Driving in Portugal: How chaos actually makes sense

After driving in Portugal for the last ten months or so (I can’t believe it has been that long!), I think I finally understand A) Why they drive so crazy and B) Why it actually makes sense.

Stupid driverThe Swedish-born husband of our attorney says, “The Portuguese are so nice… until they get behind the wheel of a car, and then they turn into devils!”

It’s true. I’ve puzzled over that incongruity every time I’ve been on the road grimacing at the pesky motorcycles who weave in and out of traffic like flies in a windstorm, enduring the honks of irritated drivers if I take too long to make a right turn, and being startled by a car passing me on the left who wasn’t even in my rearview mirror two seconds before.

But now I get it. And it’s a system that actually works. Here’s my analysis as to why:

Driver lift offThere are very few traffic cops. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a police car just sitting on the side of the road, ready to pounce on a traffic scofflaw. I’m not sure they even own radar guns. Either they decided they just don’t need them, or they can’t afford them. Either way, as a result, Portuguese society has apparently decided everyone will drive under a certain set of unwritten rules. And when virtually everyone agrees to a set of rules, who needs cops?

First of all, there are really no speed limit signs. On the freeways, you’ll see three different speed signs on the three lanes, with the left being the fastest and the right being the slowest. Trust me, if you actually drove in the left lane at the speed indicated, you’d quickly have a line of very irritated drivers behind you, their horns sounding like rabid geese, flashing their brights like they were transporting a woman in the final stages of labor. They would then pass you on the right making sure they swerved back in front of you within two centimeters of your bumper. Got the message yet buddy?

Speed signs
What these speed signs actually mean is: “The right lane generally moves at 55% the speed of the left.” I think it’d be more accurate just to post percentages.

And so the meaning of those speed signs is actually: “Here are comparative speeds only.” In other words, if someone is driving 160 km/hr on the left, and you’re doing 140 km/hr (which is about 86 mph), you sure as hell better not be doing it in the left lane, despite the fact that in the US, it would net you a pretty hefty ticket. It’s not too out of line to say you can almost double most posted speed numbers to set proper expectations of actual speeds.

And you know what? It works. Everyone understands it, and they don’t need any cops to hand out speeding tickets.

CrashAccording to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, Portugal has 12 road crashes per 100,000 population, while the US has 14. So even though they’re driving the freeways at 100 MPH, have no cops to keep things under control, and sometimes seem to drive like maniacs, they actually crash less per person than in the US.

In addition, our car insurance is about 33 euros a month. If memory serves, that’s a fair amount less than half of what we were paying in the US. If accidents were far more prevalent in Portugal, one would assume that out of all things, insurance would be the first place to reflect that.

Here’s how I think they accomplish all this:

There is a cultural/social agreement that everyone understands the following rules. If you violate these norms, someone will essentially feel obligated to let you know about it via their horn. So in a sense, the rules of the road are enforced by public shaming, with no hesitance to let you know when you’ve done something wrong.

The ten agreements I’ve observed are as follows:

  1. The fastest drivers go on the left. If you’re not passing, you better be all the way on the right.
  2. Use roundabouts properly.
  3. If a pedestrian enters a crosswalk (zebra), stop to let them cross. Immediately. Slam on the brakes if you have to.
  4. If a pedestrian tries to cross even a parking lot without being in a zebra, they’re fair game. You can even speed up to scare the hell out of them if you want.
  5. There are no speed limits.
  6. Motorcyclists can drive any way they want. They’re the ones who are going to lose in a crash anyway. Just watch out for them before you switch lanes.
  7. Being polite and letting people into a line is very much appreciated. Not all of them do it, but I’ve received numerous gracious waves anytime I’ve done it, and I’ve seen it done far more often than in the US.
  8. You can drive on the shoulder, or up on a sidewalk, or through a hedge to get around someone waiting to make a left hand turn.
  9. Don’t be stupid.
  10. Honk at anyone who violates any of the above.

Self policingThat’s it. It’s all self-policing. Most everyone agrees to these things, and everyone drives with this knowledge.

Of course, without risk of fines (only of death and gruesome dismemberment I suppose), there are those who drive a little crazy. That’s to be expected. But because everyone understands the rules above, they don’t pose nearly the risk to themselves or other drivers as they would in the US.

I understand that none of this would work in the US, because the US doesn’t have a singular cultural mentality like Portugal. Unfortunately, this difference means that in the US, there is more of the idea that you try to get away with things while trying not to get caught. It’s all about dodging the authorities. In Portugal, it’s all about dodging the ire of everyone else on the road. Ironically, I think their more aggressive driving is a byproduct of a more congenial society. And in a way, it’s like every other driver is a cop.

Driving with a gun
Besides, the Portuguese don’t have to worry about other drivers having guns.

The US can’t really get to the same place because there’s a big difference between pulling back fines, enforcement, and the omnipresence of the police, versus adding all of that to a system largely without them. If you eliminate the reliance on authority the US has, chaos would probably ensue. But if you don’t have it in the first place and self-policing is already entrenched, then, once you get used to a little bit of the craziness, it all starts to make sense.


3 thoughts on “Driving in Portugal: How chaos actually makes sense

  1. Greetings, Bald Sasquatch! If you’ve noticed a spike in your readership to this post, it’s all my fault — I shared it on my Facebook page. (I looked for a corresponding Facebook page for your blog to link to, but couldn’t find one.)

    Some Portuguese have expressed grave concern that your article might lead foreign drivers astray re: highway code, to which I replied that your article is tongue-in-cheek / satirical / not to be used in a court of law. I probably went a little too far, for context: why Americans have a love affair with signage and why in Portugal signage isn’t viewed as necessary. But in case you’d like to add your own replies, the post is here:

    I understand if you want to stay anonymous or wish to avoid Facebook altogether, so if you want to reply here, I’ll link to your comment here.

    By the way, I love your blog! I’ve only read a couple of entries, but I’m hooked already.


    1. Thanks Gail! I did post a reply to your Facebook page. Thanks for sharing it! I did wonder why the Portuguese readership spiked, so thanks for that. I don’t get any benefit from traffic as I’m not writing to make money, but it’s nice to have it shared and read.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post and I agree with your theory, mainly because I see the same dynamic in action on Connecticut parkways and highways. You see, the state economy is so badly managed that the budget over the past 20 years or so has allowed for very few state troopers, creating the exact same driver-defined set of rules you describe in Portugal.


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