The Spanish love affair with speed

Spaniards have a thing about driving fast. You might think that in a country where arriving late is a way of life there would be a more relaxed attitude about speed, but this is precisely the reason why most people are fast drivers. They leave as late as possible for work, so to arrive on time to the office or factory, they have to put the pedal to the metal.

Here, the speed limit isn’t the fastest you are allowed to drive, but the rate at which you have to keep up with traffic in order not to get run off the road. This has frustrated the Guardia Civil (Spain’s highway patrol) for years. It was actually hard to get a speeding ticket because there were so few police cars, and until a few years ago, speed traps were unheard of. As a matter of fact, the Guardia Civil is better known today for stopping people suspected of being terrorists and drunk drivers than  speeding.

Getting a ticket is almost a pleasant experience, because after you’re pulled over, the policeman salutes you as if you were his superior officer, politely informs you that you have been speeding, asks you for the car registration and your drivers’ license, and writes you a ticket, which you can pay in cash and get a discount. At least that’s what I remember. The last time I was pulled over, I was politely told that the little door on the back fender that hides the gas cap was open. Thanks, officer!

This is a stark contrast to getting pulled over in the U.S., where the police work in tandem, with one officer questioning the driver and the second behind the car, ready to draw his revolver. It’s scary.

The speed limit has become a political issue in Spain. After the current government got a rap on the knuckles for not enacting economic reform with the desired celerity, three months ago it announced that as an energy saving measure the limit on divided highways would be reduced from 120 kph to 110, and overnight, every speed limit sign on these highways was covered with a decal that read 110. The automatic speed traps (conveniently announced a kilometer or so in advance, another polite gesture) also had to be recalibrated to take a picture of the car’s number plate at 110 rather than 120. Most Spaniards didn’t pay any attention, and continued driving 140 and even faster, slowing down only to avoid being caught in the trap. This actually makes driving more dangerous, as people jam on the brakes only to re-accelerate once they are out of range of the radar.

There is a pecking order on Spanish highways, where the Audis, BMWs and Porsches rule. They get right behind other drivers who happen to be in the passing lane (so close that you can’t read their license plates in the rearview mirror) and furiously flash their high beams as a warning to get out of their way. Small cars get the worst treatment. My wife, who drives a Citroen C2, is always complaining about bigger cars cutting her off.

Yesterday, the government did another about face by raising the speed limit to 120 again, explaining that the Guardia Civil had recommended it so as not to confuse thousands of drivers from other European countries who have come to Spain for summer vacation. This makes no sense to me at all because it meant that overnight, all the speed limit signs had to have their ‘110’ decal removed and the speed traps had to be reset again, at great expense to taxpayers. Nothing really changed – the German cars drove at 160 and everyone else kept up with the flow of traffic. And in spite of the fact that July 1 was one of the ‘red alert’ days with the heaviest traffic, I only saw one police car between Logroño and Santander.

Does all this seem strange to you? Don’t worry. Our most popular tourist slogan (from the 1960s, but still true today), is ‘Spain is different’.

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