. They sometimes hesitate to accept the offer, deeming it suspicious and slightly crazy behavior. The result is stress, honking, and a series of drivers darting for small gaps between cars all around me.
Again, this lack of respect for others is perfectly rational and eminently understandable. It is a simple fact that, in general, other drivers are not going to respect you. So why should you respect them? It is everyone for her or himself, and no one takes this personally. As soon as everyone agrees that rampant individualism is the rule of the road, things actually work themselves out surprisingly well. Too much waiting around politely saying, “No, YOU first!” would just gum up the system.
This results in a very different feel driving in a Brazilian city. In the States or Canada, I drive by the infrastructure (the lights, the lines, the signs, the lanes), but I also pay a small amount of attention to other drivers around me, just in case they might occasionally stray from those well-marked norms. In São Paulo, I drive with almost all my attention on the cars around me and, occasionally, I take a vague hint from the infrastructure. This is perfectly rational, eminently understandable, the only way to drive.
After all, given that none of the other drivers take signs and lines as more than rough guidelines, you are forced to go with the wacky flow. Irrational would be trying to stick to your lane of a two-lane street, when all the other drivers around you have arrived at a magical consensus that, for the next few blocks, it is actually a four-lane street. Irrational would be stopping at a yellow light, when this would almost inevitably result in a rear end collision, as the five cars behind you try to run the red.
In addition, the signs and lines on Brazilian streets and highways are themselves irrational and not to be trusted. A street that has been marked as three-lane for miles will have one single block of four lanes before returning to three. Signs for key routes within the maze of city streets are located before the turn, after the turn, or nowhere near the turn.
Driving down the highway in a 100 zone, you suddenly run into a 30 km/hr zone. Suggested speeds for highway curves (on the rare occasion when these are posted) are generally either way too slow or way too fast. A rule of thumb: pay attention to Brazilian signage at your peril. Because the signs and lines really are little more than rough guidelines, it is a good thing that Brazilian drivers generally ignore them.
Skepticism is healthy. My favourite highway sign hilariously captures this aspect of Brazilian driving: “Obedeça a Sinalização” (Obey All Signs). It never fails to make me laugh. If you need a sign to tell people to obey signs, why think they would obey this one?
This raises a key point. In the streets, as in most of life, Brazilians have learned a very important lesson from living among systems that are perennially out of whack: how to improvise. When a traffic light goes out in Canada, chaos results. In Brazil, traffic flows on, almost business as usual, with perhaps a little more room for dramatic gestures and very occasional acts of kindness.
Brazilians are used to systems that fail, so when the system fails, they just take it in stride. The jeitinho, after all – that emphasis on getting around the rules using personal connections – is one of the most highly rational aspects of Brazilian culture. It is the only logical response to the way things work here. And it symbolizes the same thing that all the honking and chaos in the streets does: “System, what system? You’re on your own, with the help of your connections.”
The more time I spend in Brazil, the more I look back home and think, “How did we North Americans get to be so odd?” After all, looking at things globally, the level of efficiency that Canadians take for granted in their societies is quite the exception. (Québec est un peu latino, neanmoins bien organizé.)
My admiration for systems that function, for public respect and politeness, is matched only by my suspicion that Americans and Canadians pay a price for living in a public sphere that almost always seems to work and make sense.
Brazilians are far better at the ad lib art of handling the crazy situations that life throws your way. They learn at their parents’, and grandparents’, and aunts’, and padrinhos’ knees how to assert themselves in the face of diverging egoistical interests, how to cut corners and sidestep regulations, how to improvise when unpredictable situations crop up, and, above all, how to count on friends, family, and patrons.
If certain science fiction dystopias come to pass and the world goes crazy, if economies and societies start to crumble, I suspect that Brazilians will keep on wheeling and dealing, and North America (excepting Mexico, of course!) will sink into terminal gridlock.
Steven Engler is Visiting Research Professor in the Graduate Program of Religious Studies at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (Bolsista CAPES). You can contact Steven at email@example.com.