Driving in Spain

Having lived in Spain for more than a year and traveled all over the country we think we can comment on what it is like to drive in Spain. Generally, we find the drivers in Spain to be an undisciplined and poorly trained. The poor training is really a generational issue. For many years there was no concept of a license being needed to operate a vehicle. While the country was mainly rural and high speed highways were virtually non existent (except in the areas surrounding Madrid and Barcelona) this worked well. Since entering the European Union there is now a rigorous driving examination that must be passed before a person is licensed. Unless, of course, you had been driving for years - in which case you were issued a driving license.

The Spanish pride themselves about their ”tranquilo” attitude. This is true for all activities with the exception of driving. Jim is reminded of a Walt Disney cartoon from the late 1940’s where the nicest man in town (Mr. Wheeler) goes from his house to his garage. Mr. Wheeler would not step on an ant going to the garage. But, once he got behind the wheel of his car he turned into a fire breathing monster - the average Spanish driver.

So, here we are with many miles of high speed limited access highways with at least two and possibly three generations of drivers on the road who have had no formal drivers training. This may not sound like it is anything important, but it may come as a surprise the first time you drive onto a high speed highway and accelerate to match the speed of the cars on the highway so you can seamlessly merge into the flow of traffic only to find a car at a dead stop somewhere in the middle of your lane. While this lane is intended to allow you to get up to speed you find that now you are in the middle of a life threatening emergency breaking maneuver. Now you begin to understand the kind of problems the training and licensing combination can create. And, it gets better.

We have decided that every Spanish driver is an ardent fan of Gran Prix racing - and consider themselves to be equally capable as any Grand Prix driver. Well, that or they think they are German. By way of comparison, we find driving in Germany to be quite nice - very civilized. And this is in a country where there are many, many miles of high speed highways where you can drive as fast as the conditions permit. In Spain, the drivers do the same thing, but they don’t pay much attention to prevailing conditions or the posted speed limit. And they do NOT have the driving skills of the Germans.

We have noticed an interesting trait that seems to exist with all of the Spanish drivers - especially when they are on high speed limited access highways. We always thought that the dashed lines that appear down the middle of these roads were intended to indicate separate lanes that could be occupied by individual vehicles. So, on a highway with one set of dashed lines you would have two lanes of traffic moving in the same direction. For each line that is added you get an additional lane of traffic.

How foolish we are. We have learned since we have been here that the real reason those lines are on the road is so the driver of the car can center the portion of the car where the driver sits directly over the dashed line - well, they do tend to keep the wheels on either side of the dashed line but surely that line is there to help them go faster. We refer to this as taking your share out of the middle. This really gets interesting when there are cars in each of the lanes and they want to get past - often times they just force their way through!

For those of you who have read our Driving in Ireland page you will find that we found many driving traits of the Irish to be unique. We were very glad we had spent the time in Ireland that we did. We would not have been prepared for Spain. Someone told us that the further south you go on the European continent the worse the drivers get. We’d agree. And, they get more aggressive too.

So, if you drive in Spain do not expect the drivers to stay to the right except to pass like they do in Germany and France. Also, when on a two lane road expect that the traffic moving in the opposing direction will always be in your lane when coming around a blind corner. Also, expect people to be passing cars in these same situations.

We try to never drive at night wherever we go. On the very first day we arrived in Spain we were warned not to drive at night because many of the locals will not “waste” their lights by using them at night because they can see the lights of the other cars on the narrow two lane roads better with their lights off. This way, they know it is okay to pass around a corner because no lights are coming the other way. Hmmmm.

We have seen more dead bodies on the road while driving in Spain than we have seen everywhere else we have traveled - combined! It’s not just the drivers. You will find people running across highways that have four to six lanes of cars traveling in each direction. To this mix add grossly under powered motor scooters (50cc’s) driving on these roads as well.

On the Autovia between Valencia and Alicante in April of 2001 we encountered a multiple car accident that claimed five lives. Based on the weather conditions that had just passed through the area we know that speed was the factor that contributed to the deaths. When it is raining or windy or the traffic is extremely heavy the Spanish refuse to slow down. If you drive at the posted limit of 120 KPH you will be run over. Oh yes, and be aware that car up ahead has a 70 year old man in it and he will not drive more than 50 KPH. And then there’s the motor scooter that cannot go more than 40 KMH. Makes for a very interesting mix on the road.

In October of 2001 while we were returning to our hotel having been exploring for a place to live for the winter in the Malaga area we encountered an accident scene. When we arrived at the scene of the accident there was the body in the road with his four friends wailing over his body. The five of them had tried to cross a four lane limited access highway. There were two cars involved and then down the road about a half mile was the motorcycle and its rider lying in the road. From what we could see and later read in the papers the five guys were taking a short cut across the road after having worked for the construction company that was doing improvements to the road. They jumped about four feet down onto the road way in front of a car which swerved to the left to avoid them. This pinned the motorcyclist between the swerving car and the car in the left lane. The traffic was moving in excess of 100 KPH when this happened. The motorcyclist was passing between the two cars. We have noticed that this behavior by motorcycles and motor scooters goes on all the time. Everywhere.

Oh yea, don’t ever worry about finding a parking space in Spain - no one else does. The Spanish park where ever and whenever the like. It makes no difference if they are in a traffic lane or the time of day. They just stop and get out - and when they stop you better not just pull around them because the door on the drivers side is going to open immediately - no one looks. And should you have the gall to say something to them you will soon learn the error of your ways and where your proper place is on the social scale!

The road infrastructure in Spain is quite varied, even on the same road. You will be driving down a normal highway, somewhat rough in surface but not too bad when all of a sudden, it turns absolutely smooth and flat. This continues for several kilometers then it suddenly becomes rough and pot-holed. Also be aware, especially on country roads, that you may suddenly come upon a very tight turn without much warning. There are many roads that will lull you into a false sense of security with gentle sweeping curves, and just when you get into the rhythm of it, there is a hairpin turn. Most roads do not have signs warning you of the curves, and even those that do have signs, there doesn’t seem to be any differentiation in signage for gentle or tight turns. There are many lovely curvy roads in the mountains with great views, but be aware that there are often no guardrails.

In towns, the roads are built from what space is available and often it is not enough for two lanes plus the parking. It is often a nightmare trying to wend your way through. Don’t be in a hurry. Remember: tranquilo (somebody has to). Often you will find cars double parked which really helps the situation. Then, the guy who parked first comes and can’t get his car out - no problem - just honk the horn continuously until someone shows up to move the double-parked car. Makes for a very tranquil situation! 

Of course roundabouts abound and in congested areas quickly become a night mare. The larger ones have several lanes, but nobody stays in them. Just remember that the guy to your left wants to make the very next right and probably isn’t going to look or slow down to do it. We are amazed there aren’t more accidents than there already are. Add to this the numerous scooters who zip in and out and do whatever they please. A roundabout we used almost daily when we lived in Mijas gets backed up from 11-1 every morning with traffic trying to get into Fuengirola. As a result, the traffic often backs up a kilometer or so in all directions. We obviously try to avoid that time of day. We cannot imagine how much worse this must be in the summer when the population is roughly doubled.

Part of the problem is that there appears to be insufficient planning done with roads and buildings. They put in the basic roads which allows businesses and homes to be built which then puts more pressure on the roads, but they don’t go back and add capacity to the roads and intersections. Between Malaga and Marbella, along the coast, they have upgraded the main coastal road to two lanes in each direction which helps with the flow of traffic, but they have no room for real on- and off-ramps. Thus you have traffic trying to merge onto a highway (posted at 100 KPH, or more, in most places) from a dead stop. And you wonder why they call it the “calle de muerte” (highway of death).

We think that driving is Spain has been good preparation for driving in many other countries. Now, if we can just get out of the country alive.

NOTE: Just two days after original writing this piece, (January 2002) we were hit by another car about a kilometer from our house in Mijas. Luckily we were in a rental car and going very slowly and were not injured. We were coming up to a blind curve so Verna slowed and kept as far right as possible as we could hear the noise of the car’s engine coming toward us. By the time we saw the car heading for us, Verna had already stopped the car. There was no shoulder, so we stopped in our lane and waited for the impact. The young man driving was swiftly coming around the corner in the middle of the road when he saw us and then had no where to go. He swerved, braked, and hit us with a glancing blow, spinning his car over the curb on the opposite side. No one was hurt but neither car could be driven more than a hundred yards. The driver was the son of the gardener our landlord employs. Fortunately the father appeared on the scene quickly and helped us. His insurance will cover the damages and there was no question of who was to blame (this wasn’t his son’s first accident; he was driving a loaner car while his was in the shop getting repaired from the last accident — Grrrr!). Now just think what would have happened if it had been 2 Spaniards, each driving to fast for the prevailing conditions and each taking their half out of the center of the road.

Since that time, we have narrowly missed being hit on that same corner two times - all because the drivers going in the opposite direction were driving on our side of the road.


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