The Trouble with Spain?
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Introduction.

The N340 near Marbella: Costa del Sol: Spain.

Engineering.
Drivers.
Road Culture.
Conclusion.
Solution.
Tips for Visitors.
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Introduction.
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As with other articles... this is not meant to be an in-depth analysis of all Spain's problems... just a few general observations based on a short visit: [which just makes the point, if you can identify any specific problems then you should be able to rectify them.]  Taking a look at Spain in general... with a focus on the Costa del Sol... and using the example of the notorious N340... one of Spain's worst roads.  Well known to tourists as it runs right along Spain's southern coast stretching from Almeria to the southern tip, finishing near Gibraltar... but particularly the stretch that runs from Malaga... west to Estepona passing through such places as Torremolinos: Fuengirola: and Marbella.  This stretch of the N340 is a wonderful example of everything coming together in the worst possible way... Road Engineering: Drivers: the Road Culture: and Enforcement Policy... all bad!
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There are certainly a few extenuating circumstances here... mainly to do with the fact that there are so many large scale 'urbanisation' projects under construction which are filtering more and more traffic onto this one busy highway and providing poor access roads.  Plus... most of these projects are targeting foreign residents and overseas tourists who inevitably bring different standards and expectations which tend to clash with the established Road Culture.  With the best will in the world... it's a recipe for conflict!
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Engineering.
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The standard of vehicles and roads in Spain does not appear to be significantly different to those in Britain.  Roads are generally good especially recent projects such as the new E15 coast road which is excellent... a hideously expensive construction which combining miles of... bridges: tunnels: and deep cuts through the mountain side.  Some sections charge a toll but long stretches, like around the Malaga area are free... and the whole road has relatively light traffic.  Visitors from countries like Germany and Britain may find these roads a source of great annoyance as many of them are paid for with grants from the E.U.  
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Since joining the E.U. Spain has been a net receiver of funds... getting around 3billion in aid every year... while Britain is a net contributor by about 3-4billion: [Germany even more.]  In Britain drivers pay an exorbitant road tax but have still ended up with a very congested road system which is desperately in need of modernisation... while in Spain they are building a wonderful new road system courtesy of the British and German taxpayer.  
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As of May 2004 Spain will inevitably drop down the priority list as 10 new countries join the E.U. all looking for cash handouts to improve their own infrastructure.
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The N340.  This is one road that definitely does not fall into the category of 'excellent'... statistically, one of Europe's most dangerous.  This is a road which has developed over the years and continues to change on a daily basis.  It is a very busy, two-lane highway... the lanes are narrow... there is little or no hard-shoulder on most of it... and in many places, large concrete blocks are used for the central divider, rather than a proper crash-barrier.
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There are multiple exits and entrances: some with good slip-roads: many with short slip roads of only 30 metres or so: and a great number of exit/entrances coming at right angles from massive new 'Urbanisation' projects: or from... Shops: Filling Stations: etc. foliage often conceals vehicles waiting to pull out.  

One of Europe's biggest building sites: the Costa del Sol: Spain.

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When trying to join the N340 you are often looking back over your shoulder at an impossible angle... it is also a bad angle to see anything in your side mirror... or your view is very limited due to... a curve in the road: brow of a hill: foliage: road signs: etc.  Visitors from Britain may find this road particularly difficult if they have brought their own right-hand drive vehicle with them... even more so if... they are driving a van: pulling a caravan: and have no passengers to help them!
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Combine this with a Speed limit of 110kph and you have problems even when drivers are operating with the best of intentions.  The Speed limit does vary, dropping to 80 or even 60kph in places but there seems to be little logic employed in selecting the limits on each section.  When driving at 110kph and a truck suddenly pulls out doing about 5kph you have a real problem... the gap you thought you had disappears very, very quickly.  
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Drivers.
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Training seems to comprise of quite a bit of time in the classroom: [i.e. a lot of theory] and very little in the way of practice... drivers can obtain a full licence with very little experience.  Many young drivers develop their road sense by using... Motorbikes: Scooters: and Mopeds: which are very popular especially for getting around cities... as is the case in many Mediterranean Countries.  Bad habits seem to be learnt at an early stage and stay with them as they graduate to larger vehicles.
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There is a very distinctive mix to the conflict along Costa del Sol roads... a combination of aggressive locals and thousands of tourists who are unsure of where they are going... unfamiliar with the rules/local customs... often driving a hire vehicle which is new to them... and perhaps even driving on a different side of the road.  Speeding is endemic... and tailgating is as bad as you will find anywhere in the world.  In Britain you will see incidents of tailgating, sometimes quite bad... but in Spain it seems to be an option of first choice... it is quite common to see 5 or 6 vehicles travelling at 120-130kph+ [even in the 60kph zones] all within a few of metres of each other... in a way that could only be described as suicidal!
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Seatbelts.  It is also quite apparent that Spain has a very low rate of seatbelt usage, even though their use is compulsory... at a quick count, seatbelt usage around town would be no more than 50%.  It is not only common to see children unrestrained... but they can often be seen sitting in the front seats: standing on the front seats: being held by an adult: playing in the luggage compartment of estates [station wagons:] or hanging out of the side windows.  
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Crash Helmets.  A similar problem exists when it comes to the use of crash helmets... particularly the lower powered Mopeds and Scooters being used around town.  Riders often have helmets tied to their back seat or hanging from an elbow... and pillion passengers are even less likely to be wearing a helmet.  Sometime you can see young children riding on these bikes, standing between the arms of the rider: [a sight which is quite common in under-developed countries but rarely seen in other modern industrialised countries.]  Generally, these bike riders seem to take a lot of risks and are commonly seen weaving in and out of traffic, often at high speeds... or teenagers mucking about, driving dangerously and taking risks... just for the hell of it.
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Parking... is done in the most casual way, many people double park to go into shops, park right across pedestrian crossings: on the corner: or block other vehicles in.  This is not done in a thoughtful, considerate way... it is a common sight to see someone blowing their horn, or banging against other vehicles because they have been blocked in... a major traffic jam developing because a bus cannot get past a double parked vehicle... pedestrians trying to squeeze past a vehicle parked on a crossing... drivers who do not stop for pedestrians on crossings until they are forced to... angry exchanges... and a general lack of consideration for other road users.
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Road Culture.
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When describing a Road Culture the basic characteristics never applies to every driver... but generally drivers tend to be... uncooperative: inconsiderate: abusive: impatient: intolerant: discourteous: aggressive: generally, operate with very small margins of error... and results in rule-breaking and risk-taking being endemic.  In fact it would be fair to say that there are few redeeming characteristics to the Spanish style of driving... courteous and considerate driving is neither expected or appreciated... you rarely get any thanks or acknowledgement from those you assist.  In a country such as Thailand rule-breaking is also endemic... but at least they are very tolerant towards each other and aggression or arguments are uncommon.
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Enforcement.
Enforcement of the rules is very lax.  The Authorities do have a bit of a crackdown on crash helmets at the beginning of the tourist season... locals immediately pull their helmets out and put them on, [often without putting the strap under their chins, which makes the helmet useless] 50euro fines are handed out but there is no follow up.  Within a few hours the blitz is over... everything is back to normal and Police will completely ignore riders without helmets passing by just a few metres away... there is no sustained effort... they just periodically go through the motions.  Even more so with the seatbelts laws... there appears to be little or no effort at enforcement and consequently the take-up rate is less than 50% around town.  Also... there doesn't appear to be much of a Police presence out on the open highways where speeding and aggressive tailgating is the order of the day.
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2003 - about 400 pedestrians were killed by drunk-drivers... and traces of alcohol were found to be present in half of all accidents.  2004 - Spanish Police announce they are going to have a crackdown on drink-driving tourists along the Costas: [where many of these accidents occur.]  From the summer of 2004 - visitors could face a Fine of - up to 5,000 [about 7,500euros] and a three year driving ban in Spain... while those involved in an accident which results in the death or injury of another person can expect to be jailed.  Previously - foreign tourists usually escaped drink-driving charges with just a caution and a small Fine... but if the E.U. has its way - within the next few years - any driving ban imposed by a Court in any E.U. country will be effective and enforced across the whole of the E.U. - so be warned!!
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Conclusion.
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When you look at each individual incident of drivers... speeding: tailgating: not wearing seatbelts: etc. etc. and nothing happens, it is easy to adopt a 'why worry' approach.  But, the bottom line is... all this rule-breaking and risk-taking translates into Spain having an accident rate which is more than double that of the U.K... putting it on a par with countries like France and Italy... but still only half as bad as close neighbour Portugal which is the worst in the western Industrialised world: [example: death rates per 100,000 population in 1996 were U.K. 6.31. Spain 13.95. Italy 14.01. France 14.60. and Portugal 27.48.]  Spain did make some very good progress during the early 90's but now seems to have stalled at around the 5,700 mark... see below.
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Spain: 1991-2000.
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'91 - 8,836 '92 - 7,818 '93 - 6,376 '94 - 5,614 '95 - 5,749
'96 - 5,482 '97 - 5,604 '98 - 5,957 '99 - 5,738 2000 - 5,777
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Directives coming from Brussels try to use one simple solution to cover every country: i.e. more Cameras - more Fines - more Punishment.  Not only do they need different solutions for different countries... they need to develop a range of solutions which can identify and systematically rectify the specific problems of... individual drivers: the general road culture: and the physical problems associated with each and every road... that means rather than trying to centralise power... they need to devolve power... right down to the local level... right down to the level of the individual.
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Solution.
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The Authorities need to get to grips with the basics... starting with seatbelts and crash helmets... these are the easiest way to cut the death toll... but enforcing the law needs to be sustained otherwise people don't take it seriously.  They need a greater presence out on the roads to tackle the problems of... speed: tailgating: and drink-driving: [which might be a problem due to financial restraints.]  Beyond that it is going to be difficult because they need to change the whole psyche of their Road Culture... not only the innumerable incidents of rule-breaking and risk-taking... but the deeply ingrained attitudes that are at the root cause.  
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The N340... has a real problem because of its construction and obvious physical restrictions: [in many places there is no room to built better slip roads: etc.]  But a speed limit of 110kph is clearly way to high in places... and at certain times of the day.  If ever there was a case for blanket coverage by speed cameras... this would be it.
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They could use electronic speed signs, so as to introduce a variable speed limit... which would change at various times of the day... and according to the ever changing conditions: [i.e. lower when the schools are coming out: evening rush hour: bad weather: etc.]  Traffic should be slowed and encouraged to move to the outside lane [or use white lines to force traffic to merge and use the outside lane] unless turning off... this would also enable traffic to join the flow more safely.  Long slip roads should be built wherever possible... especially those catering for the big new urbanisation schemes.
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They need more overhead roundabouts or bridges catering for local traffic... more hard-shoulders: more crash barriers down the central reservation: and more footbridges for pedestrians.  There is a specific problem with tourists being dropped off by public buses along the highway who are going to the beach, but are often dropped well away from a crossing of any kind... so, they make a mad dash across four lanes of traffic... having to climb over a central barrier: [and all while they're wearing flip-flops... maybe?]  They also have a similar problem with tourist trying the same thing at night while under the influence of drink or drugs.
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Tips for Visitors.
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When on their home patch a lot of drivers feel like they are in control of their own destiny... but on the N340 it always feels like an accident is just looking for a place to happen.  So, if staying alive is one of your main priorities... what can you do to survive the N340?
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Well, you can't just sit in the outside lane to avoid merging traffic, because you would have drivers aggressively tailgating you on a continuous basis.  Unless, you happen to be the fastest vehicle on the road... in which case, you'd have to be constantly breaking the speed limit... and driving dangerously fast.  Even then you would quickly catch up with other vehicles in the outside lane... and even if you didn't tailgate them... someone would catch you up and they would tailgate you.  Travelling at speed and being tailgated? not an ideal situation!
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You could just stay in the inside lane and drive slowly... but you'd still have vehicles tailgating you... more drivers getting impatient and looking for an opportunity to overtake... more vehicles taking the chance to pull out in front of you from the myriad of side-roads... and inevitably a large truck catches up with you... they can't find an opportunity to pass so they tailgate and try to intimidate you into driving faster. 
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The obvious solution would probably be to drive in a sensible way just like you do at home: [maybe?] travelling at a medium speed... no tailgating: stick to the inside lane: pull out to overtake: or allow traffic to merge: as required.  Can't disagree with that!  But, in practise you will find this is a very busy road and the moment you pull out to overtake... or allow traffic to merge... you will have an aggressive tailgater, literally, 6 feet off your bumper... flashing their lights and gesticulating in a wild manner.  You may think that if you drive in a way which is Safe: Considerate: and Courteous: you will avoid conflicts with others... forget it! you're very presence on the road will be a source of great annoyance to many of these drivers.
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Situation... you pull out to overtake a truck... almost instantly, someone is right on your tail... you move to the inside lane as soon as possible... at which point another truck pulls out of a side road straight into your path doing 5mph... you can't pull out again, so you have no option but to hit the brakes... slowing from 60-70mph to 5mph... and with another truck right behind you.  This sort of thing happens all the time! the moment you pull to the inside lane someone pulls out of a side road.  This road is so busy drivers will take almost any chance to pull out onto it.  
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Our Advice...
For longer journeys... go slightly inland onto the E15 toll road... although expensive, it is much safer... it's a good quality motorway... with few exits/entrances... and relatively light traffic.  
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On the N340... as good driving is about how you 'Interacting' with other road users... you should try and keep up with the general flow... stay in the inside lane, but find yourself a 'buffer vehicle'... the larger the better: [but not a local bus as they keep stopping] just get behind it and stay there.  Try and stay within 2 seconds... make sure the gap is large enough so you can comfortably pull up if your buffer vehicle should have to slow down or stop... but not big enough that anyone would be tempted to pull out into it.  You may have to change your buffer vehicle if it pulls off... or you might change it because you find one more to your liking... slower: faster: bigger: smaller: whatever?  
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Just remember... you don't want to have open road in front of you... and a vehicle tailgating you: [especially not a truck] because someone will pull out and you'll have to hit the brakes.  If this situation develops... slow down a bit... try to get the vehicle behind to pass you... then speed up and follow 2 seconds or so behind them... that way, no sharp braking... nobody pulling out in front of you... and a minimal amount of lane changing.  If using a buffer vehicle... make sure you don't find yourself driving a small car and stuck between two large trucks... in the event of an accident that is one of the worst possible scenarios.  Remember... trucks front and rear? get out of here!!
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When overtaking try to make sure you have plenty of time so a rash manoeuvre is not forced upon you by a dangerous tailgater... you can then make sure you are well past the vehicle before you start to pull in... pull over to the inside lane slowly... and make sure you have the option of pulling back into the outside lane if anyone pulls out in front of you.
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Also... watch out for drivers pulling across you to exit at the very last moment.  Their exit might be a small road that turns off at a sharp angle... they have a habit of pulling right across in front of you... hitting the brakes... and slowing right down to 5-10mph.  Suddenly you are in a situation where you are braking hard... almost to a complete stop... have a vehicle right in front of you... and a tailgater right behind you. 
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If it is late at night and there is little or no traffic... 1. go slow... some vehicles are still likely to pull out unexpectedly.  2. if a slightly faster vehicle overtakes... try to latch on to them and use them as your buffer vehicle.  Or: 3. if you want to drive quite fast... just use the outside lane... so as to avoid vehicles joining and leaving the main road... but keep a close eye on your rear view mirror for vehicles catching up at high speed... in the early hours you may encounter vehicles doing anything from 100-120mph.  And be aware... you could come across tourists [drunken] wandering across the road anywhere along this route.
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Hire Cars... many tourist hire a car while in Spain and cost is often one of the main considerations when choosing a vehicle.  If possible avoid hiring small, low powered cars.  1. in the event of an accident you're better off in a larger vehicle.  2. if you do have to pull onto the N340 at a busy time of the day: [or a similar kind of road... something which is inevitable] the opportunities are limited... so when your chance comes you need to get up to speed as quickly as possible.
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Situation... you hire a small car... have 4 passengers on board + baggage... you have to pull onto the main N340 from a side road... you can only see back down the road for 100 metres or so before it disappears round a bend? over the brow of a hill? the speed limit is 70mph [110kph:] you have to pull onto the main road from a standing start... a vehicle coming over the brow of the hill 100 metres away travelling at 100kph will be on you in 3.6 seconds.  Once you pull out... avoiding a collision would involve either... a rapid deceleration and/or change of lanes on their part... or a rapid acceleration on your part... and with these small vehicles going from 0-100kph takes forever! which means you are then relying on the actions of others to keep you out of trouble... not ideal!
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[If you do have an accident of any kind... the medical bill can be horrendous... so make sure you are well Insured.  For short stays... long stays... or multiple journeys... check out the various packages on offer from American Express Travel Insurance.]
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