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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.