RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Traffic accidents are the second-leading cause of death in Brazil, behind homicides. About 40,000 Brazilians die in traffic accidents every year, according to the Ministry of Health.
The Brazilian government’s main tool for lowering these statistics is its zero tolerance drinking and driving law, known as Lei Seca.
Passed into law by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Law 12,760 (Lei Seca) doubles the fine for those who are caught driving drunk. The fine was increased from R$957.65 (US$486.54) to R$1,915.65 (US$978.77), which is the equivalent of three months of minimum wage in Brazil.
With the new law, in addition to breathalyzer tests and clinical tests, photos, videos and witness testimony also can be used as evidence against the accused. If it is proven that a driver has consumed more than the legally allowed limit – the equivalent of three cans of beer for a person weighing 60 kilograms (132.2 pounds) – the driver will lose their license for one year.
The punishment also applies to drivers who are under the influence of psychoactive substances, such as cocaine and marijuana.
“Before the new Lei Seca came into effect, if a driver was visibly drunk and refused a breathalyzer test, the punishment [for refusing] was only administrative in nature,” says inspector Jerry Adriane Dias, a Federal Highway Police (PRF) representative with the National Traffic Council. “They would be fined, lose their license and have their vehicle impounded until the arrival of a licensed, sober driver. But there were no criminal charges because these drivers were allowed to exercise their constitutional right that protects people from being forced to produce evidence against themselves.”
Traffic accidents are considered a public health problem in Brazil.
In 2011, the Unified Health System registered 155,000 hospitalizations related to traffic accidents, representing a cost of more than R$200 million (US$101 million) in federal funds.
“With that amount of money, it would be possible to build 140 Emergency Care Units and provide better emergency services throughout Brazil,” Health Minister Alexandre Padilha said after the new law was passed.
The 2012 Violence Map, which was prepared by the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) and the Brazilian Center for Latin American Studies, defines traffic accidents as a “real pandemic” in Brazil.
“If we continue the upward trend seen in recent years, in 2015 traffic deaths will surpass homicides as the No. 1 killer in Brazil,” says sociologist Júlio Jacobo Waiselfisz, FLACSO’s coordinator.
Rio de Janeiro leads the way
Since the implementation of its own form of Lei Seca enforcement four years ago, the situation in Rio de Janeiro has improved significantly.
Rio de Janeiro’s Operation Lei Seca features daily checkpoints staffed by Military Police officers and agents from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DETRAN) at random locations throughout the city.
In addition to the checkpoints, there are educational campaigns, which include the participation of 30 wheelchair-bound victims of traffic accidents. They distribute pamphlets and speak to the public at bars, nightclubs and middle schools about their experiences at the checkpoints.
In 2009, when the checkpoints were first implemented, 20% of the motorists who were approached were driving under the influence of alcohol, according to the Ministry of Public Health. In 2011, that figure fell to 8.6%.
The number of traffic deaths dropped by 34% in the first year that Lei Seca was enforced in Rio de Janeiro, according to the government’s Public Safety Institute. From 2009 to January of this year, more than a million motorists have been stopped at these checkpoints, with 194,000 being fined and 82,000 having their licenses confiscated.
“People are starting to rely on designated drivers, as well as using taxis and public transportation,” says Maj. Marco Andrade, who coordinates Operation Lei Seca in Rio de Janeiro.
Cristiano Marques, a 35-year-old TV director, said Lei Seca changed the way the city’s residents, known as cariocas, go out drinking.
“I’ve noticed that among my friends it’s rare for someone to go out at night with their car. We usually take a taxi,” says Marques, who has been stopped twice at Lei Seca checkpoints and passed the breathalyzer test each time.
Representatives from 13 other states visited the city to study Operation Lei Seca.
Belo Horizonte, the capital city of the state of Minas Gerais, started implementing daily checkpoints in 2012. Pernambuco copied the uniforms worn by agents and the balloons used at the checkpoints in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio de Janeiro model has also been implemented in Rio Grande do Sul, Goiás and Rondônia.
During this year’s Carnival, the city of São Paulo pioneered in mass-testing motorists for cocaine and marijuana. The new Operation Direção Segura (Safe Driving) has video cameras and a device that, with a sample of the driver’s saliva, can reveal the presence of drugs in a few minutes.
São Paulo’s government intends to adopt this new operating model gradually throughout the state.
Enforcement originally focused on bars
The drinking and driving law started as an interim measure, in 2008, and it only prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages along federal roads and highways.
Rep. Hugo Leal (PSC-RJ), who sponsored the interim measure, introduced a bill that focused on motorists, not places of business.
“It makes a lot of sense because the Federal Highway Police officers were carrying out enforcement actions in bars and restaurants, which are completely outside their area of expertise,” Leal says.
Initially, the breathalyzer test was conducted by the PRF, but motorists who refused to take the test weren’t punished.
In the original Lei Seca drinking and driving law, proposed by Leal, the punishment for drivers who refused to take a breathalyzer test was immediate, but merely administrative in nature, resulting in a fine, a suspended license and an impounded vehicle.
Now, motorists who refuse to take a breathalyzer test can be taken to a police station if an officer determines the motorist is showing signs of being impaired or has committed a traffic violation.