By Eliza Preston, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Approximately 5,800 municipal vans are registered in the city of Rio, and there are thought to be hundreds if not thousands more operating illegally. Safety regulations appear loose and seldom enforced according to recent reports, but they serve a vital role in city transportation system, especially to some of the outer communities.
Last week van drivers took to the streets of Rio calling for the right to access the bus corridors (BRS) of the city and for an increase in the number of licenses available to van drivers. One thing appears clear, with both city authorities and van drivers calling for reform, changes are sure to come.
Pedro Widmar, a Carioca (born in Rio) and owner of Deli Biazzara in Leblon explains that the van system, “started slowly, but gained popularity quickly by undercutting buses.”
The relationship between the city authorities and the van drivers is often one of tension and there are widespread calls for the system of licensing, regulation and management to be re-thought.
An accident in Leblon last Wednesday in which a van hit a street pole, injuring all eleven passengers, is a sharp illustrated concerns for the safety regulations of the vans.
Statistics gathered by the fire department show that accidents involving vans have been frequent in Rio in the last eight months, recording 443 accidents, an average of almost two accidents a day.
However they are part of the fabric of Rio, and Sicco Schmidt, an expatriate working as an engineer and architect in Rio explains why he prefers them. “I actually only use buses when there are no vans … the van stops where I want them to stop [and are] cheaper and faster.”
They are so successful sometimes over-crowding is a major issue as van drivers attempt to maximize income by squeezing as many people on board as possible, often crowding over twenty people into the fifteen-seater vehicles.
Yet despite the ‘irregular’ operators, Schmidt feels they are the better and safer option: “I have never heard about an assault inside of a van [but] two of my fiends [were] assaulted inside of a bus though, and they are Brazilian.”
In October of this year, reports indicated in an attempt to undermine the control which the militias held over the van system, the Prefeitura (local government) of Rio annulled the contracts with van cooperatives, deciding to grant contracts directly to the drivers. The city authorities also demanded that all drivers demonstrate a clean criminal record.
Most recently van drivers working in Jacarepaguá in Rio’s West Zone have exposed a system of taxes and tariffs being demanded by militias in the area. In a desperate appeal to the police for intervention, about forty drivers parked their vans along the road outside the police headquarters in Jacarépaguá.
The drivers work for the cooperative Rio da Prata and claim that they are forced to pay R$150 per day to local militia in order to operate in the area. The militia have threatened to burn the vans should the drivers fail to make the payment.
Speaking to R7 News, one driver, who preferred to remain unidentified, described a system of heavy tariffs, threats and intimidation orchestrated by the militia: “It is our life which is at risk, and those of our families. It is their law, not police law which operates in this area, they made that very clear today.”