Friday, December 18, 2009

The Highway Hazards of Argentina's "Four Corners"

Northwestern Argentina, where I have spent most of the past two weeks, is one of my favorite parts of the country. In both geography and culture, it resembles the southwestern United States, with polychrome deserts canyons and a strong indigenous presence. The provinces of La Rioja, Catamarca, Tucumán, Salta and Jujuy possess overpowering scenery and a cultural heritage that traces its origins back to highland Peru and Bolivia. The steep-sided box canyons of La Rioja’s Parque Nacional Talampaya have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, and Jujuy’s Quebrada de Humahuaca was declared one in 2003. The latter, in particular, has seen a major influx of tourist investment and infrastructure.

Yet this is also one of the areas that makes me most nervous. It is one of the country’s poorest regions, with serious urban and rural poverty. I have never been concerned about crime here, but scofflaws do bother me and that’s because, like many foreign visitors, I often drive a car to reach the most remote and scenic places. That also means, on occasion, that I have to drive in congested provincial capitals where motorcycles and scooters are constantly darting and weaving among automobiles, buses, and trucks.

In theory, Argentine law obliges the drivers of motorcycles and scooters to wear protective helmets but nothing, apparently, obliges them to wear them on their heads - it’s not uncommon to see riders loop them over their elbows. I estimate compliance at less than one percent, and the provincial police appear to have zero interest in enforcement.

Yet it’s not solitary adult bikers that concern me so much as poor families who have scraped together enough money to buy an underpowered motor scooter that they use to get around town - I have often seen a family of four or five, with babes in arms, careening through town with no head protection whatsoever. Given their precarious equilibrium, a major tragedy is only a small oil slick away, as they could easily tumble in front of my - or your - oncoming car.

Some of these drivers are not even licensed - one Catamarca transit policeman told me that it’s common for fathers to give their daughters a scooter for their quinceañera (15th birthday) celebration. In one recent case, the result was an immediate traffic fatality well before the daughter had reached driving age. When someone’s simultaneously texting on a cell phone, as depicted here, the hazard is even greater.

What explains the failure to enforce the law? It’s complicated, but there are also many junk cars, highway hazards that could not possibly pass any technical inspection because of missing headlights and other defects, that are nevertheless on the road. The usual explanation is that federal and provincial governments would rather keep “social peace” than enforce laws that may “discriminate” against poorer people. In reality, though, this endangers those very people the law supposedly exists to protect. It’s also bewildering, of course, that so many riders seem to have so little regard for their own - and their children’s - personal safety.

In fact, in the city of Buenos Aires, the police have taken to confiscating motorcycles whose riders are not wearing helmets. The provincial capital of Jujuy has taken a different tack - a municipal ordinance now decrees that gas stations may not sell fuel to a helmetless rider, but this of course has many loopholes: “María, why don’t you and the kids stay here while I go around the block to fill the tank?”

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