Buses behaving badly

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.

“Even us bus executives are victims,” he added. While driving private vehicles, he said, “our own bus drivers cut us off and disrespect us.”

Bus drivers claim that the main problem is money.

Instead of fixed wages, they are paid by the number of passengers they pick up, with their employers getting the lion’s share of the daily take.

The result is what some call “The War of the Pennies” — a mad scramble on the streets as drivers try to snag as many 60-cent fares as they can.

While maneuvering through Bogota’s rush hour traffic, bus driver Mora said he earns 150 pesos — or about 7 cents — for every rider. If he followed the rules and seated everyone, he would earn about $15 a day.

But by shooting through red lights, passing other buses in heavy traffic, and allowing people to stand in the aisles, he can take on far more passengers and double his take-home pay.

“You do it to make more money,” Mora said as he swung open the hydraulic side door and collected 1,200 pesos from each passenger pushing through the metal turnstile.

Because they’re always breaking the law, Mora and his colleagues make easy marks for traffic cops. Some are simply angling for bribes, but in recent years officers have handed out traffic tickets worth nearly $400 million.

According to Isaza, of Asotrans, one bus driver has accumulated more than $50,000 in fines.

A single citation can cost drivers two weeks of their salary; thus, they usually ignore the tickets. And due to faulty record-keeping, Bogota authorities have failed to enforce the law — resulting in the multi-million-dollar backlog.

Now, however, the Bogota City Council is trying to recover some of the money by offering drivers a grace period and deep discounts. Councilman Fernando Lopez has sponsored a bill in which drivers who pay just 10 percent of their fines on an installment plan could clear their records.

Recovering even a small fraction of the money, he says, would help.

“It’s very important because this money could be used for schools, health care, and public works projects,” Lopez said shortly before introducing the bill on the floor of the city council. “We can’t just forget about it.”

While maneuvering his bus south toward the Bogota slum where he lives, Mora said he liked the idea of discounts. He owes about $900 for nine traffic tickets and wants to clear his driving record so he can get a better job.

But until bus companies start paying drivers decent wages, he said, the bad behavior will continue. As he spoke, all the seats on Mora’s bus were full and half a dozen passengers were standing in the aisle.

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