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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Monday Street and Traffic

            I spend a lot of time walking down long dusty roads. Approximately 15% ( of roads in Paraguay are paved. The vast majority of the paved roads are in the major cities, and the principal highways connecting those urban centers together. The number of paved roads has been steadily increasing for decades, but progress is still slow. A big part of the reason progress is so slow is the process of paving the roads themselves. I'm hardly an expert on how roads are constructed, but I am fairly confident that the method utilized here is a far cry from the standard in a more developed nation.
Monday Street is about 30 yards from my house
            I'll concede that buying the most efficient and modern road paving equipment costs lots money, and would take a lot time to arrive in Paraguay given its lack of industrial machine factories. With that being said I still find it amazing how long the process of paving a road can be. For starters, if a road is to be paved it must be worn down to a hardpan layer of dirt. There are no shortages of those roads in Paraguay, but selecting which roads will precede to the next phase of the construction process is more a matter of what political party is in charge rather than who needs it more, but I digress. The next step is cobbling the road. This task could be completed with a machine that grinds and spreads rocks, but that machine takes the place of laborers who painstakingly bash rocks with hammers and lay them on the road piece by piece. Based on my observations, a crew eight of cobblers can do a 100-meter stretch of road in one-two weeks if they're working efficiently. Once completed, a machine can actually pave the road in a matter of hours.
            The problem, however, is that getting a road paving machine is easier said than done. There are finite amount in Paraguay, and you got to have the political capital to get one, especially if you live far away from the major cities. Four months ago, O'Leary obtained one of these machines, and paved five roads in the center of town that had been cobbled years ago. Over the course of a week, most of the principal streets were paved, but the town still has a ton of cobbled and dirt roads interspersed throughout. I have to admit that overall, I was very impressed by the new paved roads. To promote the completion of the roads the Municipality hosted a bicycle race around the freshly asphalted streets, a task that would've been much more difficult on the male anatomy just a few months before. People seemed pleased by the roads, and despite my last place finish in the race, I could tell this was a positive step in the development of the town. Despite taking years to complete, it was nice to see the town progress in that way, but there are many consequences that I initially overlooked when considering the benefits of the new roads.
Plants covered in dust layer
            First and foremost is that it encourages more reckless driving. The number one non-disease related cause of death in Paraguay is motor vehicle accidents ( From 2010-2011 the number of accidents went up 100% according to our Peace Corps Safety and Security Director. While it is great that there are new roads, there is not a single new traffic light, or road sign. Even if there was, I doubt people would obey them. I say that for several reasons, first being it is illegal to drive a motorized vehicle under the age of 18, yet it is very common to see kids as young as 10 driving motorcycles to stores or down the street. It is also illegal to ride a motorcycle without a helmet; yet again walking down the street it is more ordinary to see people without helmets than with them. Lastly, Paraguay has a zero tolerance drinking and driving policy, but every weekend there is a party somewhere, and it is impractical to walk to these parties more often than not. Essentially the laws are so strict that obeying them, despite their good intention, is at time impractical leading to their blatant disregard. Why would I stop at a stop sign if no one is coming? On a similar note, I've lost count of the amount of time a cab driver runs a red light when no one is around. What about the police? Why can't they do something? Aside from the questionable motives of the police in general, if they issue a citation for every person who breaks a traffic law they would be overwhelmed by the amount of work they would need to do to process the tickets.
            If they issue a citation it’s likely that the guilty party cannot afford to pay the fine, and would simply discard the ticket as soon as the cop left. The judicial system is very rigidly structured, and lacks the efficiency and capacity to process a high volume of traffic violations. In essence the amount of resources and effort it would take to effectively enforce traffic laws would overwhelm the institutions relegated to deal with the laws. It is far easier to turn a blind eye to the problems then deal with the upheaval associated with strict enforcement. Disregarding minor traffic violations frees up the police and courts to focus on bigger issues. That being said, there is no way this country can continue to ignore this endemic problem with traffic safety.
Truck kicking up dust
            Paraguay is not going to stop building roads, and as the population continues to grow so will the number of motor vehicle accidents, thus necessitating the need for a comprehensive traffic safety system. A few months ago a group of volunteers and I did a tour of Itaipu Dam. On our tour were a British woman and her husband. Naturally we were all surprised to see this couple in Paraguay. When we asked why she was here she responded that she had been coming frequently for 20 years trying to assess the need to a traffic safety system. When she first came 20-years ago there was no need whatsoever, but now with rapidly growing population and the dramatic influx of motorcycles she said that she couldn't justify not implementing a modern traffic safety system. What is most remarkable is how despite the growing need for such a system how few roads are still paved.
            It think it is obvious to say that paved roads lead to faster speeds, and more accidents therefore necessitating infrastructural improvements for traffic safety, but 85% of all roads are still unpaved. The number of paved roads has increased at snails pace since the 1980s, but the number of vehicles has increased tenfold. Even the poorest of families can take out a loan for a motorcycle and pay monthly quotas at insane interest rates. Repossession for non-payments can take months, so it is not uncommon to see families with two or three motorcycles. Many of these poorer families live on the extremities of cities, towns, and in the countryside where paved roads don't exist. The ever-increasing amount of vehicle traffic in these dirt road communities leads to a plethora of other problems including dust erosion.
Dust cloud
            I live 2 KM away from a principal highway on a street called Monday (mun-da-u). The street is a dirt highway that goes 88 KM into the countryside before hooking left for another 45 KM until you get to another paved road. Due to its length, it is heavily trafficked by trucks carrying agricultural products from communities in the interior, personal cars, and motorcycles. The amount of traffic coupled with the importance of the road makes Monday Street a veritable quagmire of mud and dirt. When it rains the road is virtually impassible even on foot. The clay heavy soil, the lack of trees, and the hilly topography leads to countless accidents. Trucks get stuck; people slip, and the road stays that way for days. When it is dry, the vehicle traffic kicks up enormous amounts of dust that coats everything. I get made fun of all the time for having dirty cloths by people outside O'Leary. I kindly explain to those hecklers that if they come visit me they'll find out why. All my white cloths now have a reddish-brown hue to them, which is nice if all your dress socks are dirty, but not in any other situation. People's houses are covered in dirt and the vegetation has a nice layer of brown covering anything within a marginal distance from the road. The worst part about it is how common this situation is throughout the country. Although, I'll admit that Monday is one of the most trafficked paved roads I have heard of in Paraguay.
            It is easy to complain about the mud and dirt, and trust me I can do that for hours, but what is really scary is that in spite of the fact that the road is unpaved, vehicles still bolt down this road at excessive speeds. In some cases, families live 10 feet from this road, and while these is a side path, it eventually ends so you are more often than not walking on the street itself. I am absolutely amazed that I don't hear of more instances of people getting into accidents on this road. The number of children I see riding motorcycles loaded with stuff from a store, or with multiple people on board weaving between this heavy traffic is staggering. People complain, myself included, that they need to pave the road, and I agree the respiration and general health issues associated with inhaling a ton of dust is of the utmost importance, but is a paved road a better option given the frequency of motor vehicle accidents in Paraguay? If the assumption is that paved roads lead to faster traffic than paving Monday would theoretically lead to more accidents. I have no idea whether that factors into the reasons why the road is not going to paved anytime soon, but I think it should be.
            As with any developing country safety standards seem to develop after the creation of the danger. The brutality of motor vehicle accidents in the States led to the creation of laws that improved vehicle safety standards, more stringent law enforcement, and a more safety conscience population. Does that mean the same sort of things will happen in Paraguay? Ironically motor vehicle safety laws in Paraguay are in some ways more extensive than in the USA, but lack infrastructure and enforcement. I think it goes beyond that though. I've notice through my interactions with people that death is something that is intensely grieved for a short period of time, and rarely brought up again afterwards. You are hard pressed to find someone in Paraguay that doesn't know someone who died or was in a serious motorcycle accident. Despite all that death and suffering countless families have endured at the hands of a traffic accident nothing seems to change. People aren't mobilizing to demand better traffic standards. They don't seem to change their own habits either. It's one of those things that is seemingly just accepted a part of life that we all must live with. An expression that people use on a daily basis here is "así es" meaning it is what it is, or quite so. It breaks my heart that sentiment exists in place where so many have suffered losses that might of been prevented, but what hurts the most is I don't see any sign that things will change. I believe there will never bee a massive campaign to remedy this problem that is causing so much death in this country. It's just not the way things work here. I truly hope I am wrong and that over time people will stop accepting this as normal part of their existence, but I sadly don't see it changing anytime soon.

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