C is for Coche

The highway. That place where you can let your passions run free as you press the accelerator and enjoy the open space.

The Spanish love travelling by car. They use the car to go everywhere. To travel into the city, to get through the city, to get out of the city. A shame, because public transport tends to work rather well. The tube system in Madrid, for example, is fantastic – it’s clean, it runs on time and the carriages have air conditioning in the summer. The train system too can be quite impressive, especially if you are used to travelling in the UK. The carriages are comfortable and the network enjoys some high-speed lines. Though not affordable to everyone the high-velocity train (AVE) and those that use its tracks can save you a lot of time.

Traffic in Spanish cities tends to be as bad as in most European countries. Each city copes as best as it can, sometimes by adopting social norms which make everyone’s lives easier.

For example, in Valencia (which by the way also has a decent public transport system), parking spaces are very scarce. As a result, it is very common to find cars double-parked and sometimes, triple-parked. The valencianos have come up with a way of this being acceptable: double park, but don’t use your handbrake. In this way, if another car wants to leave and you are blocking their way, they can just push your car a bit until they have enough room to get out. Not bad.

Unfortunately, the transport network does not reach every town in Spain and so, the Spanish prefer to travel by car. Friday afternoons are a particularly bad time to leave a city, as everyone seems to be in a rush to escape for the weekend. (Avoid leaving a city around 2pm on a Friday afternoon.) The same goes for the evening before any public holiday.

If you decide to leave the city at the same time as everyone else to make the absolute most of your holiday, you will get stuck for hours in a traffic jam (embotellamiento) or travel en caravana at dangerously high speeds. Travelling en caravana often means driving dangerously fast and dangerously close to other cars. If at any moment anyone has to break, it will lead to the an accident en cadena (in a chain) accidents, common especially in bad weather.

As a result, the beginning and end of every holiday period operación salida (operation: exit) and operación retorno (operation: return) tend to be marked by images of smashed cars on TV and the latest number of fatalities on the road. The only silver lining to this very dark cloud is that as a result, the number of organs available for transplant is quite high. In Spain, you need to opt OUT of the transplant registry if you don’t want to donate your organs when you die.

In 2010, 1,730 people died on the road, but luckily, this number is falling every year as the roads and cars get better. The road system has improved much in Spain over the last 30 years, even to the point that it is rare not to find improvement works on your way when you travel. A journey by car from Madrid to Valencia used to take about 7 hours and can now be done in 3.5. The cars you see on the road are quite decent too. The maximum speed on the highway was reduced in 2011 from 120km per hour, to 110, apparently to reduce petrol consumption. The speed limit was then raised again to 120 km/hr as the traffic police refused to fine those who broke it.

For many years, alcohol seemed to be the car’s best friend. The fact that people drove didn’t seem to deter them from drinking. In the 80s, the artist Stevie Wonder headed the campaign, “Si bebes, no conduscas” (“If you drink, don’t drive.” It should be “conduZcas”, but Stevie turned the ‘z’ into an ‘s’.) I’m not sure it made a difference. Afterwards, the government’s driving campaigns got more and more hard-hitting, to the point that it sometimes becomes unbearable to watch them.

The time when I did notice a change in attitude to drinking and driving was in around 2010, when the government introduced a points system which meant it became easier to lose your licence if you broke the law. Suddenly everyone was drinking less and respecting the speed limit.

Alcohol is still a problem on the Spanish roads and so, every now and then, especially around Christmas time, the traffic police will set out to carry a control de alcoholemia. Police cars will subtly station themselves in street corners to see if they can catch anyone driving in a dangerous manner. So, if it’s your first time driving in Madrid, don’t be tempted to blend in by turning where it’s not permitted or accelerating when the light turns red at a junction – you might get caught by a strategically placed camera or policeman lurking round the corner in their car.

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