Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Panamerican 500th

It’s an anniversary of sorts. For the 500th post since I began this blog in November 2008, I have several observations on driving through Chile and on its highways.
WiFi v. Toilets
Over the past two decades, Chilean roads have improved dramatically. The longitudinal Ruta 5, the Carretera Panamericana, is now a divided highway of at least four lanes from La Serena in the north to Puerto Montt in the south. And three months ago, in the northern desert, a new four-lane divided stretch opened between the city of Vallenar and the beach resort of Caldera, bypassing the regional capital of Copiapó. That makes this a much quicker and safer route, as motorists no longer find themselves tempted to pass slow-moving mining trucks on dangerous curves or steep hills.

One phenomenon of the freeway has been, as elsewhere, a series of roadside servicentros - drivers no longer have to leave the main highway to fill the tank, get a cup of coffee, a sandwich or a more elaborate meal, or use the toilet. Most of these are operated by the local energy giant Copec, which maintains utterly spotless facilities and, at the same time, provides free WiFi for anyone who stops at them - even if they don’t make any purchase. When I have to check my email on the go, this is extraordinarily convenient.
A far more basic service, though, is not free. Copec charges visitors to use the toilets (which often have showers, used mostly but not exclusively by truckers, for an additional charge). The charge is not high, about 150 pesos (roughly US$0.30), but what does it say about priorities when an optional service like WiFi is free and an essential service like a urinal is not?

Getting Real: Chilean Gasoline Prices
At a time when a Georgia demagogue thinks he can become president by promising gasoline at $2.50 per gallon, Chile is a reality check. Like the United States, Chile imports and consumes more oil than it can extract (applied to petroleum, the word “production” is a horrible misnomer), and it’s a glimpse into the future. When I filled the tank yesterday at La Serena, the price for 95-octane gasoline was 834 pesos per liter which, at the exchange rate of 487 to the dollar, works out to US$6.51 per gallon.
It’s going to get worse, for me at least, in the short term. The farther you get from Santiago, north or south, the higher the fuel prices and, in the city of Copiapó, I’m barely a third of the way to the northernmost Chilean city of Arica.

Chile, of course, faces oil shortages more acutely than the United States, but the trend is clear. Chile’s only notable fossil fuel resources are in the far southern region of Magallanes and, when that runs out, all the drills in the world won’t yield any oil.

Zero Tolerance in Chile
Meanwhile, Chile has enacted one of the world’s strongest drunk-driving laws, about as close to zero tolerance as it’s possible to get. More than a few people are upset that a blood alcohol level of .031 percent – compared with .08 in California – could send you to jail for driving while intoxicated. Just a single beer, a glass of wine, or a pisco sour could conceivably put you over the limit.

I have no intention of endorsing drunk driving. It’s interesting, though, to contrast this legislation with the country’s timid tobacco-control laws. That’s particularly so when I just visited an American friend in La Serena whose 48-year-old Chilean wife, a non-smoker who grew up in a house of smokers, died of lung cancer last November.

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