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Brazil's Scofflaw Drivers Put Carnival Tourists at Risk

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Avoiding the big inflation predicted by financial pundits, the musical chairs government of president Dilma Rousseff has made Brazil the world's sixth largest economy, earning her high marks for her centrist approach after one year in office.

But with Carnival unfolding next month and the World Cup and the Rio Olympics on the horizon there's an accident waiting to happen at the intersection where big business and big party hook up for big profits.

Over 37,000 Brazilians died in traffic fatalities last year, 20 percent more than in the United States. The death toll carries dramatic impact considering that Brazil's 190 million people represent 62 percent of the population of the United States (308 million) according to current census data.

America's 33,808 annual traffic fatalities occurred on a paved highway system of 4.2 million kilometers (2.6 million miles). Brazil's traffic fatalities occurred on a road system featuring just 251,735 kilometers (114,425 miles) of paved highway, only 8 percent of the stateside paved network.

The U.S. Department of State links Brazil's high rate of traffic fatalities with the poor driving skills it believes are pervasive throughout the country. In its pre-Carnival advisory, U.S. diplomats remind visitors to Brazil that most Brazilian drivers do not stop at stop signs and crosswalks, preferring to roll through them, putting pedestrians at risk. While the number of zebra crosswalks for pedestrians in major urban areas featuring timer clocks is increasing, they are no guarantee of safety since most motorists still assume they have the right of way.

With Team Dilma preoccupied with controlling inflation and preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the Rio Olympics, traffic fatalities and better driver education that could help reduce them remain back burner issues. And in a culture where the tourist industry is a powerful economic lobby and happiness is a feature of national life, prospects for a national media campaign about an unpleasant theme like traffic deaths seems unlikely.

Brazil has focused its high tech resources on keeping highways safe for logistics and commerce. Elaborate surveillance systems help federal highway police target speeders, hijackers, overweight trucks and other violations on government and subcontracted toll roads.

Cameras at major intersections do tag accidents involving pedestrians. But a nationwide network of politically connected traffic attorneys minimize the impact of laws by putting the expensive cost of maintaining burden of proof on the alleged victim and by quashing possible convictions that can result in suspension of driver licences.

Although Dilma continues her government housecleaning program corruption remains an issue. Labor minister Carlos Lupi resigned last month amidst charges of graft and insubordination. And in July the minister for transportation, Alfredo Nascimento, who regulated roads and highways, resigned in a major kickback scandal. Meanwhile solutions like privatizing some government operations or outsourcing them to NGOs offers little solace since these organizations merely wrap corruption in a package of accountants window dressing so it is out of the public eye. After modernizing laws to support pedestrians a decade ago, successive governments have defaulted to NGOs to advocate on the pedestrians rights issue but they lack the political clout to turn the problem around.

Getting this year's party started, federal police report that 128 people were killed in traffic accidents over the long New Year's Weekend. And tourists flooding into Brazil for pre-carnival fun would do well to note that last year's Carnival season road deaths increased to 189, a 30 percent bump over 2010.

The increase in highway and pedestrian deaths are a reminder that while Brazil is now a world economic power, it is becoming a more aggressive, violent society. Traditional caipoeira dancing is giving way to bloody kick boxing powered by Russian and Ukranian capital. The globalization of gangsta rap sets the angry mood in the favelas. Fans can't get enough of NASCAR clone Stock Car Brasil when drivers crash and burn at the wall.

Doing whatever it takes to own an automobile is part of the Brazilian Dream. But in a nation that prefers to party away its growing pains the huge number traffic deaths are a stark reminder that motor vehicles are also weapons.