In La Paz, Bolivia, traffic lights are more of a loose suggestion than a strict requirement, and street signs tend to be followed only as long as someone is there to report any infractions. Yet despite this nonchalant attitude toward the rules of the road, the number of traffic incidents in the city has been consistently on the decline, thanks to a group of plush, fun-loving zebras.
The zebras, or “Cebritas”, are inspired by Colombia’s “traffic mimes,” a group of ordinary citizens dressed up as street mimes using humour to engage the public toward better behaviour. In the early 2000s, when La Paz’s road safety hit an all-time low, the government deployed 24 “zebras” in a final attempt to create safer roads for its citizens. The good samaritans dressed as zebras playfully encourage drivers to follow traffic laws and watch out for pedestrians. The zebra was chosen because of its likeness to the striped pedestrian crossings and because it added a bit of humour to an otherwise serious subject.
Each Cebrita engages with the public in its own, unique way. Some will play hide and seek with buses while others form conga lines to merrily dance their way across intersections. Yet others will add dramatic flair to their performance by throwing themselves onto the hood of any car that has inched its way just a bit too far over a pedestrian crossing.
Since the programme’s inception in 2001, the Cebritas have grown to over 400 in number and come from all walks of life, anyone from university students to those recovering from substance abuse. Tactfully combining education with fun, the Cebritas have become La Paz’s single most successful programme for alleviating traffic-related incidents. They have also recently become part of a variety of other public services projects, illustrating the extensiveness of their role.
Despite their serious roles as stewards of public safety, the Cebritas will be more than happy to pose for a photo or swing dance with you across the street. For some lucky visitors, the Cebritas offer a “zebra for a day” programme where anyone can be part of the striped family to help keep La Paz’s roads safe. Just ask a Cebrita and you’ll find out how.