SANTIAGO, Chile – Governments throughout Latin America are taking precautions to prevent car accidents, hoping to lower an alarming number of traffic fatalities, as scores of vacationers are expected to clog roads during the Easter holiday.
In the Dominican Republic, the National Institute for Road Safety and Traffic-Accident Prevention launched a campaign to raise awareness of the types of dangers drivers may face this weekend.
In Venezuela, an ordinance prohibits the sale of alcohol to drivers of cargo vehicles from April 19 to April 25.
In Paraguay, the Health Ministry is reminding drivers how to avoid potentially fatal accidents.
In Peru, the Health Ministry will operate mobile units to treat those injured in traffic accidents, part of a national campaign to reduce the number of fatalities on the roads.
In Chile, the weeklong holiday finds the nation caught up in a debate about highway safety after Juan Lobos, a representative for the ruling party, recently died in a car accident.
Lobos hit a horse with his car on April 11, as he was driving between the cities of Cabrero and Concepción (300 miles south of Santiago). Lobos died instantly, according to the prosecutor in charge of the investigation.
Why are there so many fatal car accidents in Chile?
The statistics are compelling: 1,595 died in traffic accidents nationwide last year, according to the National Traffic Safety Commission (Conaset).
In the Santiago metro area alone, 391 died as the result of traffic accidents between January and October 2010 after 306 lost their lives during the same period a year earlier, according to Conaset.
And between March 2010 and February 2011, 409 died in traffic accidents, 73 more than during the same period a year earlier, according to the Regional Traffic Safety Commission (Coreset).
“Chilean drivers are not orderly,” said Jaime Bravo, a traffic engineer and specialist in road and highway safety.
Bravo uses his website www.todotransito.cl to educate Chilean motorists by teaching them how to drive well, share the road and be respectful to fellow drivers.
“The example is in our urban corridors,” Bravo said. “In other cities, such as Bogotá, Guayaquil, Córdoba (Argentina) the [traffic] flows are constant, harmonious. [In Chile], the opposite is true: The [driver] who can break from the pack is better.”
Bravo said pedestrians also must be mindful of where they walk to so they won’t get hit by a car.
“Chileans on foot are discourteous and erratic,” he said. “They entrust their safety to the drivers and often they act with defiance.”
Bravo said the way people drive mirrors their personality.
“Man lives the way he drives and drives the way he lives. I stand for 10 minutes in [Mexico City’s] Federal District and I can tell how Mexicans are just from the way they drive,” he said. “The same thing is true about greater Buenos Aires. Stand on Nueve de Julio [Avenue] and wait… you’ll soon have an x-ray of porteños (locals).”
The escalating number of traffic deaths has become the topic of many studies, including one titled “Why we Chileans drive poorly” by Chilean psychologist Marcelo Figueroa.
“My study takes into account statistics from around the country and a socio-economic classification of groups,” Figueroa said. “The variables taken into account are age, profession, and even the type of vehicle involved in the accidents. One of my conclusions, after interviewing dozens of people who survived serious accidents is that [the driver’s] acquisitive power is relevant, more so even than age. The driver with money feels he owns the world, drives a new car – possibly three times faster than the rest – and this turns him into a public menace.”
Pedro Gómez Flores spent 25 years as a volunteer firefighter in Santiago.
Flores, who’s retired, said the number of traffic fatalities will continue to rise until lawmakers create stiffer penalties for those convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“In all my years as a rescue worker I went to dozens, perhaps thousands, of accident scenes where the common denominator was alcohol and drugs,” Gómez said. “These are the substances that impair reflexes and give us new victims every day. Out of respect for the families of those killed, in most crashes where there are fatalities, the forensic test results are confidential. But those of us who intervened to get the bodies out of the cars were actually able to figure out the state in which they were driving.”