Driving in Spain
Visitors or new residents from countries where driving is more chaotic will probably be pleasantly surprised at the law and order on Spanish roads. However, those coming from North America or Northern European countries are often overwhelmed at first – particularly when they reach their first roundabout!
It is important to “do as the Spaniards” (within legal boundaries) when you are on Spanish roads, otherwise you will cause confusion – and irritation. For example, learning to charge into roundabouts and merge confidently (and safely) into traffic is essential for you to survive and thrive on the roads. Being more polite than Spaniards are ready for can be a recipe for disaster – as can expecting more politeness on the roads than you’re going to get.
If a driver flashes headlights at you, this can mean he or she is trying to signal to you that you can turn in front of him/her – but don’t count on it. Better to play it safe in such circumstances.
Spain has one of the highest accident rates in Europe. The traffic authorities are constantly warning drivers – via road signs and publicity – that speed and distraction are the top two main causes of deaths on the road. It is wise, therefore, to take it easy and pay attention – even if you feel like you’re the only one doing so!
The National Traffic Authority in Spain is called the DGT – “Dirección General de Tráfico” and co-ordinates traffic across the country.
The DGT’s website provides some information in English and is a good place to start looking for information about any official documents you would like to acquire, such as the Spanish point-based driver’s license.
The DGT also provides frequently updated traffic advisories for roads across the country via the website as well as detailed information about policies and laws. Here you can also access statistics for road accidents, injuries and fatalities for past and recent years.
In addition to all the basic information at the DGT’s official site, there is access to the organisation’s magazine which provides information about every topic imaginable – related to roads, drivers and traffic in Spain. The magazine includes a special question and answer section, which is a good place to visit to learn more about the reality of life on Spanish roads as well as to pose a few questions of your own.
Spanish number plates are the new style numberplates featuring the blue european logo on the left with E for Spain. The format for these is national and comprises four numbers followed by three letters. They are squential on a national basis.
Cars registered before October 2000 begin with the letter code for the province.
As a general rule you may not park in Spain where the pavement curb is painted yellow or where a no parking sign is displayed. In major cities and now even the pueblos, non-metered on-street parking is difficult to find but in some areas, there are parking spaces marked in blue for which you should purchase a ticket from a nearby machine on the pavement usually topped with a blue and white “P” sign, or from an attendant. These spaces are usually for about two hours maximum. Penalties for parking infringements vary from town to town and can be heavy.
If you park illegally, especially in a foreign car, you will almost certainly become a victim of the ‘grua’ – the local tow truck, and if you suffer this, there should be a sticker left on the curb with the phone number/address of your car’s new location. Getting your car back will be a hassle and will cost you dearly in fines and fees, not to mention the possible problem of your not speaking Spanish. Where possible, look for underground parking with security attendance. its worth paying that little bit more.
You will note however, despite all this advice, the Spanish will park wherever their car happens to come to a halt, even on crossings, pavements and roundabouts, but the new 2005 Laws now mean that penalty points can be given to parking transgressors.
New fine rates have recently been published, and over set limits in each location (autopista, town, etc.) you can be arrested on the spot. You are not allowed to have a radar speed detector in your vehicle, let alone use one. Speed traps are becoming quite frequent but not as bad as in the UK with cameras (yet; the salesmen are moving in). Fines for other offences are calculated on the severity of the offence and there is a table for the guidance of the police and Courts.
If you are a tourist without assets in Spain, all fines are payable in cash “on the spot”. The legal drink-drive limit is currently 0,5 grammes per litre of air using a breathalyzer. The very high death rates in Spain (in the top 3 in the “old” EU) means that if caught with excess alcohol or drugs in your body, you can expect to lose your licence (in a special Court, possibly that same day) or, if a resident, have to attend a special school.
It is compulsory for all in the car to wear seatbelts, both front and rear where fitted. The driver is responsible for any fines where passengers are not wearing an approved belt. Children under 12 years of age are not allowed in the front seats (unless they are over 150 cm or 4 ft. 9 ins, then they can unofficially get away with it. It is apparently to do with being secure in the safety belt). Also, if seated in the back, the belt must fit correctly, or a special “raising seat” must be fitted. Animals must be restrained when in the passenger section and not allowed to jump around.
Road tax and vehicle inspections
If you are using your foreign registered car in Spain for a few months (no more than six months in any calendar year is allowed) then it must be legal as far as roadworthy, insurance and road taxes are concerned. You cannot get your car MOT-ed in Spain, or even in Gibraltar, and if the certificate runs out, not only will you be illegal in Europe, but also as soon as you arrive back in the UK. Spanish vehicles have to conform to inspections also, depending on the type and use of the vehicle.
Spain has over 2,000 km of toll roads and more are planned. They are of excellent standard and all have service stations with cafes of an acceptable standard every 40km or so. The tolls are expensive, especially in summer when the rates are doubled and are usually calculated per km. Some toll roads, for long distance travelling allow you to collect a ticket at the start and then pay the total when you exit the road. They do however mean that you can drive relaxed and safer over long distances as the locals usually avoid them.
Mobile telephones whilst driving
The use of a mobile telephone, other than a true hands-free, whilst driving is banned in Spain, even at the side of the road. You have to pull off the road completely away from any traffic. You may also not have any device in your ears to listen to music or your mobile phone etc., only allowed is something for enhancing your hearing, i.e. a deaf-aid. Sadly, you still see erratic driving where a mobile is in use, but penalty points can now be awarded.
The roads today in Spain are considerably better than they were just 10 years ago. Many of the infamously dangerous major single carriageways, such as the N340 spanning the Costa del Sol, have been made into decent dual carriageways and some superb toll motorways have been built. You still get the occasional pot-holed “I think I’ve destroyed my suspension” type roads but these are gradually being replaced by new smoother roads.
Driving in the rain
When it rains in Spain the roads actually become quite scary. It doesn’t rain often but when it does the heavens truly open and the roads become swimming pools.
What makes the roads dangerous in these conditions is that the drivers are not used to driving in the wet and don’t always compensate for it. The fast drivers will still sit on your backside trying to get past and you still have to pull out from a standstill onto a main road.
Even worse than the rain are damp roads. Even in dry conditions the roads in Spain tend to be quite slippery due to dust. When the roads are damp, combined with the dust, you really do have to take it easy.
All grades of unleaded petrol (benzin), diesel (gasoleo ‘A’) and LPG are available as well as lead substitute additive. Leaded no longer exists. It is allowed to carry petrol in a can. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted, although they probably will not work at automatic pumps, which are often the only pumps open out-of-hours and at lunch-time (from noon to 3pm) away from the Autoroutes.
Translation of Types of Gas in Spain
Leaded = super or super 98
Unleaded = sin plomo 98 or Eurosuper 95
Diesel = gasoleo
GB sticker: UK registered vehicles displaying Euro-plates (circle of 12 stars above the national identifier on blue background) no longer need a GB sticker when driving in European Union countries.