Speed Bumps, the Hiccoughs of Life and Brazilian Police

on Tuesday, 10 December 2013. Posted in World Travels


Part One

The worst ones are those painted black that you don’t see in the dark. There is a nice large one like that not far outside Natal, heading toward the coastal tourist town of Pipa in the north east of Brasil. It is perfectly situated as you come over a hill and are speeding up going downhill as you leave town. The road is clear so there is nothing to slow down for -  except this huge dark speed bump that suddenly rears itself from the tarmac.

Speed bumps have become the latest fetish of government planners and local vigilante groups everywhere, whether in Brazil, Mexico, Ghana or Tanzania. The logic of the positioning of some of them is baffling, either in blind spots on a road, with no signs or warning, or when you are leaving a town, having already slowed down through the town and having navigated the three speed bumps before town, only to be met by another three as you leave. I understand the logic that one has to have one cover the whole of the road and not just half but 3 of them!  The dimensions of the speed bumps (called sleeping policeman in the U.K. - and thinking about it, it would be better if some of those African policemen lurking in the shadows and constantly stopping traffic for a bribe would be better employed if they did lie in the road)  can be formidable, forcing cars to literally climb over them, one wheel at a time, lest the whole chassis collapses in shock, all the passengers being virtually disgorged from the vehicle every time a car attempts the ascent. Crossing Tanzania from Dar es Salaam in the east to Mbeya in the west, one must cross 150 or so speed bumps, three before and three after each town and then countless others sprawled across the road whenever someone thinks it’s a good idea. Going through a small part of Selou National Park, there was a couple of miles where every 50 yards or so, a massive speed bump made from compact dirt would be lazily sitting there, forcing all the trucks, cars and buses to virtually totally stop to a halt and then attempt to navigate the obstacle, looking like a person with really bad piles trying to climb over a fence. I figured they were doing their bit for the wild animals, in case any would be stupid enough to meander in front of careening buses but I am sure they are already aware of just how bad and mad most Tanzanian bus drivers are.

There is a logic to speed bumps. Sitting on a bus crossing Tanzania when the driver is trying to break the land speed record in between speed bumps only makes me wonder what it would be like if they weren’t there. All the buses leaving Dar in the morning, heading to Mbeya seem to be competing with one another to cross the country, perhaps hoping to pick up passengers first, but more likely just satisfying the macho yearning to be first. Our driver was a liability to life but no one was complaining. He was the King of the vehicle, The Big Man and it seemed people simply accepted the situation. A couple of times, when trying to overtake one of the countless trucks on the same road, he had to break viciously, sending the vehicle into a spasm and at the back, sending us into a virtual convulsion. Yes, my friend and I had two seats on the back row and when the driver chose to ignore the speed bumps, our bodies would leave the seat, our heads would hit the rack and then we would come to earth with a bang. The driver’s antics also made a poor vendor lose his whole goods as the bus lurched away from a pit stop before money could be parted, forcing the vendor to run after the bus, only for his goods to splay all over the road. Any pit stop was short and not sweet, with barely enough time to grab a bite to eat or to go to the toilet before the bus would begin to pull away, forcing passengers to run after it and jump on.

In Brazil, from Natal to Pipa, only about half the speed bumps were “official”. The others were put up by villagers who felt more was needed. True, the drivers were often mad and would hammer through small towns before the bumps but then again, speed bumps that cannot be seen until the last minute create their own problems.