Monday, December 17, 2007

How to control crazy Spanish drivers

I’m very open-minded when it comes to most things in Spain. I’ve spent an entire night eating an array of pig parts, from fried entrails to congealed blood and sautéed ears (not bad if the sauce is good, but the bits of hair can be a bit disconcerting). I’ve walked thousands of kilometers and slept in less-than-desirable conditions with up to 400 snoring strangers at a time on the Camino de Santiago. I’ve even gone to a few nude and topless beaches (though always accompanied by women, of course). But the one thing I have never done and will never do in Spain is drive.

It’s not only that I don’t understand the traffic rules – though I’m still not convinced any such rules exist – or that I can’t drive any car that isn’t automatic. The main reason is that Spanish drivers terrify me. It doesn’t help that any time there is a puente (long weekend) or holiday, the media keep a daily running total of the number of people killed in road accidents. The government has tried various tactics to encourage people to drive more responsibly, from putting up signs in the road that flash the death toll from the same time last year to airing very graphic public service announcements showing people with their heads stuck through the window of a crashed car.

But to me, the key problem is that the Spanish police seem to think that encouraging people to drive well is the only possible solution to the problem. What about actually controlling them? In five years, and having spent many hours as a passenger in cars and buses throughout Spain, I have never seen any sort of highway patrol or police on the roads. Maybe, just maybe, if the drivers in Spain actually worried about having to pay a huge fine, or lose their license, or go to prison, they would think twice about driving drunk, or at twice the speed limit, or down the wrong side of the road.

That’s not to say that there aren’t crazy drivers or bad drivers elsewhere. But it seems to me that if, for example, the U.S. were to suddenly decide to stop enforcing traffic laws and speed limits, we would see a lot more deathly accidents in the States as well. When I drive long distances past cornfields and pig farms on empty highways in the Midwest, my own sense of responsibility plays only a minor part in keeping me from going 90 mph instead of 70 mph.

It’s possible that the Spanish are finally starting to realize that a more proactive police force may help keep drivers in line. This year they’ve announced plans to administer at least 15,000 breathalyzer tests per day during the Christmas season. Hopefully my theory holds true and increased control will lead to fewer deaths and, ojalá, more controls in the future.

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