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are portuguese drivers the worst in the world?

The Greeks drive with one hand on the horn and the other hand on their horn. Bangkok is bedlam. Cairo is chaos.

One of the first things a foreigner notices about Portugal is just how bad the drivers are, and how many accidents you see. It’s a talking point amongst us, and if you think this is just a bit of Portugal bashing, you’re wrong. It is a deadly serious issue.

Driver behaviour and in turn, road fatalities, shape the reputation of a country. Do we think of Greeks and Italians as hotheaded, Germans as aggressive and volvo drivers (or Scandinavians) as boring and safe? The individual who drives dangerously endangers the lives of others. In the main the victims are men: 75% of road deaths are male and under 35. Road fatalities are a meter of a “civilisation”. Responsible governments improve roads and have campaigns to reduce road deaths.


2009 data - blue is the EU average

So what’s wrong with Portuguese driving?

1. Extremes of speed – it seems half the country is driving way too fast and the other half way too slow.

2. Tailgating.

3. Failing to indicate.

4. Failing to Give Way.

5. Lack of understanding of how to use a roundabout. It doesn’t help that the country is built on roundabouts of multiple lanes, totally superfluous given the size of the population. Whatever happened to good old fashioned traffic lights? Even a three year old knows that green is for go and red is for stop.

I’ll bury the lead right now and say that statistically speaking, the Portuguese are definitely not the worst drivers in the world. You are far more likely to be killed on the roads of Africa and the Middle East, no where more so than in Libya, Niger and the United Arab Emirates. Not even within the EU does Portugal look bad. Almost all the Eastern European EU newcomers have more fatalities.

Of course not just driving skills are responsible for road deaths. The quality of the roads and the age and safety of cars obviously have a part to play. However, neither of these factors explains why Portugal does fair badly compared to Spain, France or Western Europe generally. Here’s a rough summary, including a few other places for interest’s sake:


2010 data

Only Greece lives up to its reputation – I’d never have guessed that the Belgians or the Poles were raging petrol heads, but there you are. As for the US, well that’ll be just another shame.

Now to Portugal. Actually Portugal is doing very well to reduce what used to be a truly horrific record. It has the greatest reduction in deaths in the EU over the last 10 years. Still, every life is worth saving and it does give a country something to be proud of. Given the economic disaster Portugal finds itself in right now, I can’t imagine that road deaths are really on the government’s mind. But it should be, because as other countries have discovered, traffic policing not only brings down fatalities but it is a nice little revenue earner. Here’s how it works:

Road accidents cost about 1 -3% of a country’s GDP. So in Portugal’s case a mere 1% equal €1.8 BILLION euros. Oh yeah. As I said, let’s reduce traffic accidents.


About half of all fatal accidents involve drunk drivers. Let’s start there. In a google search about effective policing to reduce road fatalities the state of Victoria in Australia got a mention in several places.

In 1977, 49% of all drivers killed in Victoria were found to be in excess of 0.05% (alcohol in the blood in a blunt sense). By 1992 that figure had been reduced to 21%. What the government did was set up an independent body called the Transport Accident Commission, which took over the governance of compulsory third party insurance, paid by drivers. They raised the levies on third party which helped to pay for some of the most exceptional TV commercials of the time. Then they programmed the random breath testing units run by police on the streets. It rested on the principles that it be highly visible; rigorously enforced so as to ensure credibility; was sustained; and well publicised. The success of the programme to reduce drink driving in that state spread to other states. These days, if you drink and drive you can expect to be caught.


2009 stats

TAC´s second agenda was to reduce speeding, which they believe was accountable for about 40% of fatal crashes (in the UK it is apparently believed to be about 5% and elsewhere on the internet about 30% – but obviously you’re better off hitting something doing 15kms/hr than 150kms/hr if it’s survival you have in mind). Along with their blanket quality advertising campaigns, the widespread implementation of speed cameras, red light cameras and police radar got them profound results.


a little message from the netherlands

Victoria achieved record low road tolls in both 2008 and 2009, some of the most impressive reductions in the world at that time. Newspaper reports credited a co-ordinated and well-funded campaign that focused on higher risk young drivers, more aggressive policing, increased police activity, random breath testing, and in 2009, a 50% increase in the use of mobile speed cameras.

The Victoria government forecasts that a revenue of A$245 million (about €176.5 million euros, from a population of 5.5 million) will be raised from fines levied on drivers breaking Victorian road rules, a large proportion being from speed limit enforcement, in 2011.

I’m not advocating a police state, and there’s been quite a bit of argument against the use of speed cameras, especially in the UK. But for a country where speeding is obviously a major issue, I can only see speed cameras doing some good. As for government revenue, in New South Wales, Australia (pop. 7.2 million) the government were reported to have raised $350 million (€252 million euros) over the previous five years from speed cameras.

If you’ve got an ethical issue with cameras then why not go the way of France who in some areas prosecute drivers for speeding using an average speed calculated from timestamps on toll road tickets.


2009 data

Like Victoria, there’s room for revenue raising in Portugal from compulsory third party insurance, which is comparatively low in Portugal. Larger vehicles especially seem to get a disproportionately easy run. If you’ve happened to look at caravan insurance quotes over summer you’ll know what I mean. I’m a firm believer in penalising commercial trucks too, for their carbon emissions as well as being a greater danger on the roads than other vehicles.

So there you are. If you think the Portuguese are really bad drivers then you should get out more. After all, they are bloody patient and polite when they’re not in their cars. It’s just a matter of perspective, and a matter of time until their fatalities toll competes with the best of Europe. Congratulations Britarians, you do have one of the very best driving records on the planet, but possibly the also the best record for whingeing as well. And you Australians too, pompous little asses.  It could be worse, you could be in Greece.

Driving in Portugal? If you need a rental car… click!


  1. Steve Masters September 21, 2011 9:03 am Reply

    One of the key factors in the poor driving in Portugal is the road layouts. Especially on motorways, you get exit ramps and on ramps within the same stretch of 100 metres or less; poor warning signs to help you know when the lane you are in is about to become the wrong one when it’s too late; most of the population never learned to negotiate roundabouts or the value of indicating; whats more, the roads themselves are not safe at speed in places.

    There’s a part of the VCI in Porto, just before the Antas turnoff approaching the FC Porto stadium, where the road suddenly turns right and the camber changes, leabing you towards the concrete barrier. The barrier and the road beside it are full of scratches, gouges and cracks where cars at speed have, without warning, gone head over heels as the road basically causes an accident.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: September 21st, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Oh yeah I’ll say… what’s with the entry/exits of major roads being the same lane, or having some entries having their own lane and some where you have to stop but there’s no stop sign? All a bit difficult to illustrate in words but yes the road layout and the signage is rubbish.

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  2. Paul September 21, 2011 9:12 am Reply

    Hi Emma, I acknowledge the Portuguese road fatality numbers, but you have to analyse also and include Australia in your statistics. Here in Australia we live with the same problems and I suggest that you verify the road death fatalities in australia, many from alcohol and drugs. Where we live there is one intersection and no body knows the give way rules, also I see people driving along in a fast lane all the way after over taking failing to return to let others pass. If Australia was as demographically compact as Portugal, it would be a blood bath on the roads. Plus have you forgot the rudeness and arrogance of the drivers in Sydney. Fights at traffic lights are very common with people even being killed and the finger (the bird)is constantly out. Lastly the roads in Australia are in an appalling state a nightmare for bikes.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: September 21st, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    um yeah, i did include australia in the stats actually. take another look. Australia’s road toll is half of Portugal’s. And what’s all that stuff about Victoria???

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  3. Katharina Keil September 21, 2011 3:37 pm Reply

    I think it all has to do with the training and education to get a driver licence. For example, it shouldn’t be a parent to begin with:

    A. you learn their mistakes
    B. they are not objective and emotions get in the way.

    Like surgeons…they are not allowed to operate their children.

    The focus is more safety for cars, better roads etc. but not enough is done in teaching to drive properly, especially in the ‘developing’ countries like Africa, India and China (have a look at their fatalities….horrifying).

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: September 21st, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Yes absolutely, kat. I forgot to put in something about learning to drive. Firstly it’s too expensive for young people and it’s my theory that you have to learn young. Secondly there needs to be more formal training – and surely the schools here must be shit so I propose they all be shut down and the police run a driving school. Therefore it’s state run (cheaper???;)) excellent for police-community relations (ie hopefully you meet a police person who’s not a shithead) and you get to hear from the horses mouth about what’s legal and what’s not. And would they teach defensive driving?

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  4. Helder September 21, 2011 8:33 pm Reply

    Good idea to use police in traffic schools – sounds worth exploring.

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  5. Richard, Leeds September 21, 2011 9:14 pm Reply

    Emma, I can only comment on personal experience, not a knowledge of stats (nice charts by the way). Excessive speed is always a factor the experts say. And Portuguese drivers are speeding (but aggressively speeding, if that makes sense).

    Holidaying and driving in the western Algarve 4-5 times a year tells me that Portuguese drivers are also massive risk-takers. High speed and trying to overtake on blind corners. Overtaking trucks on narrow winding roads (even my rudimentary language skills can work out what ‘vehiculo longo’ means!) Not to mention the old classic – overtaking four cars at a time rather than the traditional one (call me old-fashioned). And signposts are simply ignored.

    Tailgating is rife as you mention. And I agree with your impression about one half going way too slow: normally older drivers in old cars which are barely road-legal.

    Road rage seems to be increasing – (talking to ex-pats they are mainly 35-55 year old males – midlife crisis a factor? The current economic situation will only make this frustrated group worse. I should know – I’m in this group!). An English friend in Aljezur had a guy overtake, stop in the middle of the road and threaten him with a spanner – all because he stuck to the speed limit and slowed his-nibs down.

    As a Kiwi I know the same culture exists in NZ – virtually identical. Also – I saw somewhere that South Africa has the highest road death figures? Is there a clue here? Is macho culture the link? I know rugby is increasing in popularity in Portugal: maybe there’s a macho driving gene at play.

    All this is worrying: I love the Portuguese lifestyle and culture and especially the warm, generous people. Given the heavy reliance on tourism (as do most countries), I think this could be ‘shooting yourself in the foot’. I think tourists may be put off returning, driving and car-hiring in Portugal; this will affect the economy. As usual, a minority are causing death (and other problems) unnecessarily.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: September 22nd, 2011 at 6:45 am

    Yes indeed I was shocked about New Zealand who I see as such mild mannered folk – and South Africa was at about 33 per hundred thousand – which makes me wonder if this is a subject for Portugal at all.

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    James   Reply: February 8th, 2012 at 6:28 am

    @Richard, Leeds,
    See my post below. I grew up in SA and thought since I lived here that the driving was similar. When I went back there recently I realised that Portuguese are muuuu