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Friday, 9 November, 2001, 18:01 GMT
Portugal battles road deaths
Police carry out a road check
Portuguese drivers are not used to getting caught
By the BBC's Rachel Ellison

Portugal has one of the worst road accident death rates in Europe - twice as many people are killed in their cars in Portugal than in Italy, per head of population, and four times as many as in the UK.

Portugal spends more on the consequences of reckless driving, such as hospital treatment, than it makes on tourism - one of its most lucrative industries.

Manuel Ramos
Manuel Ramos became a road safety activist after losing his daughter

But since last month the penalties for speeding, and drinking and driving, have got tougher.

The alcohol limit is now, at 0.2 grams per litre of blood, the lowest in Europe, shared only with Sweden.

The personal stories are deeply painful, and some are almost unbearable.

Manuel Ramos' five year old daughter was killed on one of Portugal's most dangerous highways - the IP5.

Lives changed

He and his wife survived, although inevitably, their lives would never be the same again.

"Suddenly a lorry came, phenomenal speed, pushed us out of our lane... our car rolled over and burst into flames," says Manuel.

"I was unconsious - when I woke up I saw my daughter lying in the road, face down. I rushed to her, tried to revive her - blood was coming out of her nose and mouth and ears. I realised there was nothing I could do."

Manuel has struggled through, determined, somehow, to convert his grief into some form of positive change.

Policeman conducts breathalyser test
Portugal has 2,400 traffic police on patrol every day

The kind of thing Manuel is pressing for includes police patrols to catch speeding drivers - not a minute now goes by without a driver being pulled over.

Portugese drivers aren't used to getting caught - they commonly drive at double the speed limit in a 50km per hour area.

And when they are caught, they rarely pay their fines.

Captain Lourenco Da Silva is in charge of enforcing the new road safety laws, but he is still not satisfied.


They fight each other in their cars... it's like bullfighting in the streets

Advanced driving instructor, Antonio Macedo
"We have 2,400 officers working daily, but that's not enough... The law is not enough," he says.

"Drivers' behaviour needs to change... I think that's the secret to solving the road fatalities in Portugal."

Businesses in Portugal are now recognising the problem.

Galp, a national oil company is one of the first to have started sending employees on advanced driving courses.

The instructor is Antonio Macedo: "People race each other," he says.

"They fight each other in their cars... it's like bullfighting in the streets."

Winegrower addresses a rally
Winemakers say the new alcohol limit is too low

Whilst most ordinary drivers welcome the new laws, those who drive for a living, say they discriminate against them.

Truck and bus drivers recently held a 24-hour strike in protest.

Unsurprisingly, winegrowers are also angry.

They say the new alcohol limits threaten the traditional Portuguese way of life, where wine with every meal is entirely expected, but can now push you over the legal limit.

More cars on the road

"Obviously it's terrible people are dying on the road," acknowledges Luis Mira, the general secretary of the Portuguese Farmer's Union.

"But the new law has seen wine sales drop by 50%... the 0.2% limit is too much. Why can't it be 0.5% like the other European countries like France, Denmark or Italy," he says.

"For a Mediterranean, wine growing-country , it's impossible to accept a limit this low."

After years of dictatorship and poverty, joining the EU spelled the beginning of prosperity for the Portugese people.


Eighty per cent of Portugese people agree with the new limits

Home Affairs Minister Rui Pereira
Twenty-five years ago there were just 500,000 cars on the road; today there are five million.

Portugal's Minister for Home Affairs, Rui Pereira, recognises the problems, but insists his government's new measures are working.

"Eighty per cent of Portugese people agree with the new limits," he says.

"There are some who disagree but 0.2% is a good limit... it is already working but we still have some way to go."

Investment in people

Road safety campaigners agree. Environmental psychologist Professor Manuel Palma believes the economic and the human cost to Portugal is far too high.

"We're giving away a lot of money. It's a lifetime's investment - in educating people, in bringing them up, employing and training them," he says.

"We can't put a price on human life. But putting aside the cost in terms of suffering, this loss is also a burden on Portugal's economy.

"We're spending as much as we earn through tourism - a huge source of income for Portugal - on human life."

Rachel Ellison's report can be seen on the Europe Direct programme, broadcast on BBC World on Saturday 10 October at 2330 GMT, and on Sunday 11 at 0230, 1130 and 1930 GMT.

See also:

05 Mar 99 | Health
Alcohol abuse targeted
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