Brazil: Rio to Improve Safety on Public Transit

By JENNY BARCHFIELD | April 8, 2013

Officials scrambled Friday to improve safety on the Rio de Janeiro’s strained mass transit system following a deadly bus crash and the gang rape of an American student aboard a public transit van.

New measures include reviews of bus surveillance camera footage and a ban on the use of dark window tinting on vans like the one where the American woman and was raped while her French companion was handcuffed and beaten early Saturday.

The pair boarded the van, one of a fleet of thousands of 12-seater vehicles that serve bus routes, in Rio’s showcase beachfront neighborhood of Copacabana just after midnight. The van operators forced the other passengers to get off and proceeded to rape, beat and rob the young woman and brutalize her companion for six hours aboard the moving vehicle before dumping the pair on the side of a highway.

Three men aged 20 to 22 were swiftly detained, but the attack sparked public outrage over the woeful conditions of the mass transit system in this sprawling metropolis of 6 million, where most of the population relies on often-overcrowded vans and buses known for driving at breakneck speeds and disregarding stoplights.

The attack also raised questions about the ability of authorities to guarantee the safety of the masses of tourists who will descend on the city for next year’s soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. An initial test will come in July, with the expected arrival of an estimated 2 million people for the World Youth Day, a Roman Catholic pilgrimage to be attended by Pope Francis.

Like most vans here, the one used in Saturday’s attack on the foreigners had heavily tinted windows that made it impossible for passers-by to see what was going on inside. Under a decree appearing in Friday’s municipal Official Journal, van operators will have until Monday to remove the dark film. Drivers who fail to comply can have the vehicle compounded or be fined $625.

Meanwhile Friday, O Globo newspaper reported that city officials will begin to review bus surveillance images in a bid to crack down on bad drivers after an accident Wednesday that killed seven people.

A dispute between the bus driver and an enraged passenger was reportedly behind the crash, which saw the bus plunge off a 10-meter (30-foot) high overpass onto one of Rio’s busiest thoroughfares, Avenida Brazil, during Wednesday’s afternoon rush hour. Eleven people, including the driver and the angry passenger, were injured in the accident.

The O Globo report said that starting in the second half of the year, agents at a control center here will be able to access live images from surveillance cameras on the city’s fleet of nearly 9,000 buses. The private transit companies that operate the buses will also be required to store the images in case they’re needed for accident or other investigations. Data from onboard GPSs will also be made available to transit authorities, the report said.

“I believe that this system can prevent actions like what happened on Avenida Brazil,” the report quoted the city’s transport secretary, Carlos Roberto Osorio, as saying.

Rio’s chronic transit problems have taken a turn for the worse in recent months with the closure of two key metro stations for a pending subway extension. Other aggravating factors include the city’s narrow and aging roadways and the ever-expanding numbers of privately owned cars, which result in nearly round-the-clock gridlock. Bike routes are limited, with cyclists forced to compete for space on the streets with speeding cars, trucks and buses, leaving most people here with little choice but to take the buses or vans.

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