Spain Cuts Down On Traffic Deaths

Drivers in Spain were once considered to be among the most dangerous in Europe, but they seem to be getting better. Traffic deaths in Spain have dropped by around 30 percent in recent years. Part of the reason could be tougher point-based driving laws.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Driving in Spain has also been a contact sport, although traffic deaths have dropped by around 30 percent in recent years. Jerome Socolovsky explains why from Madrid.

RASI (Driving Instructor): (Speaking Spanish)

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: At the driving school of the Spanish Automobile Association, Rasi, an instructor, assigns students to the cars parked on the asphalt. There are cones set up in roads, and the drivers are taught how to handle evasive maneuvers and brake suddenly on slippery surfaces.

(Soundbite of car)

SOCOLOVSKY: Maria Jesus Alvida(ph) is taking the road safety course voluntarily, though she's had a license for 14 years. She admits to having butterflies.

Ms. MARIA JESUS ALVIDA (Driving Student): (Speaking Spanish)

SOCOLOVSKY: I'm a bit nervous, she says, but I really want to do this. As she drives out to the circuit, the voice from the instructor, who stands outside holding a walkie-talkie, crackles from a speaker mounted on the roof. Alvida looks out the window at the other cars and has a confession to make.

Ms. ALVIDA: (Speaking Spanish)

SOCOLOVSKY: I get very angry on the road, she says, thinking that everybody out there drives worse than I do. There are a lot of bad drivers in Spain. Almost as a rule, Spanish motorists hog two lanes, they tailgate at top speeds on the highway and regularly run red lights, and many Spaniards see nothing wrong with holding a cell phone in one hand while gesticulating with the other.

Ms. ALVIDA: (Speaking Spanish)

SOCOLOVSKY: Now it's Alvida's turn. She maneuvers through the serpentine, but the instructor has to remind her not to ride the brake.

A few years ago the European Union established the goal of cutting the number of people killed on the roads in half by 2010. At the headquarters of the Spanish Automobile Association, road safety director Tomas Santa Cecilia(ph) says that's a tall order in Southern Europe.

Mr. TOMAS SANTA CECILIA (Spanish Automobile Association): (Speaking Spanish)

SOCOLOVSKY: You drive the way you live, he says. So what happens is that in countries like Italy or Spain, our behavior is very extroverted and very intimate, and that's reflected in the way we drive.

But Spaniards are doing something different. Traffic deaths have plummeted from more than 5,000 a few years ago to around 3,500 now. The road safety director credits a penalty point system that was instituted three years ago for traffic offenses, as well as the speed cameras and alcohol checks that are now commonplace. Santa Cecilia says Spain's economic recession is also a factor.

Mr. SANTA CECILIA: (Speaking foreign language)

SOCOLOVSKY: People are driving less, and when they do drive they're going slower, he says. But old habits die hard.

(Soundbite of car)

SOCOLOVSKY: Back at the driving school, Tomas Perez(ph), another driver taking the course, says Spaniards are always running late.

Mr. TOMAS PEREZ (Driving Student): (Speaking Spanish)

SOCOLOVSKY: People think I can make up some time if I squeeze into traffic just before the exit. It's not that people drive badly, it's that they try to beat the system, he says.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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