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BRAZIL: Proliferation of Motorcycles and Health Risks

Mario Osava* - Tierramérica

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 26 2006 (IPS) - The continued expansion of Brazil’s motorcycle industry over the past 13 years has polluted the air of the major cities and increased the number of traffic accidents, which kill 30,000 Brazilians a year and send more than 100,000 to hospitals.

Motorcycles account for 19 percent of the economic costs of these tragic accidents, twice that of cars, according to the government’s Institute of Applied Economic Research.

Since the 1990s, motorcycles have multiplied so quickly in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s industrial metropolis, that they have also become a serious environmental problem. There were 453,000 registered in that city in January 2000, jumping to 748,000 by December 2005, Homero Carvalho, of Sao Paulo state’s environmental technology agency, CETESB, told Tierramérica.

Proliferating in many cities are “moto-couriers”, which deliver documents, perishable food and other small packages, as well as “moto-taxis”, which provide one-person transportation (in addition to the driver).

The problem doesn’t receive due attention from the authorities, says Aldemir Martins de Freitas, president of the Motorcycle Workers’ Syndicate of Sao Paulo (Sindimoto), pointing to the 70 accidents per day involving these two-wheeled vehicles in his city.. An average of one motorcycle driver dies each day in Sao Paulo.

Martins himself, 33, is no stranger to moto mishaps: six accidents in 10 years have resulted in a broken collar bone, broken teeth, and a fracture in his hand; and injuries to his left eye and to his right leg, crushed by a bus. Now he is fighting for a system for regulating the 120,000 drivers he estimates are using their motorcycles as their main source of employment in Sao Paulo.

Up until 1994, Brazil had reached an output of more than 200,000 motorcycles only twice, in what were seen as exceptional years. But in 2005 the country manufactured 1.2 million. This year the Brazilian association of motorcycle and bicycle manufacturers, Abraciclo, expects to see 10-percent growth.

The recovery of the population’s purchasing power, the availability of credit, and the fact that the two-wheelers are relatively inexpensive and agile for navigating congested city streets explain the boom, Abraciclo’s executive director Moacyr Alberto Paes said in a Tierramérica interview.

Three-quarters of buyers said they use the motorcycles as their main means of transportation, according to Abraciclo. But many use them for work, with thousands of companies of moto-couriers and moto-taxis emerging. An estimated 1.8 million Brazilians make their living from these kinds of jobs.

The moto-couriers have grown especially in Sao Paulo, a city of 11 million people and streets interminably congested by its five million vehicles. All of those engines are a major source of pollution and are undercutting the emissions reductions achieved through regulations imposed since 1986.

In 2003, national rules restricted the emissions of pollutants from motorcycles, reducing them 75 percent by 2005, and setting 2009 as the deadline for coming into line with automobile emissions standards, of a maximum of one gram per kilometre traveled.

The industry has made an effort to comply with the programme, and technological advances like electronic fuel injection and catalytic converters have helped expand exports of motorcycles, to 15 percent of production, said Carvalho. The larger motorcycles are already being manufactured with the latest technologies. The problem lies with the smaller motorbikes, which are more numerous and more difficult to regulate, the CETESB spokesman added.

Brazilian motorcycles do not use cleaner fuels because their lower consumption of gasoline doesn’t justify substitution with ethanol, and there are no technical standards in place for using natural gas in small engines, said the manufacturers’ association executive Paes.

Lack of safety is a big problem yet to be resolved. Says Paes, the accidents increase as the result of human factors: poor motorcycle maintenance, crumbling streets, ineffective legislation and lack of training for drivers.

Martins, of the moto-drivers’ syndicate, believes more training and corrections of travel routes would mean safer rides for the motorcyclists. If they are organised and trained, “they would be a powerful force in Brazil,” because it is a mode of transport appropriate for poor countries, he said.

Moto-taxis, which are numerous in Brazil’s medium-sized cities and in Rio de Janeiro, are practically non-existent in Sao Paulo, because unsafe traffic conditions scare off potential passengers. But they could be viable “within 10 years,” Martins said, with official recognition of the profession, organisation and regulations.

A short ride on a moto-taxi costs about one real (0.50 dollars) in the “favelas”, the hard-to-reach shantytowns in the steep hills of Rio de Janeiro.

To prevent accidents, Martins proposes requiring two years’ training for youths interested in motorcycle-based employment, with tests of ability and courses in defensive driving. And, in the streets, he calls for removing distracting advertisements, using anti-skid paint for the lines marking the lanes, and cleaning up sand and gravel.

(* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent. Originally published Apr. 22 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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