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Europe Thursday, 13 April, 2000, 09:35 GMT 10:35 UK
Safety drive on Portugal's roads
Police patrol one of Portugal's most notorious routes
BY John Egan

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Manuel Ramos is frightened by his country's car culture. "It's worse than a civil war: we're killing each other with our cars", he says. Manuel paid the ultimate price when his 5 year old daughter was killed by an out-of-control lorry which smashed into the back of his car.

Little Joanna died instantly. Meanwhile Manuel's wife Anna was pulled unconscious from the wreckage just moments before the car exploded into flames.

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The Ramos family were driving on the IP5 road, which is the main access route into Portugal from Spain and the rest of Northern Europe. The IP5 is better known as "The Death Road" because more than 300 people have been killed on it in the past decade. But the IP5 is not the only killer road in Portugal. The N125 highway, which is the main tourist route in the Algarve is even more dangerous. A staggering 1800 people were killed in road accidents in Portugal in 1999, making it the most deadly place in Europe for road fatalities.

The reasons for this unenviable record are complex. There is a culture of drinking and driving, but recent economic growth is also being blamed. Before Portugal joined the EU unemployment and emigration were rampant.

This generation has enjoyed a level of economic prosperity previously unknown in Portugal. While the level of car ownership has quadrupled in the past decade, the quality of country's roads network as well as the standard of driving instruction hasn't kept pace with economic development.

Mario Horta is working to improve the general standard of driving
But perhaps the most interesting reason for Portugal's appalling record on road safety is political. Mario Horta, a clinical psychologist who works for the Portuguese Road Safety Association offers this analysis: "For fifty years, we were ruled by a heavy-handed dictator.

In the aftermath of the revolution in 1974, people discovered that they had new-found freedom and the car became a symbol of our personal liberty."

So what is being done to tackle the problem?

Manuel Ramos has become a national figure
Since the death of five-year-old Joanna Ramos, her father Manuel has become a zealous campaigner for road safety. Now a nationally recognised figure, he's forced the government to sit up and take notice. A campaign of zero tolerance against speeding and drink driving, for example, was introduced last year.

As a result the death toll on the IP5 and some other roads has fallen dramatically, but unfortunately it's not all good news. According to Captain Joao Da Silva, of the National Traffic Brigade, drivers are avoiding the police checkpoints.

"They play cat and mouse with us", explains Captain Da Silva, "and we don't have enough resources to patrol 30,000 km of main roads. Also we're not getting enough guidance from government on how this problem should be tackled"

Another problem is the courts. Graca Guimarais' 17- year-old son, Nuno, was killed when the car in which he was a passenger sped out of control and smashed into a tree.

Graca Guimarais founded an association for families bereaved by road accidents
The 21-year-old driver was drunk, had no licence and was travelling at more than 180 km/h. Although Graca attended 14 court hearings over a nine-year period, during which the gruesome details of her son's accident were repeatedly outlined to judges, the driver of the car has never been called to account for his part in her son's death.

Graca believes that the cocktail of speed, alcohol, and a lack of fear of the courts is the reason Portuguese drivers are so deadly. "Nobody is forced to take responsibility," says Graca. "When they go inside their cars, the Portuguese feel they are like gods - they drive with that attitude, there is a total lack of respect."

Manuel Ramos continues to campaign vigorously for better road safety. His aim is to completely transform Portugal's car culture. "We need another revolution, a social revolution", he says. "People need to wake up and to take responsibility as citizens and to realise that their cars are deadly weapons", he concludes.

John Egan with DJ Rui Varga (left) and PR Pedro Fradique at Lux
Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: where do the coolest people in Lisbon go to relax? We visit Lux, a club part-owned by the Hollywood actor John Malkovich, reputed to be among the trendiest night-spots in Europe. And with Portuguese being adopted as the official language of East Timor and the Escudo perhaps being the new national currency, we ask whether Portugal has neo-colonial aspirations for the island it withdrew from in 1975.

Mauel Ramos Lisbon March 2000
explains Portugal's obsession with the car, and his campaign against it
Portuguese language road safety ad, 1997
made to promote road safety...
General sound, Lux, Lisbon,
Lisbon's hippest club
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01 Jan 00 | Europe
02 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
12 Feb 00 | AudioVideo
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