Spanish detour around safe driving law

Points-based licenses reduce traffic deaths, but illegal point-selling helps some drivers avoid penalties.

Last week, Julio decided to sell his most marketable commodity on the Internet: his traffic points.

He knows it's illegal, but he needed the cash. "I've been a little down on my luck," says Julio sheepishly, who declined to give his last name because selling points is illegal. "So I decided to sell my points."

Hoping to reduce one of Europe's highest rates of road deaths, Spain has started a new points-based driver's license system, subtracting points for infractions until they are used up and the license is revoked. But almost as soon as the new approach started two months ago, problem drivers found a way around it with the help of people like Julio.

"Say you commit an infraction," he explains, "and you can't afford to lose any points. We'd find a time and place to meet, we'd exchange vital information, and then you'd simply designate me as the person driving your car. The points would be deducted from my account."

Julio is not alone. Even before the new law took effect, one online shark, boasting the moniker "Jaws," offered to sell "my grandmother's points." Since then, the bidding wars have only escalated. Margarita, an actual grandmother living in a Barcelona nursing home, was won over by her own granddaughter. "She was looking online and saw all these people selling their points, so we thought if they could do it, so could I."

Margarita is asking 750 euros ($950) per point.

No points have yet been subtracted from drivers because of a backlog in paperwork. Nonetheless, in mid-August someone named Kylie, had already posted a cry for help: "I'm desperate! I need to buy points at any price!"

Though the new law forbids buying or selling driving points – which is why eBay Spain has removed all such offers from its website – it is difficult to enforce.

According to this points-based license system – already operative in 11 other European countries – the government awards all drivers a beginning sum (12 points), from which it gradually subtracts according to traffic infractions. Talking on your cellphone while driving: three points. Exceeding the speed limit by more than 40 kilometers (25 miles): four points. Lose all your points, and you lose your license. The radar and camera system police currently used to nab traffic law violators identifies only cars, not drivers – allowing vehicle owners to answer infraction notices by claiming that someone else was behind the wheel.

Last week, the DGT's Subdirector for Circulation, Federico Fernández, admitted to the press that points could be sold, although he emphasized that he expected the number of such cases to be "anecdotal."

Anecdotal though they may be, as of Sunday, classifieds websites like www.milanuncios.com featured at least a dozen offers from vendors like Julio. And with others selling their points for as much as 1,500 euros ($1,925) each, his 200-euro ($257) price tag seemed like a bargain. Even if Julio's phone starts ringing, however, he's committed to sell just a few of his points.

"After all, I have to keep some for myself," he says. "You never know when you might need them."

Despite drivers' ability to find ways to preserve points, local authorities trumpeted the nation's new system as a success.

In a nation where hitting the gas, chatting on the phone, and throwing back a few drinks are considered natural parts of the driving experience, the points-based license, so far, seems to be making an impression.

In its first two months, traffic fatalities have dropped 20 percent over the previous year, according to reports released Monday by the General Direction of Traffic (DGT), and average highway speeds have fallen 4 percent across the country.

The fatality rate declined even during "Operacion Retorno" at the end of August, when hundreds of thousands took to Spain's highways in the annual migration ritual marking the end of summer vacation. Despite the rosy statistics, not everyone is pleased with the new license. Mario Arnaldo, president of the Association of European Drivers (AEA), says his organization has gone from "being the strongest proponent of a point-based permit to being its biggest detractor."

One reason for the change of heart: Drivers who have squandered all their points will not actually lose their licenses until they have to renew them – a once-a-decade exercise.

Lamenting this "typically Spanish" bureaucratic loophole, Mr. Arnaldo says the government is avoiding "what it would really take to curb traffic violations – putting more police on the highways."

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