April 6, 2009 / 1:48 PM / in 9 years

New traffic law puts brakes on Angolan cabbies

LUANDA (Reuters Life!) - Mateus Muinga knows only one speed: fast. He claims to be able to get anywhere, anytime at record speeds without ever getting fined or causing an accident.

That’s what it takes to be a successful candongueiro, or cabbie, in one of the world’s most congested cities.

But a new traffic law that carries fines of over $1,000 for drivers who fail to respect the speed limit, forget to put on a seat belt, or talk on cell-phones while driving could soon put Muinga and his co-pilot out of business.

That’s because his 14-seater Toyota minivan, one of the thousands of blue-and-white taxis in the capital, has no seat-belts, indicator lights, rear view mirrors or even a speedometer to help him stay below the 60-km-per-hour limit.

The law came into force last week.

“I used to be the fastest cab driver but not anymore,” Muinga told Reuters as he tried to screw a new seat-belt to the side of the driver’s seat. “I just can’t afford to get one of those thousand dollar fines.”

The privately owned candongueiros, the only means of transportation for most ordinary Angolans, are often seen snaking around sparkling new SUVs at high speeds along the narrow and bumpy streets of Luanda -- home to almost one-third of the country’s population.

The adrenaline-rush may cost passengers less than a dollar but the price-tag for the southwestern African country may be much higher. Road accidents are the second-biggest cause of death after malaria -- killing thousands of people each year.

Business executives that come to the oil-and-mineral rich nation often complain of logistical problems caused by the country’s congested roads.

Authorities say the candongueiros are mostly to blame for Luanda’s traffic jams and road accidents. They say the hefty fines are sure to put the brakes on high-speeding taxi drivers like Mateus.

“Our aim is to make the streets of Luanda safer and that means putting the brakes on the candongueiros,” said a police woman who identified herself as Tania. “These taxis in Luanda are responsible for the chaotic state of our roads and they should be punished for it.”

Muinga staunchly rejects such accusations.

“That is simply not true,” he said. “The traffic jams are caused by those who fail to give priority to taxis. Like everyone else, we’re just trying to reach our destination as quickly as possible.”

Asked how fast would drive in Luanda before the new rules were enforced, he replied: “One year ago, when my speedometer was working, we used to drive at speeds above 80 km/h. More than that would be too dangerous.”

Writing by Henrique Almeida, editing by Paul Casciato

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