Driving: a survivor’s guide

Portugal’s accident statistics are shocking (the worst per capita in the EU) and only a couple of days driving on Portuguese roads will tell you why. Drink-driving is rife, despite the strict laws and advertising campaigns: this is a country where motorway service stations have bars, and lorry drivers in roadside restaurants polish off a jug of wine with their lunch before getting back in their rigs.

Sunday afternoons, after big family lunches, are considered particularly dangerous times to be on the roads. Reckless overtaking is the norm – across solid white lines, on blind corners, on hills, in crowded town centres – while on otherwise deserted motorways you’ll need to check your mirror every few seconds to make sure someone isn’t right up your exhaust pipe. Posted speed limits, meanwhile, are viewed by most drivers as minimum requirements.

On bends in country roads, oncoming vehicles routinely approach down the middle (or even right on your side), so as not to lose any preciously acquired speed – and speed bumps are always dealt with by shifting across to the other side of the road rather than slowing down. “Right of way” is something of an alien concept – vehicles zoom across roundabouts without so much as a glance – while the use of indicators is in its infancy. Parking restrictions are treated with impressive disdain, with cars routinely left on corners and at pedestrian crossings, garage exits and bus stops. In addition, drivers are always happy to stop for a lengthy chat with passers-by or other drivers at traffic lights, thus blocking the road. It goes without saying that talking (illegally) on a hand-held mobile phone while driving is considered a basic motoring skill.

Despite all this, driving in Portugal is – paradoxically – less stressful than in most European countries. There’s far less traffic for a start, while the locals take most things in their stride. There’s relatively little road rage, and, surprisingly, the horn doesn’t get much use (unless you’re driving far too slowly for the liking of the car behind). And, of course, any mistakes you might make blend seamlessly into the general mayhem that is an average day out on the roads.