Just three weeks ago, Jose Oliveira left his picturesque hometown of Juquitiba to give two youngsters a lift to a nearby city. He never returned.

Oliveira became one more victim of Brazil's bloodiest roadway, better known as the "Highway of Death" or "Our Vietnam" to those who live along its 158 narrow and treacherous miles.The Sao Paulo-Curitiba highway, part of the BR-116, links Brazil's industrial capital to the agricultural south and Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Economically it is the most important road in the country, and its sad state of repair has become a symbol of the nation's lack of cash as it struggles to pay a $121 billion foreign debt.

Last year there were nearly 10 accidents a day, with 297 people dying at the scene of the crash.

"My husband wasn't the first, and he won't be the last one," Marilena Oliveira said, looking out toward the highway from Juquitiba's main square. "Now he's just a number."

From above, the narrow highway looks pretty. It winds around the steep green hills of an ecological paradise.

But crosses for the dead beside the potholed road are a grisly reminder of the perilous state of the highway. According to the National Department of Transportation, 23,000 vehicles use it daily. Over 80 percent of them are trucks.

Head-on collisions between trucks and cars have become routine and often unavoidable given the precarious conditions.

"There is only one lane in either direction, and it's full of holes, so trucks literally travel on the shoulder of the road," said Jorge Daikubara who owns a service station on the BR-116, a major branch of the national road system.

In 1985, an entire family was wiped out when the father stopped momentarily to get his son a blanket from the trunk.

Since then, citizen groups from Juquitiba and Registro, 90 miles away, have fought - apparently to no avail - for the road's lane duplication and sorely needed repair.

"All we heard were promises, promises from the president, the governor and the transport minister," Lazaro Gomes, secretary of the Registro movement said.

Blockades, protests and thousands of letters led nowhere. So a few weeks ago Gomes went to a laboratory, had two cubic centimetres of blood taken from his right arm and used it to write a letter to President Jose Sarney.

"This blood represents the blood of hundreds of fatal victims gushing on the BR-116 between Sao Paulo and Curitiba," Gomes wrote. "It is the only ink fit to speak of such tragedy."

Registro Mayor Elza Orsini de Carvalho said she had been in Brasilia six times to discuss the road with three transport ministers. In 1986, a committee of 40 town leaders and mayors went to Brasilia.

"We were told there was no money to make two lanes, so during a 1987 visit, Transport Minister Reynaldo Tavares promised that repairs would begin by the end of 1987," she said. "We're still waiting."

The mayor herself lost a dear friend on the road five months ago. Her secretary Maria Aparecida Camillo lost her brother, a father of two, in an accident three years ago.

In Juquitiba, the typical resident can mention two or three relatives killed on the BR-116.

Town council President Paulo de Souza Silva said his brother's leg was crushed and then amputated after an accident last year. His 32-year-old wife, eight months pregnant with twins, died.

"That was the end of that family," said Silva.

And so many others. Nationwide, about 50,000 people die in road accidents every year.