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In Brazil, party over for drunk drivers

Thousands have been punished in the nation of uninhibited revelry.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Of all the things you could say to a police officer with an automatic weapon after he's pulled you out of the car on the side of the highway at midnight, Isaac Chaves chose: "I've had 15 beers."

And why not? This is Brazil, the land of samba in the streets, beer on the beaches, and kiwi in your caipirinha, the place where festivals of debauchery last for days. Drinking isn't a source of shame here; it's part of the daily celebration.

Besides, Chaves, 27, wasn't driving. He never does. He's a lawyer; he knows there are rules, too. "I don't even have a license," he said.

"He likes to drink," said the man behind the wheel that night, Bruno Mendes, 26, an accountant. "A lot."

The important question was whether Mendes had been drinking, because this is the new, more sober Brazil, at least on paper. Six months ago, the government imposed one of the strictest drunken-driving laws in the hemisphere, what people here call the "dry law." Anyone caught driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.02 percent or higher (compared with 0.08 in the United States) faces a $400 fine, loss of his license for a year, an impounded vehicle, and potential jail time.

Many welcomed the move in a country where 35,000 people die on the roads each year. Others were skeptical, including many Cariocas, as residents of Rio de Janeiro are known, who complained that the law was too harsh for the capital of Carnival.

"The culture of Cariocas is bohemian - they like night life, they like drinking beer," said Cesar Augusto de Castro Jr., a chief inspector with the federal highway police in Rio. "This law asks for a behavioral change, and it's hard to change their behavior."

The dry law, introduced in June, hit Brazil like a cold shower. Police swarmed the streets outside night spots in major cities, setting up sobriety-test checkpoints, handing out fines, and seizing licenses. More than 5,000 people have been cited under the law, which joined a measure this year limiting the sale of alcohol along federal highways.

Critics have compared the police crackdown to terrorism. The law has been called authoritarian and unconstitutional, and the restaurant association is working to overturn it.

Others have tried to adjust. The city of Sao Paulo added night bus routes to get drinkers home. Beer maker AmBev started paying 10 percent of taxi fares for imbibers. Some bars and restaurants began driving customers home, while others strung up hammocks for revelers to sleep off their inebriation.

But it is difficult to say how well the new law is working - or whether Brazilians' behavior has changed much.

The statistics suggest the roads are no safer than before. In the law's first five months, the number of car accidents on federal highways in Rio de Janeiro state rose 17 percent over the same period in the previous year. Injuries also rose, by 32 percent, though deaths fell by 8 percent, according to police.

Across the country, the picture appeared worse. In those same five months, accidents, injuries and deaths on federal highways all increased.

A problem quickly became apparent to police: It was difficult to enforce the law without breath tests. "We don't have enough machines to do the tests," said Pedro Paulo Bahia, a spokesman for the federal highway police.

Drivers report other problems. Police "would stop people and ask for money, between $200 and $400 depending on how drunk you were," said Antonio Carlos, 68, a taxi driver in Rio for more than 20 years. "The corrupt police officers were getting rich."

Arthur Vianna, 25, said he could appreciate the new law. "I have crashed my car twice. I was drunk. Completely drunk," he said, showing off a scar on his left forearm.

"I stopped for a while drinking and driving. But after two months I did it again, I have to confess," he said. "I don't have a car anymore."