Why (now more than ever) you shouldn’t use your phone while driving in Spain

Spain’s newest road safety campaign is targeted largely at drivers using their mobile phones at the wheel, a habit that’s dangerous and perhaps a bit intrinsically Spanish.

Why (now more than ever) you shouldn’t use your phone while driving in Spain
Photo: Deposit Photos

More than a third of road deaths in Spain are caused by distractions, higher now than speeding (29 percent) and alcohol (26 percent). 

Of these regular distractions that drivers in Spain most easily fall victim to, using a mobile became the number one pitfall in 2016 and has remained that way ever since.

In 2017, around 500 people lost their lives in road accidents in Spain caused by mobile phone usage.

According to the DGT, sending a message while driving increases the risk of being involved in a road accident 23 times (even talking on the phone for 90 seconds reduces a driver’s perception rate by 40 percent as well as their speed by 12 percent).

So in a country where nine out of ten smartphone owners use WhatsApp and other messaging services – more so than any other European nation – Spanish people’s compulsion for digital socializing is cause for concern for national road authorities.

In fact, traffic fatalities rose to 259 people this past summer, the highest death rate during the July-August period since 2012.

Pere Navarro, head of Spain's Traffic agency (DGT) partly blamed driver distractions for the rise, claiming that more and more accidents were being caused by drivers looking at their mobile phones and using WhatsApp.

Even DGT opponent Pedro Javaloyes, who campaigns for Spain’s speed limit to increase from 120 to 140 km/h, agrees texting at the wheel is dangerous.

“People in Spain are getting killed because of WhatsApp, not because they’re over the speed limit,” Javaloyes told Spanish daily ABC.

“I wouldn’t even blame mobile phone usage as you can still keep an eye on the road when you have your phone in your hand, but you can’t pay attention while you’re texting.”

So how is Spain clamping down on mobile phone infractions at the wheel?

First of all, using a mobile phone without a hands-free device is already illegal in Spain, but catching offenders isn’t as easy as with speed traps and fines have previously been fairly lenient.

Here's how the situation vis-a-vis mobile phone usage at the wheel is about to change. 

A new fleet of covert traffic cop trucks

As odd as it may sound, Spain’s DGT recently rolled out a number of undercover trucks that film drivers who are using their mobiles while driving.

This measure gets round the problem of tinted windscreens or drivers hiding their phones on their laps, as the non-descript camera lorries catch all the action from above without the offenders even noticing.

UK traffic police have found success since bringing out the same measure, catching 4,000 distracted drivers in the past two years. So far the DGT has only implemented its 'truck traps' in the northwestern regions of Galicia and Castilla y León, but the network is likely to grow. 

More points deducted, just as bad as drink driving

The DGT is currently pushing for the Spanish government to approve a measure which would see four to six points deducted from drivers’ licenses when caught using their phones while driving, the same penalties for drink driving.

Drivers currently lose three points and have to cough up a €200 fine if caught, the same penalty as driving at 40km/h in a 30 zone or not using a seatbelt or helmet.

As the DGT point system scheme hasn’t been updated in twelve years, Spain’s Parliament is very likely to soon approve road changes that take into account society’s current addiction to the smartphone and the risks it brings to drivers.

Let's face it, in 2006 WhatsApp didn’t even exist!

Get drivers who caused accidents while using their phones to pay up

Spain’s traffic authority are open to the idea of also changing the law to get these type of offenders to pay the damage done out of their own pocket, rather than through an insurance policy.

In other words, insurance companies would no longer be liable to pay up if their clients were reckless by using their phones while driving.

The DGT made the proposal last August after traffic consulting firm Pons Road Safety found that road deaths caused by mobile phones could be reduced by 150 to 200 a year by making drivers aware of their new financial liability in such cases.

Spanish cops want access to your phone if you've been involved in a road accident

One of the heads of Road Safety in Spain, Bartolomé Vargas, reached out to police stations around the country last July suggesting that traffic cops check the mobile phones of drivers who have been involved in road accidents.

By these means, Spanish police would be able to ascertain if the driver could have been using their phone at the time of the accident and consequently if it played a part in the incident.  

Spain’s new road safety ads are brutal

If you’re familiar with Spanish television, you’ll know that the country’s DGT (Directorate General of Traffic) pulls no punches when it comes to its traffic accident ads.

For the past decade, the beautifully-shot commercials have had increasingly tragic, blood-splattered plots with the goal of dissuading drivers from drink-driving, speeding or not paying attention.

Spain’s traffic authority paints the most chilling and explicit of scenarios in its latest road safety ad campaign. 

“In a car crash, who would you rather be? The one who lives or the one who dies?”, the narrator asks.

The two scenarios are then played out in the most heart wrenching of ways.

If you die: “your parents will never get over it”, “you’ll never know what it feels like to be a father”, “there’s nothing after death” and “your partner will meet someone else”.

If you live: “a police officer is waiting at your bedside”, “you’ve killed your best friend and a seven-year-old boy”, “you’ll get addicted to painkillers”, “you’ll go to prison”.

All in all, very grisly and hardcore watching, but you’ll remember it.

That’s exactly what the DGT intended – “to shake up Spanish society” as Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande Marlaska put it – anything to make them realise how avoidable these tragedies are.

READ ALSO: Driving in Spain – Everything you need to know



How Barcelona residents are scrapping their cars for a free public transport card

More than 5,700 Barcelona residents have taken their vehicles to the scrapyard in return for a three-year free public transport card for the Catalan capital. Here's how to do it.

How Barcelona residents are scrapping their cars for a free public transport card
Photos: Barcelona Metropolitan Area (AMB), AFP

As of January 1st 2020, the most polluting vehicles in Barcelona and some municipalities on the outskirts of the capital will no longer have access to the city’s roads. 

That’s unless their drivers want to cough up fines of anywhere between €200 and €1,800 for driving around on week days between 7am and 8pm.

According to Barcelona’s transport authority ATM (Autoritat Metropolitana del Transport), the implementation of this low emission zone in the Catalan capital will mean 50,000 of the city’s most polluting cars and motorbikes are left parked at home.


It’s a drastic measure and one that lawmakers have known for some time wouldn’t sit well with commuters who were being asked to ditch their cars without any financial compensation. 

Therefore, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau decided in 2017 she would offer a three-year long free travel card called the T-verde to affected drivers who actually handed over their car to be dismantled at the scrapyard.

The card gives holders free access to Barcelona’s subway, TMB and intercity buses, the tram, Cercanías trains and the rest of public transport services available in zone 1 for a total of three years.

The T-verde (T-verda in Catalan) can be registered in another family member’s name, as long as they don’t own a private vehicle themselves. Applicants have to be Barcelona residents.

Another condition is that cardholders aren’t allowed to buy a new car during that three-year period unless they want to lose their free public transport rights. 

Barcelona authorities are offering the environmentally friendly exchange to owners of diesel vehicles that were manufactured before 2006, petrol cars from before 1997 and motorbikes with a registration plate from before July 2004.

Since October 2017 some 5,700 T-verde cards have been granted to Barcelona residents that have gone green, with an average of 240 vehicles being taken to the scrapyard every month.

City authorities are satisfied with the apparent success of the campaign but local environmental groups such as Ecologistas en Acción have called the figure “insignificant” so far, stating that an extra 50,000 vehicles have been registered in Barcelona since the T-verde measure was introduced.


Superblocks – How Barcelona's car-free zones could extend lives and boost mental health

“We might be talking about people who didn’t even use their cars in the first place and who have simply done the maths and seen how the T-verde card was just a win-win for them,” spokeperson María García told Spanish daily El Diario.

Daniel Pi, technical coordinator of a Barcelona association promoting public transport in Barcelona, has pointed out that the T-verde card “isn’t the central measure” of a campaign aimed at curbing traffic pollution in the city, but rather “a nudge to get some people to take action” and ditch vehicles that are between 38 and 58 times more polluting than current models.

Barcelona’s ambitious ZBE (Zona de Bajas Emisiones) no-traffic zone is 20 times larger than the highly-debated Madrid Central catchment area, and more on a par with other car delimitation zones in place in London, Amsterdam and Berlin.