We have a winner.

This amazing story from the Associated Press gets the duke as the most frightening plunge related piece of journalism.

Most disturbing:
the resourceful bus driver who, after discovering that his vehicle's headlights did not work, used a flashlight to navigate some treacherous Peruvian terrain.

The body count? 30 dead, 30 injured.

Peruvian Bus Drivers Tell Tales of Fright

ON THE ROAD TO CANTA, Peru (AP) -- The bus's wheels hum along within a foot of the precipice as Alfredo Quispe steers the aging vehicle down a narrow road high in Peru's Andes mountains.

Quispe has driven the route to the picturesque mountain town of Canta, 65 miles northeast of Lima, so many times he barely slows down when he takes the sharp turns. No guard rail is in sight. The empty first aid kit bangs open and shut as the bus bumps over potholes.

The passengers, mainly highland Indians and a few foreign backpackers, mostly doze or talk, oblivious to the 600-foot dropoff rushing by. A few, however, warily eye the shrines that dot the side of the highway, put there by the families of accident victims. An upside down shell of a car rusts at the bottom of the canyon. Cristina Pena, who rides the bus from Canta to Lima once a month, says she tries to check if the driver is rested and sober before she gets on. "I try to sleep on the bus trip so I don't think about an accident," she adds.

So far this year, bus wrecks on rural roads have killed about 250 people and injured more than 300. Drivers, bus owners and the authorities cite a variety of causes, from lack of regulation to bad roads to bad drivers. But many say the biggest factor is the surge in unlicensed "pirate" buses, often driven by exhausted or drunken drivers who compete fiercely for passengers on the winding mountain roads.

The government does not have statistics breaking down rural bus accidents by type of bus, but police say unlicensed drivers are the worst. "The pirate buses are involved in a disproportionate number of fatal accidents and many of their drivers act irresponsibly," says Luis Ibanez, a traffic policeman who has patrolled Peru's highways for six years. More than half the buses on Peru's rural roads are pirate buses, but they account for 70 percent of the fatal accidents, says Carlos Guevara, general manager of the Association of Inter Provincial Bus Owners, a trade group for owners of licensed buses.

The pirates create a climate of anarchy on the roads that affects how others drive, he charges. "They don't respect the rules, the law or even common sense at times. They create a dangerous climate on the roads," Guevara says. He also says Peru's rural roads are sorely inadequate. Roads, even high in the Andes mountains, lack guard rails or shoulders to allow buses to pass or go off the pavement without a disaster. "You can have the most modern bus there is, but if the road is from the stone age, it won't be safe," he says.

Drivers says police corruption is also a factor. Buses that are unlicensed, overcrowded or mechanically flawed are driven on Peru's highways with impunity, at whatever speed they want, with a bribe to the police, they say. "Virtually anything can be fixed with a bribe," says a former bus driver, Julio Salas. Quispe, who has driven buses in the highlands for 12 years, says all veteran drivers know a colleague who has been killed. "Of course I think about dying, but you can't live in fear. After you play Russian roulette enough times it becomes routine," he says, giving a fatalistic shrug.

Among his hair-raising stories of life on the road: --A driver had a busload of passengers to get to Lima from the jungle town of Satipo, but it was night and the headlights were not working. With a handheld flashlight pointing the way, he sped off. At a bend, the bus plunged into a river, killing 30 passengers and injuring 30. The driver survived and fled. --After a festival in an Andean village, passengers wanted to get home but the already-staggering driver wanted to keep on drinking. The passengers pried a liquor bottle from his hands and pushed him onto the bus. He some how drove the vehicle safely to its destination.

On Aug. 10, a bus overloaded with 60 passengers plunged down a 200-foot slope near the popular tourist town of Cuzco, killing 10 and injuring 50. Survivors said the driver was chatting and flirting with a young woman when the bus went off the road. The site was so remote and the canyon so rocky and steep that many of the injured had to wait almost a day before rescuers could reach them. Salas and Quispe say the biggest factors in accidents are driver fatigue and excessive speed in trying to maintain schedules and compete with other bus lines. "We live under tension because we are constantly driving. We don't rest. The maximum a driver should drive without a break is five or six hours and we drive all night and all day at times," Salas says.

Driving a bus in Peru requires no special operator's license or training. Sociologist Gustavo Riofrio says a lack of training is a serious problem with all kinds of Peruvian drivers, most of whom do not obey the rules of the road. "In our country, there has never been a proper system of driver education. There is a lack of a culture of civility at all social levels," he says. Another problem is the mindset of the bus drivers, Riofrio says. "He brings his large vehicle to the road and tries to dominate it." And in the poor Indian villages in the mountains, the bus or truck driver is akin to an authority figure with a high social status, the sociologist adds. The driver links the town to the world. Passengers are reluctant to demand he drive safely.

When Quispe's bus pulls up in Canta after the three-hour ride from Lima, his passengers cross themselves and whisper a prayer of thanks. Quispe heads to a hotel for a short nap before continuing on the road.

Associated Press

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