The world’s fifth most populous nation also ranked fifth in terms of annual traffic fatalities in 2011 with a rate of 18 deaths per every 100,000 inhabitants, according to the World Health Organization.
“Despite a longstanding commitment to improving road safety, Brazil’s numerous initiatives have suffered from weak enforcement,” read a WHO statement.
“Two core problems have hindered progress in Brazil: The first is inadequate enforcement of the laws in place; the second is entrenched attitudes to drinking and, particularly, drinking and driving -- although this may be changing.”
While the Brazilian government has introduced a series of laws to deter drinking and driving, enforcing them has proven more difficult. Nevertheless, the measures, along with improved policing methods, have demonstrated some success.
From 1998 to 2008, annual traffic fatalities increased 20 percent from 31,000 to 39,000, a government study found. By 2010, the figure exceeded 40,600, an increase of 4 percent over two years, but showed some signs of leveling off.
Beginning in 2008, the government introduced a tougher drinking and driving law known as the “Dry Law,” instituting a zero tolerance policy on any alcohol content in the bloodstream of drivers and increasing the penalties for violations, which could result in up to three years imprisonment.
“Brazil is one of a handful of countries that has gone beyond the maximum recommended blood-alcohol concentration limit to institute a stricter limit for the general population,” Alison Harvey, a road safety expert at the World Health Organization said in a statement.
“It’s an indication that [drunk] driving is taken seriously as an important problem.”
While stricter laws have been introduced, not every state in Brazil has been vigilant about enforcing them. In Rio de Janeiro state, where “Dry Laws” are strictly enforced, the results have proven they are effective.
“Since the law was implemented in 2008, Ministry of Health data shows a 32 percent decline in road traffic deaths in Rio de Janeiro state, compared to a decline of only 6.2 percent during the same period in states where the Dry Law has not been fully enforced,” the WHO reported.
Some experts have argued that enforcement is a matter of staffing police forces.
"Brazilian law enforcement is insufficient; there aren't enough officers. This undermines the impact of legislation," Sergio Ejzemberg, a Brazilian engineer and transport expert, told the BBC.
Another traffic expert, Philip Gold, told the BBC that strict laws and enforcement are not enough, and called for emphasis on driver education.
"We must change people's minds about [drunk] driving,” he said. “Their priority must be safety, not only avoiding penalties."
Even so, Brazil still faces other challenges as more and more new drivers pull out onto the roadways. Over the past 10 years, the number of registered cars in Brazil jumped from 23 million to 41 million, and motorcycles increased from 5 million to 16 million, according to government figures cited by the BBC.
This rapid increase in drivers puts an even greater strain on traffic enforcement, and will ultimately require more government investment to keep pace. But in the end, it may be money well spent.
“Apart from the price paid in human misery, disability and death, road traffic collisions cost Brazil about $32 billion a year, according to the Institute of Applied Economic Research,” the WHO reported.