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Buses behaving badly

In Colombia, riding a bus can be a frightening experience.

BOGOTA, Colombia — If not quite demolition derby, riding the bus in Colombia can resemble a nerve-fraying lap around the race track.

Anxious to collect as many fares as possible, bus drivers ply their routes at breakneck speed, often ignoring details like red lights, no-passing zones, and the law that bans passengers from standing in the aisles.

If pedestrians flag them down at the last instant, drivers will hit the brakes even if they’re on the wrong side of the road.

Adding to the chaos, street vendors and musicians climb aboard to sing, perform magic acts and hawk their wares, turning the aisles into a rolling Persian market.

The reckless antics are a leading cause of accidents and help explain why bus drivers in Bogota have racked up more than a quarter-billion dollars in traffic fines. And since most Bogotanos rely on public transportation, bus drivers in the throes of road rage add another layer of stress to life in this traffic-choked city of 7 million.

“Drivers go really fast,” said Maria Estrada, who was about to embark on a three-hour bus journey to the city of Girardot. “They pass other cars where they shouldn’t. And here in Bogota it’s a free-for-all.”

The bad behavior is not entirely the fault of the men behind the wheel (there are only a handful of women bus drivers). Their driving style is partly the result of a lack of rules.

On the streets of Bogota, for example, there are some designated bus stops. However, people can hail a bus anywhere, a leading factor in collisions as drivers swerve to the curbside and screech to a halt.

As for intersections, “everyone goes through red lights as if they were nothing,” said Wilson Mora, who has been driving a bus in Bogota for the past 11 years.

Like Mora, many drivers come from poor families, lack formal education, and sometimes take out their frustrations on the road, said German Isaza, executive director of Asotrans, an industry group representing bus companies.

There is no academy or formal training for bus drivers. All that’s required is a license, and some drivers even manage to skirt that rule.

“They behave the way they were brought up,” Isaza said. “They are rough people … Some are immature and try to calm their nerves by driving faster.