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Buses behaving badly

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

“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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