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BRAZIL: Ban on Alcohol Sales in Roadside Businesses

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 31 2008 (IPS) - As of Friday, the first day of Carnival, a government ban will go into effect on the sale of alcohol at all restaurants and service stations located along highways or freeways in Brazil, as part of a programme aimed at bringing down the high number of fatal traffic accidents.

The new measure will enter into force at midnight Thursday, marking the start of Carnival, a holiday period in which the number of accidents typically soars.

Some 35,000 people are killed and 200,000 are injured in traffic accidents every year in this country of 188 million.

Last year, 490 people died in such accidents during the five-day Carnival holiday and another 300 died in the following months as a direct result of those accidents, according to Justice Ministry figures.

“Owners of bars, get ready: you will be closely monitored,” warned Justice Minister Tarso Genro, referring to the new ban, which has been dubbed “Operation Carnival”.

The measure, adopted by the leftist government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, covers restaurants, service station stores, bars and street vendors operating along the country’s highways.

Those who violate the new ban will be slapped with an 850-dollar fine in the case of first-time offenders and double that for subsequent infringements. Repeat offenders will face the risk of losing their licences.

The director of the Brazilian Association of Traffic Medicine (ABRAMET), Alberto Sabagg, said the measure is a warning for drivers, and could cut the number of traffic accidents in half.

Sabagg also believes that the ban, similar to ones in effect in some European countries, could also contribute to a change in mentality among drivers.

Explaining the new measure, Health Minister José Gomes Temporao cited an ABRAMET study that found that 84 percent of those killed in traffic accidents in 2006 had a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, which is 0.6 grams per litre of blood.

María José da Silva Amaral, a psychologist who heads the Traffic Department’s accident victims support group, which provides emotional and legal support to victims and their families, is all too familiar with the problem: she lost her mother and four-year-old daughter when they were hit by a bus.

But while she told IPS that “there is no doubt that fatal traffic accidents are an epidemic that kills more people in Brazil than any single disease,” she said the new measure would not be effective on its own.

The sale of alcohol along highways “clearly encourages drivers to drink,” she said. But the new ban is just a start in tackling a complex problem, she added, calling for a full-fledged educational campaign “to raise the awareness of anyone who gets behind the wheel.”

“A car is just a machine that can kill when it is driven by careless people who cannot envision the consequences of their behaviour in traffic,” she said.

Like other experts, the psychologist said that it is not new laws that are needed, but effective enforcement of existing ones.

They agree, for example, with other measures being studied by the government, such as a 63 percent increase in traffic fines, and a reduction in the legal blood alcohol level for drivers. But they say that without enforcement, any laws will be useless.

Sources with the federal traffic police have already quietly admitted that the force lacks the number of police officers needed to effectively enforce the law.

However, the traffic police applaud the new measure as “another tool to reinforce the police’s work to prevent accidents,” inspector André Azevedo, head of the traffic police’s social communications department, told IPS.

“Our concern on some stretches of road is that drivers tend to stop in establishments along the highway to buy alcohol to drink on their trips,” he said.

But while he said the traffic police are ready to monitor and inspect restaurants along highways in “Operation Carnival”, he admitted that the workload will definitely be increased, especially since the total number of vehicles on the road during this year’s Carnival weekend is expected to grow 30 percent since last year’s holiday.

“This is a holiday in which people tend to party a great deal and many people consume alcohol before travelling,” which leads to an increase in the number of fatal accidents on the roads, said the police spokesman.

Manoel Goncalves, who owns a restaurant that operates in a gas station along a highway that leads out of the city of Rio de Janeiro, said the new measure will only bring a “loss of jobs” and will not help prevent accidents.

Goncalves, who complained that as a result of the new law he will have to dismiss five employees (alcoholic beverages represent 60 percent of his sales), said that as a former trucker, he is “very familiar with” people’s behaviour on the country’s roads.

He said that when people are travelling, they stop for a rest and “have a little beer,” and argued that if they are unable to buy drinks at rest stops, “they will buy one or two cases (of beer) in a supermarket or in any of the abundant little bars on side streets, and drink while they drive.”

A similar criticism was voiced by Teresa de Santana and Charles Ribeiro, who lost their 19-year-old daughter Juliana in a traffic accident in March 2004.

The driver, an acquaintance of the same age, was driving drunk after a party and “as a joke to scare the girls” he started driving in zigzag and lost control of the vehicle. He and the other young man survived, but Juliana and her friend Patrizia died.

“Only education works, and that has to come from home,” said Teresa.

“Drivers might not drink in bars, but could already have alcohol in the car and drink on the trip, like some truckers do – one of the careless things people do on the roads,” she told IPS.

“I think that on its own, the law will not reduce alcohol consumption. Each person must become aware of the problem,” she added.

And with that aim, since their daughter died, Teresa and Charles go out sometimes on weekend nights to hand out leaflets at the doors of establishments frequented by teenagers and young people, to warn them of the risks of drunk driving.

Charles has drawn up a proposal that he presented to the authorities, which would incorporate in the primary school curriculum teaching on respect for traffic laws.

But he also called for stricter monitoring and stiffer fines for people caught driving while under the influence of alcohol.

In the case of the young man who caused the deaths of Juliana and Patrizia, the judge suspended his driver’s licence for two years and sentenced him to community service.

“But who guarantees that he is complying with the sentence?” asked Teresa.

“Brazil has good laws; the problem is that impunity is a huge problem. The authorities themselves must have the mentality that laws need to be enforced,” said Charles.

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