Safe in São Paulo: Car Smarts

For more insights into Sao Paulo, see American Exbrat in São Paulo.

This next installment of the Born Again Brazilian / Brazil In My Eyes series on crime-avoidance in São Paulo focuses on car safety – not driving safely, that’s a whole other series. But how to avoid being involved in a crime while in your car and what to do if you find yourself in trouble. 


Probably one of the most nerve-racking times you will have as a visitor or resident of São Paulo is when you get into a car. Really, anyone’s car. Brazilians are aggressive drivers, and not necessarily prone to advising you of lane changes or allowing you to move into their lane. Just getting through a round-about without breaking into a cold sweat will probably take you months of training.

We won’t get into driver safety except as peripheral to car safety (in the avoiding problems sense). What we write here is our opinion from our experience, as well as advice we have gotten from the military police and executive-level personal drivers. Please use your own common sense in individual situations.

First off, let’s talk about motoboys. Motoboys or motoqueiros are the motorcycle delivery guys. They are a menace (yes, there are some good guys—just don’t think you’ll be able to tell which is which). They will pass in between lanes and give you the finger if you infringe on their non-legal space. By the way, it is legal to pass between cars when they are stopped but not if they are in motion. However, I have never seen a transit cop stop a motoboy for passing through cars in motion. We are going to spend some time with the motoboy phenomenon as it is directly related to safety in your car.

  1. Stay out of the way of the motoboy. If you fight with one, they are as likely as not to kick off your sideview mirror or attempt to engage you in a verbal battle that may or may not get physical. And of course you never know how many of their friends are behind them. Leave them be—make space for them and be aware at all times about where they are around you.
  2. Do not open your window if a motoboy asks for directions. He needs to ask his one of his compatriots on two wheels. The percentage of bad motoboys is just too high to risk being a helpful citizen.
  3. Motoboys do not generally respect pedestrian walkways (this concept merges into pedestrian safety). In fact, most Brazilian drivers don’t respect pedestrian walkways. But in particular, don’t expect the motoboy to stop. Do not anticipate, especially when you are crossing the street, that they will obey traffic laws. Do not assume they won’t drive their moto on the sidewalk.
  4. Do not ever, ever, ever put your laptop case on your front passenger seat or on the floor. Put it in the trunk before you leave your secure location. It is so easy for a passing motoboy or other passerby to break the side window and grab it while you are stuck behind the wheel of your vehicle. You might notice a long line of motoboys passing you on heavily trafficked roads like Rebouças.  A few of them are carefully looking in each car to see if there is something easy to get, and perhaps signaling the motoboy behind him to break in.

Other general rules of traffic:

Do not look as good to rob as the car next to you. Purse in trunk, laptop in trunk, no iphone or gps in easy sight.  Don’t be interesting to a criminal. Your car will be less interesting, regardless of make and model, if it seems there is not much in it. Remember that this smash-and-grab is a crime of impulse. Don’t provide that impulse.

Carry a wallet in the car that has R$200 in it. If the worst happens and you are held up, you hand that over immediately. Give up your cell phone, ring, watch, whatever they want. We will continue to emphasize that your Rolex or iPhone is not more valuable than your life.

The other day, an incident happened on a street in São Paulo where a woman driver was being held up by an assailant, and another car came to her rescue.  Story here: The good Samaritan in the second car pinned the robber against the first car. We do not recommend this. What if that assailant had had a gun as well as a knife? Things could have ended differently. Make your own judgment call here.

Some additional driver crime-avoidance tips:

  1. Stop 50 meters before any stoplight that has people hanging around who you don’t like the look of. In general, you should stop a meter behind the car in front so you might have more room to maneuver as necessary.
  2. It is indeed illegal to run a red light at any time of day or night. But if you pull up to a corner that looks particularly shady, you won’t be the only one who rolls that red light. Make your own decision on what feels right and safe. Regardless, you should always slow down/stop before crossing an intersection—do not literally RUN a red light.
  3. Know where you are going before you leave the house. Print out a google map. Even if you have GPS or an iPhone, these may go in and out of service around São Paulo. Do not rely only on electronics. Also, a GPS can draw unwanted attention to you.
  4. If you are involved in a small accident (like someone bumps you from behind), do not get out of your car to investigate until you are in a safe area. Put on your hazards and pull into the nearest gas station, restaurant, anywhere that is well-lit and well-populated. If you should hit and knock down a motoboy, do not get out of your car. Call 190 for the police and wait for their arrival. Motoboys will call their friends. They will not be on your side.
  5. Before getting into or out of your car, look around. See if there are papers stuck into the back wipers before you get in. Do not turn on your car then notice there is a flyer on the back window and then get out to take it off. This is an interesting car grabbing tactic. Before getting out of your car, see if there are people in the street and what exactly they are doing.
  6. If you are getting your kids out of your car, stay aware of who is around you and where your purse is. Let us highly recommend parking in valet parking when traveling alone with your children. You are vulnerable during those moments that you are clicking them into car seats, strollers, arranging diaper bags, etc.
  7. Do not park next to vans in parking lots. You never know who is in it or what they are up to.

A police spokesperson we know recommended that you keep your car windows as darkly tinted as legal to keep bad guys from being able to see inside and take note of what you have with you. However, a neighborhood watch person suggested that this is also dangerous in the case you are taken hostage because no one can see in to recognize you are in trouble. Since there are pros and cons to both, go with what makes you feel more comfortable.

If you are particularly worried about being kidnapped, it is possible to install a panic button in the trunk of your car that connects with a service that can track you down via GPS.

Car safety and kids

In general, criminals do not target cars with small kids. It is too much of a hassle. You need to think like they do: they are going for the least amount of risk that something will slow down their crime.

If you are accosted by an assailant while driving with your kids, hand over whatever they want (see Street Smarts).  If they want your car, put your hands where they can see them. Tell them where the key is and that you are going to get your kids, but the rest is theirs. According to the military police, the last kidnapping of a kid happened three years ago. Let me reiterate: the typical São Paulo bad guys do NOT WANT YOUR KIDS. They want your car to go sell it for $500 reais. That is all. Move without panic, take attention off of yourself by saying where the key is, where the documents are, that your valuables are in the trunk…just say you are going to get your kids. Do not stress out the criminal. They could be on drugs and you don’t want them to get panicked and irrational.

Bulletproof Cars

Brazil is the world leader in bulletproof cars, beating out Colombia and the US. There are more than 70,000 bulletproof cars in circulation, and 70% of those are in São Paulo. All types of cars can be bulletproofed. We even know someone who has bulletproofed a Honda Fit. For some interesting stats on bulletproof cars around Brazil, check here:

There are different levels of bulletproofing, from the lowest level that can stop not much, to the most popular Level 3 which can handle most handguns (as long as the sharpshooter doesn’t hit six bullets in the exact same place) and up to Level 5, which must be near nuclear-proof. When I asked my salesmen to tell me about which guns/bullets could penetrate my car, he said “Really? You’re going to be able to tell a Glock from a plastic one?” So I took that as a “if it looks like a rocket launcher, you are no longer bullet-proof.” For general handguns, I’m pretty safe.

As we talked about in our last post, there are some issues to consider when it comes to bulletproofing:

  1. Expense. It is very expensive to bulletproof your car. Upwards of R$40,000 (US$16,000) depending on the model of your car. In addition, service intervals are at least twice a year, and possibly more as most cars are not built to handle bulletproofing. Heavier cars (Mitsubishi, Land Rover) handle it better on their chasses than the beautifully engineered European cars. Remember that to bulletproof, your car is literally taken apart piece by piece and a shield installed and then it is put back again. Unskilled laborers working on your German engineered car… think about it.
  2. Attention. This argument came up on one of our posts – bulletproof cars attract attention. If the bad guys think you have something inside that is worth bulletproofing, then you are a target. I would argue that the average criminal is working on a crime of impulse—smash and grab. Bulletproofing makes that criminal’s impulse move along to another car rather than yours. Yes, they can tell you are bulletproofed.
  3. Quality of life/travel. Rear passenger windows do not roll down on a bulletproofed car. It is possible that your sunroof will not work. Front windows go down only halfway. As a policeman said “You are not safe if you roll down the windows or put back the sunroof in a bulletproof car. You got it for a reason. Keep the windows up.” Perhaps you can understand why my kids’ favorite thing to do in the US is travel in grandma’s car with the windows rolled down.
  4. Forgetfulness. What? Yes, that is what I shall say to explain that people forget that they are not safe getting into or out of a bulletproof car. You have to remember that: don’t be chatting on the cell phone when you get out of your bulletproof car. Don’t keep the door open blowing kisses to your kids leaving school. Look around before you get out because the attention you get with a bulletproof car might deter someone from trying to get into your car, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t target you when you get out of it.
  5. Peace of mind. No fear of dark corners and back streets when you are bulletproof. The impulse criminal is no longer your problem if you are in your car. Same with the traffic light stops and the passing motoqueiros.

At a presentation with a military police officer, we had a debate about people with bulletproof cars helping other people they witness being robbed at stoplights or in traffic by throwing on their alarms to scare off the criminals (these external alarms are loud). The captain did not recommend this approach. You do not want to stress out the criminal—it is possible that he will kill that driver believing that it is the police who are behind him. They know that the police will stop to help the victim before going after the perpetrator. Don’t do it.

Next we will continue crime-avoidance on the street with taxi and public transportation safety tip.

For more on crime avoidance:

Safe in São Paulo: Street Smarts

Guest Post: Staying Safe in São Paulo

Gallery | This entry was posted in Crazy Adventures, Culture Conflicts, Expatriate Info & Advice, Foreigner Insights, Living in Sao Paulo, Safe in Sao Paulo, Tourist Info, Travel, What the h*ll is that? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Safe in São Paulo: Car Smarts

  1. Thanks for the tips! Makes me 1. glad to be living in Rio and 2. freaked out about Mr Rant going to Sp on business 😉

    In all seriousness, this is an important conversation. Motoboys especially are a BIG issue over there. I noticed that my very first trip to SP, coming in from the domestic airport.

    Thanks for posting this!

  2. Claudia says:

    I honestly had a great laugh when you said that Brazilians are aggressive drivers … I’m Italian and when I got here and started driving in traffic I thought “gee, these guys are so laid back and polite”!!
    Your notes on safety are perfect and you have covered all. Be smart, be aware and be safe. Thanks for your tips.

  3. I once read that if encountering a fishy stoplight and being unable to stop 50 meters beforehand due to traffic just slow down and keep the vehicle in motion until reaching said light. This is supposedly useful because crooks do not want to deal with a moving car, regardless of speed, and chances are the light will turn green during your “car roll” allowing you to avoid stopping at all.
    BTW great effort with the tips Bee-eigh-bee.

  4. Pingback: Safe in São Paulo: Taxis and Public Transportation | born again brazilian

  5. motoboy, but the good kind says:

    The way you picture seems motoboys are all bandits… I use to ride motorcycle in Sao Paulo about 20 years, and sounds there´s a bit of prejudice on your point of view; motoboys are hard workers, most of them young boys trying to do an honest job under a lot of pressure and risking their lifes. Of course there is a conflict cars vs motorcycles, and your advices about , specially the one you denny to get out and avoid to check the situation in case of an accident, is in my oppinion, increase this conflict. In case of accident it´s your obligation to provide help; it´s a humman been.

    I use to warn drivers about their car´s non working brake lights, but more and more I notice their afraid when I approach with helmet on and ask for open the windows to comunicate the defect, so unfortunately, I think your not alone on this way of paranoic thinking.

    And bad guys use motorcycle because it´s fast, because of those who bought gigantic cars that you named above (1 ton – much more if bullet proofed – to transport 60~80 kg… ) that make our big jammed traffic. But I suppose these same guys use car when needed… Even blindados, when appropriate, like… bank robbery… So, watch out guys inside blindados… they´re bad… all of them! kkkkkkkk

    I like your blog overall. Sorry my bad English

    • I understand how you feel. I worked for a Wall Street bank, and though I didn’t run risky deals that eventually drained pension accounts, I still get the looks when I mentioned my past career. And you have a point. I’m certain there are hard working motoboys out there and it is not fair to categorize them all in the criminal column. We certainly didn’t intend to do that. Yes, if someone is hurt, you help that person. However, you must admit there are more than a few bad eggs in this group. So, from a crime avoidance standpoint, it is best just to steer clear (literally). But thanks for pointing out that they are not all bad – and sometimes just trying to be helpful as you mentioned. Your comments are appreciated.

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