BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—Taxi driver Jose Gonzales Gallego knows firsthand that driving in this metropolis of 13 million people isn't for the faint of heart.
Although Buenos Aires is known for its sophistication and its literary airs, its streets are another story, he said. Cars speed down narrow roads, swerving around scurrying pedestrians, while buses roar through traffic lights and stop signs. Pile-ups are common, and so are fatalities.
"Everyone wants to get there first," the 67-year-old said as he sliced across several lanes of Avenida del Libertador, one of the city's main boulevards, in a last-second left turn. "They want to park first. They want to get home first. It's like that every day."
Public outrage is growing about the free-for-all, and many people are demanding that governments put a stop to a public-safety crisis that kills as many as 10,000 Argentines a year. With the country going to the polls this year—Buenos Aires this Sunday—traffic safety has emerged as a top political issue.
The U.S. consulate in Buenos Aires has called traffic accidents "the primary threat to life and limb in Argentina" and warned that "drivers frequently ignore traffic laws, and vehicles often travel at excessive speeds."
"We're facing an epidemic that's like a real sickness, claiming more and more lives in Argentina," said lawyer Gregorio Dalbon, a public-safety activist whose father-in-law was hit and killed by a bus in 1995. "When there's an epidemic, what do you do? You need to find a cure, alert the population and inoculate them."
Dalbon heads one of several victims' relatives groups that are demanding government action, calling for greater investment in infrastructure and tougher punishment for reckless drivers.
Whether Argentine roads are as deadly as many think is a matter of debate, however.
According to the official figures, 8.7 out of every 100,000 Argentines die in traffic accidents each year, about half the U.S. rate. Dalbon and other advocates argue that the official statistics underestimate the toll, and they point to studies that suggest the country has one of the world's highest traffic-fatality rates.
For example, a 2005 report by the New Majority Studies Center, a nonpartisan Argentine research center, found that the accident-mortality rate was 28 out of every 100,000 Argentines, the highest in Latin America. The study said the official numbers didn't count people who died later of their injuries.
The number of serious accidents nationwide jumped by 80 percent from 2003 to 2006, when about 126,000 accidents resulted in death or injury, according to the Argentine Insurance Companies Association.
Argentines rank traffic safety among their top worries in public-opinion surveys, said Manuel Izura, the sub-secretary of urban security for the city of Buenos Aires, and they're demanding solutions.
"Fundamentally, what we're looking for is a change in behavior, and this change won't happen from one day to the next," Izura said.
All three candidates in Buenos Aires' mayoral race Sunday have trumpeted their traffic-safety plans. Front-runner Mauricio Macri chose a running mate, Gabriela Michetti, who was paralyzed in a 1994 auto accident.
Many blame the problem on a jump in car ownership spurred by economic good times. Yet the real issue may be a cavalier attitude toward driving, Dalbon said.
During rush hour, traffic laws disintegrate in Buenos Aires' streets, as drivers cut each other off, zoom the wrong way down one-way roads and jockey for position. At night, "picadas," or impromptu drag races, roar down the wide boulevards and narrow alleys. Safety problems are even worse on rural roads, many said.
"It's a lack of education and common sense," Buenos Aires resident Viviana Galvan said as she campaigned for Macri on a street corner where a taxi, a truck and a bus had smashed into one another the night before. "There are a lot of crazy people here, and they drive crazy."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.