12 June 2007

When the carrot doesn't work

I've always maintained that draconian measures, when it comes to saving lives, should be the norm in a country like Argentina, where breaking the law is a national sport and a source of pride. In this case, traffic laws.

You will remember I took the time to post about this several times. Well, I still think a person who blocks half the street with a vehicle just because s/he couldn't be bothered to park correctly deserves to be flogged in public (figuratively? I guess). But that's hardly dangerous. Skipping a red light is. The good news is that punishment is working. Thanks to a system of several automatic cameras that can take a shot of your car when you pass by a traffic light, and send you a fine afterwards, the number of red light violations has decreased greatly.

In 2001, after the first cameras were installed by the Municipality in mid-2000, an average of 40 violations were detected per day by each camera. In 2006, the number went down to 19. As of today, there are six (or seven, according to the newspaper that covers the news) cameras, in black-and-white and in colour, located in strategic places in Rosario's main streets.

Some people complain that the cameras take pictures even when the car is not in violation. The authorities explain that this is part of the normal software procedure for speed checks. Obviously, if you're passing a green light, you won't get a fine. Doubting the system is OK, of course, but this reminds me of those other people who complained that there were automatic speed radars in some interurban roads — they said they were like a trap, designed to get money from the drivers. Duh, if you aren't overspeeding, the radar won't catch you!

The head of Spain's traffic authority, Pere Navarro Olivella, visited Rosario recently, and basically said what I've been saying: "Traffic security is [both] awareness and repression." Spain, like Argentina, had a horrific record of deaths by traffic accidents, but unlike Argentina as a whole, it did what had to be done, implementing harsher punishments as well as awareness campaigns.

Traffic accidents have decreased in Rosario because people now know they will be punished (they already knew traffic violations were dangerous — they just didn't care). I don't own a car, so I haven't experienced it myself, but everybody I know who has a car is genuinely (and appropriately) terrified of taking it out if they're planning to drink (or have already drunk) so much as a glass of beer. Municipal inspectors with breath analyzers guard all the major streets, and the least a drunken driver can expect, if caught, is being forced to pay a costly bribe (yes, this is Argentina after all). There's a good chance your car will be confiscated on the spot. I understand that, if you're not drunk but only slightly over the blood alcohol limit, the inspectors will just tell you to stop and stay where you are until you've sobered up, before doing another test.

Seatbelts are also checked — I remember not ten years ago nobody used them, and now all my car-endowed friends wear it casually, and make me wear it.

Now we only have to wait for the next generation of drivers to be raised like that...


  1. Congratulations! I love it that your local government is being active about this. I know that in Buenos Aires you see many alcohol check points, especially at night. One night last week I had to go to a 24 hour pharmacy at 2am and saw them at work.

    I wish they would install those cameras as well around here and, this part is a dream I know, apply the law to the busses and taxis, especially the buses.

    A lot has changed here recently. I mean you can´t smoke wherever and now they are trying to make sure you can´t just drink and drive and think nothing of it.

  2. When i was back in BA a couple of weeks ago, i saw some TV adverts (paid for by a private charity, not the government)-they were actually road safety awareness adverts from England from the late 1980s. I recognised them.

    My mum told me that when she was in her 20s, it was usual to drink and drive. About 30 years ago the government in britain made a huge effort to raise awareness of the dangers of this with graphic images and adverts. It worked-drink driving is now taboo. You just don't do it. Despite having a stupidly easy driving test, britain has one of the lowest road traffic accidents in the world-that's all through teaching and awareness campaigns. It can be done and i would work just as well in Argentina as it did in england. At the end of the day, people don't really like dying.

    In Chile, the driving is much, much better than in Argentina. The police over here are strict and chileans are terrified of getting stopped for speeding or drink-driving as they know they're done for-you can't bribe a chilean policeman and fines range from us$50 to us$100s. There are no safe driving campaigns over here-with those, i think the driving culture would improve even more.

  3. The town in which I grew up in used to publish the names of convicted drunk drivers in the local newspaper (which most everybody subscribed to). Sort of like the literary version of a public pillory … and quite effective too.

    I’ve always been at a loss as to why people don’t wear seat belts. I’ve been driving for over 20 years, and I would feed “naked” if I weren’t restrained by one. There have been enough times I’ve had to stop suddenly because of a road hazard, or even been hit from behind a couple of times when I’ve been stopped in heavy traffic, to understand how important they are.

    My car will sound an audible alarm if there is a person in either of the front seats without the seat belt being buckled. I certainly won’t drive with a passenger in front without them being buckled up – If caught I would probably get fined, my insurance rates could increase (insurance is compulsory in CA), and I would get a demerit point on my driving record. Not to mention how I would feel if I were in an accident and a passenger was injured (or worse).



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