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Spain Driving Guide 2020

Driving in Spain is not difficult, even for first-time visitors. Plan ahead, get an International Driving Permit and follow the rules for a trip to remember.

Lisa Brown

November 20, 2019

INTRODUCTION

Driving in Spain can sound like a challenging prospect, especially for US license holders who are used to American cars, American roads and American rules. But consider this: With a total surface area of more than half a million square kilometers (almost 200,000 square miles), Spain is the largest country in southern Europe, and the fourth largest in the entire continent – only Russia, Ukraine and France are larger. Spain is also second only to France in terms of tourism, welcoming an incredible 82 million visitors every year.

To get the most out of your visit to a country of this size, there is simply no substitute for having a car at your disposal. However, it is only natural that some drivers approach the idea of driving in Spain, or indeed in any foreign country, with some trepidation. From rules related to driving in Spain with a US license to what to do in the event of an accident to basic driving rules in Spain, there is certainly plenty to consider.

Renting a car will allow you to explore not just the big cities but also those all-important towns, villages and landmarks in Spain.

DO I NEED AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT TO DRIVE IN SPAIN?

If you have a driver’s license in any language other than Spanish, then it makes sense to apply for an international driving permit (IDP) before you travel to Spain, and if you are coming from outside the European Union (for example US license holders) it’s a must-have. Without it, you are likely to face difficulties in renting a car and in the event that you are stopped by the police, you could even face prosecution.

The IDP does not replace your American driver’s license, and you should keep both with you while driving in Spain. In essence, the IDP is a translated version of your US license. It makes it simple for anyone who needs such information (for example traffic officers or car rental clerks) to know that you are qualified to drive and that you hold a valid license, even if they do not understand English.

Who can apply?
Any licensed driver aged 18 or older can apply for an IDP, as long as they have held their US license for a minimum of six months. There is no need to take any additional test, as the IDP is simply a translation of the information on your US license. It is valid for 12 months from the date of issue, so think carefully about when to apply to ensure it remains valid for the duration of your visit to Spain.

If you forget or make a last minute decision that you want to rent a car while you are in Spain, it is possible to get an IDP through a premium fast track service, and it will be sent to you electronically in just a few hours.

HOW DO I RENT A CAR IN SPAIN?

As long as you have your driver’s license, IDP, and payment card, you will find that the mechanics of renting a car in Spain are practically identical to renting in the US. You will even see the same companies, especially if you rent a car from the airport. These include Avis, Hertz, Budget and all the rest.

Renting a car during your visit to Spain is no more complicated than in any other western country. You will find all the familiar international car rental companies that you see in the US, as well as some smaller local operators. Typically, you will get the best rate by booking in advance, but sometimes there are good deals to be had by getting a last-minute rental direct at the booking desk. The Spanish car rental market is highly competitive, so be ready to shop around.

The booking process is largely the same as it is in the United States, but there are, however, some specific considerations that you need to keep in mind.

1. Driving age in Spain

The lower age limit for driving in Spain is 18, and even if you hold a license, you are prohibited from driving if you are under this age. Car rental companies in Spain have additional age-related requirements, however. They stipulate that you must be 21 or older to rent a car and certain rentals, for example high-performance or luxury vehicles, are only available to those aged 24 and over. Older drivers should also be aware that some rental companies have an upper age limit of 65. Note that for drivers aged 21-24, rental prices are likely to be higher.

2. Required documentation

A Spanish car rental company will need to see the following documents before handing over the keys to your rental car:

  • A valid driver’s license
  • An International Driver’s Permit (unless you hold a license issued in the EU)
  • A passport
  • A major credit card
  • Your booking confirmation
  • 3. Insurance considerations

As is the case in the US, a standard Spanish car rental contract will usually include the minimum necessary insurance coverage. You will be given the opportunity to purchase additional cover if you wish. The choice is yours, but keep the following considerations in mind when making your decision:

Check with your travel agent, your credit card company or your home car insurance company. They might be able to offer you comprehensive insurance at a better rate than the rental agency charges.
Examine the wording for the standard cover, and in particular, pay attention to the excess. This will tell you how much financial liability you will face if the car is damaged or stolen during the rental period.

4. Fuel

First and foremost, be prepared for the fact that fuel is significantly more expensive in Spain than in the US. Both gasoline(gasolina) and diesel (gasóleo) cars are available, but diesel is generally more common for rentals. Expect to pay around €1.25 per liter of diesel or €1.30 for a liter of diesel. That’s around the $1.40 mark, or $5.30 per gallon!

Fuel policies vary between rental companies, so read the terms carefully. If you are provided with a full tank of fuel at the beginning of the rental and are required to return the car full, make sure you do so, or you will face an inflated refueling charge.

5. Driving beyond Spain

In most cases, if you rent a car in one EU country on the European mainland, you can drive it across the border into other EU countries. This is particularly useful if you are planning on driving from Spain to Portugal. However, always check the terms of the car rental agreement to make certain.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

WHAT SIDE OF THE ROAD DO THEY DRIVE ON IN SPAIN?

In Spain, like the rest of mainland Europe, they drive on the right. This is good news for those visiting from the United States, but it is still important to keep in mind, particularly if you have previously visited the United Kingdom, and become accustomed to driving on the left. Keep in mind that when using a rotary (roundabout) cars that are already on it have right of way over those waiting to join.

The other important point to remember here is when joining a major road from a slipway. Always wait until you reach the broken line before joining, and never cross a solid line. This is something the Spanish police have been particularly stringent about enforcing over recent years, so be vigilant! Also, remember to stay on the right on dual carriageways – the left lane is for overtaking, and you should move back across as soon as it’s safe, or you could face a €100 fine.

ARE DRIVING STANDARDS IN SPAIN AS BAD AS THEY LOOK ON TV?

Television has a lot to answer for. The truth is that Spanish drivers are among the most laid-back on the planet. You are far more likely to experience road rage from other tourists than from locals. Of course, being relaxed is one thing, and being a good driver is another. It’s true that locals will often pay little attention to lane discipline, and will sometimes pull out in the path of oncoming traffic.

In short, this means you need to keep your wits about you, expect the unexpected and practice defensive driving techniques. In other words, do all the things your driving instructor taught you when you first got your license and you will be absolutely fine. And remember, if someone does cut you up or cause you to brake suddenly, don’t get angry. Instead, adopt the Spanish approach, give them a friendly wave and carry on enjoying your day.

As is the case anywhere, however, accidents do happen. The most recent data from the Directorate-General for Traffic shows that there were 1,830 fatalities in 2017, which represents 38 deaths per million inhabitants. These are among the lowest figures in the European Union, but it is worth noting that the figure has risen year on year since 2013, when it stood at 36 per million.

Those termed vulnerable users, ie pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists constituted a disproportionately high percentage of fatalities, at 46 percent. In particular, it is significant that 408 of those killed were riding motorcycles or mopeds.

Distracted driving was a factor in a third of all fatal accidents in Spain in 2017. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that our modern addiction to smartphones has come under the microscope in this regard. The Road Safety Act is very clear. Not only does it prohibit those driving in Spain from speaking on their cell phone, it is also illegal to so much as pick it up, even while the vehicle is stationary at traffic lights, and offenders will be fined €200. Using an earpiece is also prohibited, so the best advice is simply to switch your phone off and put it somewhere out of reach and away from temptation.

HOW DO DRIVING RULES IN SPAIN DIFFER FROM THE USA?

While sensible and defensive driving will get you by in most places, there are a few specific driving rules in Spain that you need to know about. There are also some accepted practices that can take a US driver in Spain by surprise.

First, let’s look at the essentials that you are legally required to have with you in the vehicle when you are driving in Spain:

  • Your driving license and International Driving Permit.
  • Proof of insurance.
  • A warning triangle – this is to be placed to the rear of the vehicle in the event of a breakdown or flat tire. Residents are required to carry two, but for visitors, one is sufficient.
  • Spare bulbs.
  • If you wear glasses, you are required to have a spare pair with you.
  • Two fluorescent jackets or hi-vis vests – you or your passengers could be fined for walking on the road or hard shoulder without one, so it’s a wise precaution to have one in the car.

If you are renting a car, then the warning triangle, bulbs and fluorescent vests should already be there in the trunk – but make sure before you sign the form and drive away.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

ANY OTHER RULES I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT?

Flashing lights and sounding your horn
One significant difference between driving in the USA and driving in Spain that you will immediately notice is that plenty of light-flashing goes on. This can confuse visitors, and lead to those misconceptions about local drivers being aggressive. In fact, it is a legal requirement to flash your lights when you intend to overtake, to let the slower vehicle know you are coming through.

As an alternative, or in addition to, flashing lights, some drivers will sound their horns for the same reason. Again, this is normal, but do not use the horn for any reason other than warning other drivers of your presence. You could face a fine of €80 for using it inappropriately, and this goes up during night time hours.

Keeping the noise down
Similarly, consider the local residents if you are driving late at night with music playing. The police will stop you if it is too loud, and could fine you up to €100. Remember, the Spanish take their rest and relaxation time very seriously, so do not disturb the peace.

What not to wear
The Spanish climate is famous for its warmth, but don’t be tempted to strip off too much while driving in Spain. According to the authorities, driving without a shirt, barefoot or even in flip flops reduces your capacity to properly control the vehicle, and means an automatic fine of €200.

Stay off your phone
Also, keep the earlier point about cellphone usage at the forefront of your mind. The map and GPS functionality of a modern smartphone is undoubtedly useful when driving in Spain for the first time, but don’t be tempted to drive with your cellphone balanced on your knee. Far better to leave it, and the whole navigation role, in the hands of your passenger, whether you are using mobile tech or a traditional driving map of Spain.

Watch your speed
We will cover speed limits and their signage in the next section, but be aware that there is an overarching obligation on those driving in Spain to drive at a safe speed for the road conditions. So if you are driving in heavy rain, reduce your speed to stay on the right side of the law.

Seat belts
The rules regarding seat belts are very simple in Spain. If they are there, you must wear them, and you will be presented with a €200 fine for flouting the law. That applies to back seat passengers as well as those in the front. All vehicles manufactured since 1992 have had front and rear seat belts fitted as standard, so unless you are driving a vintage or classic, there is no excuse for not buckling up.

Child restraints
Any child below the height of 135 cen­ti­meters (four feet and five inches) must use an appropriate child re­straint sys­tems when traveling in a car on Spanish roads. Traffic law in Spain dictates the type of restraint on the basis of the child’s age and weight as follows:

  • Up to nine months and 10 Kg (22 lb) – in a back seat facing rearwards
  • Nine to 15 months and up to 13 Kg (29 lb) – in a back seat facing rearwards
  • Nine month to four years and from nine to 18 Kg (20 lb to 40 lb) – in a back seat facing forwards
  • Four to six years and from 15 to 25 Kg (33 lb to 55 lb) – in a back seat facing forwards
  • Six to 11 years and from 22 to 36 Kg (48 lb to 80 lb) – in a back seat facing forwards
  • If a police officer sees chil­dren under the prescribed height be­ing trans­por­ted without use of an appropriate re­straint sys­tem or sitting in the front seat, they will stop the vehicle. As well as facing a fine of €200, you will not be permitted to continue your journey until the child is seated correctly.

The only exception to the above rule is if the car does not have back seats or if all the back seats are already occupied by children. In this case, a rear-fa­cing child re­straint sys­tem may be used in the front passenger seat, provided the passenger airbag is deactivated.

WILL I UNDERSTAND THE ROAD SIGNS WHEN DRIVING IN SPAIN?

Spain’s road signs follow the conventions stipulated in the 1949 Protocol on Road Signs and Signals and the 1968 Convention on Road Signs and Signals. In short, that means they are similar to those you will encounter across the rest of Europe, and by and large, they are intuitively obvious to understand.

The exceptions
For every rule, there is an exception, however, and there are some signs that are specific to Spain. These include the following:

  • Red octagon bearing the word STOP – fortunately, the meaning is obvious.
  • Blue square with a curved white arrow – this indicates where you can make a U-turn and also shows a distance in meters.
  • Blue square containing a white number – maximum advisable speed.
  • Blue rectangle with a camera symbol – beauty spot / viewing point.

Speed limits
Speed limit signs consist of a black number surrounded by a red circle. To understand the speed limits you need to observe while driving in Spain, you first have to understand the roads.

  • An autopista is the Spanish equivalent of a freeway in the US or a motorway in the UK. The speed limit is 120 km/h (75 mph)
  • An autovia is the equivalent of a US highway, or a dual carriageway in the UK. Here, the speed limit is 100 km/h (62 mph).
  • On single lane roads outside urban areas, the speed limit is 90 km/h (55 mph)
  • In towns and built up areas, it is 50 km/h (31 mph)

In all the above cases, the standard maximum speed limits for driving is Spain are subject to local variations, so stay on the lookout for signs. For example, tunnels and underpasses have reduced limits of 80 or 100 km/h, even on the autopista. Sharp bends and areas around intersections also have speed limit signs, and these are strictly enforced by both police patrols and static cameras.

Road markings
Road marking and lines are generally in white. The only exceptions are yellow lines or zigzags, which indicate “no parking” or yellow boxes at intersections, which you must not enter unless the exit is clear.

High occupancy lanes
One other sign to be aware of is the one marked “BUS-VAO”. You will encounter these if you visit the major cities, and they indicate lanes that can only be used by buses, motorcycles and cars that have a minimum of two occupants, or three in the case of Barcelona.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

WHAT ARE THE RULES ABOUT DRINKING AND DRIVING IN SPAIN?

The simplest rule to follow here consists of only one word: Don’t. The Spanish authorities take a very dim view of DUI. In the event of an accident, all drivers will be breathalyzed as a matter of course, and the police have the right to request a breath sample from any driver they suspect to be under the influence. They will also take a saliva sample to check for cannabis or cocaine use.

Alcohol and illegal drugs contributed to more than a quarter of all road fatalities in Spain in 2017. That’s 476 lives lost in a single year, so it is understandable that the Spanish authorities take a hard line on anyone driving in Spain while under the influence.

The legal limit for blood alcohol is 0.5 mg/ml, which is significantly lower than the limit in the USA or the UK. Driving under the influence will at best mean a hefty fine of €500 or more. At worst, you could face a custodial sentence. In either event, your vehicle will be seized, meaning yet more expense. The message is loud and clear: If you want to be 100 percent safe, it is really not worth risking even a glass of wine or beer if you are driving in Spain.

WHAT IF I GET STOPPED BY THE POLICE?

Law enforcement officers have a legal right to stop you in order to “ensure road safety and prevent the commission of offenses.” Even if you’ve been driving sensibly and not consumed any alcohol, getting stopped by the police can still be an unnerving experience, particularly in an unfamiliar country.

Telling you to stop

The police officer will indicate that you are required to stop by driving behind you and flashing a flashing red light in addition to its flashing blue lights. This means you should stop the vehicle at the side of the road in a location where it will not prevent risk to other road users. If this is not immediately possible, continue driving until you reach a safe place to stop.

The patrol vehicle will stop behind yours. You and your passengers must remain in the vehicle and wait for the officer to approach you. He will walk to the right side of the vehicle. Wind down your window and he will explain the reason he has stopped you.

If you are pulled over by the authorities, exercise common sense. Be friendly and courteous, comply with all instructions and avoid getting into any arguments. Keep in mind that like law enforcement officers the world over, they are just doing their job, and it is not always an easy one. Police officers in Spain have a reputation for being friendly, helpful and polite, so if you treat them in the same way, the stop will go smoothly and you will soon be on your way again. At this point, the police officer will help you to rejoin the flow of traffic safely, signaling other vehicles to stop for you if necessary, so wait for him to do so.

Know your Spanish police officers
The Spanish police department is divided into three types as follows:

  • Municipal Police – these are effectively the local officers, reporting to their town mayor. You will recognize them by their blue uniforms. They deal with minor traffic offenses and parking violations.
  • Civil Guard – responsible for national security, they also patrol the highways and will pull you over if they catch you speeding or see you using your phone while driving in Spain. They wear green uniforms.
  • National Police – this unit wears a black uniform and is responsible for investigating more serious crimes. You are unlikely to encounter them in the context of driving violations.

Penalties and fines

Civil Guard officers have the right to implement on the spot fines for speeding and other driving violations. We’ve already looked at some examples of fines above, but broadly speaking, minor infringements, such as “hogging” the overtaking lane incur a €100 fine, major offences, such as exceeding the speed limit by less than 30 percent cost €200, while a very serious violation, such as DUI or speeding at more than 30 percent over the limit means €500.

Paying on the spot usually means a reduced fine, so it makes sense to deal with it then and there if you are in a position to do so. The officer should always provide a receipt, but if it is not offered, make sure you ask for one.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I AM INVOLVED IN AN ACCIDENT WHILE DRIVING IN SPAIN?

It’s almost inevitable that even the best and most careful driver will be involved in some sort of road accident at some time. When driving in an unfamiliar country in an unfamiliar car, the risk of something going wrong increases, so it is important to know what to do if the worst should happen.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice is to try to remain calm. That can be easier said than done in such a stressful situation, but it can make the difference between a problem and a disaster. With that in mind, these are the steps you need to follow.

1. Put on the fluorescent high visibility vest or jacket

Remember, it is a legal requirement to wear one when walking on the highway, so don’t allow any of your passengers to walk around at the roadside without one either.

2. Get everyone to a position of safety

Fluorescent jacket or not, the highway is a dangerous place, and is certainly not somewhere for children to be wandering around. Get all your passengers away from the car and into a safe location. If the incident has occurred on the autopista, that means shepherding them well away from the road on the other side of the safety barrier or fence.

3. Check for injuries

Only now should you go to other vehicles involved to check if anyone has sustained an injury. If they have, call the emergency services on 112. This is an important number to remember, as it will connect you to the emergency services anywhere in Europe, and it is manned 24/7 by people who speak English, Spanish and French. Explain that there has been an accident and that passengers have been injured Unless there is serious hazard in doing so (for example fire), it is generally safest to leave any injured passengers where they are in the vehicle until medical help arrives. Trying to move them could exacerbate the injuries they have sustained, and might even endanger life.

4. Alert other road users

If possible, you and the other parties involved in the accident should move your vehicles either off the road or to the side, in order to minimize obstruction to other road users. If this is not possible, switch on hazard warning lights and switch off the engine if it is still running. In cases where the vehicle or vehicles are obstructing the road, take the warning triangles from the trunk and place them around the vehicle. On the autopista or other major roads, they should be around 50 meters and 100 meters (55 yards and 110 yards) behind the car. On minor roads, place one to the front and one to the rear, about three meters (three yards) from the front and rear.

5.Call the police if necessary

If the accident was a serious one and you have not already done so, now is the time to call the police on 112. You should also summon the police if there is any kind of dispute between the drivers as to what happened.

6. Gather information

Next, you should gather some basic information about the other drivers and their vehicles. Also, be ready to provide the same information to them about yourself:

  • Driver’s name
  • Driver’s address
  • Driver’s telephone number
  • Driver’s license number
  • Insurance provider and policy number
  • Vehicle make, model and color
  • Vehicle license plate number

At the same time, take the contact details for any witnesses present, and take photographs of the vehicles, the road and any other details such as skid marks or damage to property if it is safe to do so.

7. Complete a European Accident Agreement Form

This is a handy form that will be attached to your insurance documents. It is in a standard format and provides a simple way for you and the other parties involved to record all the details of what happened while everything is still fresh in your mind. The idea is to form a “friendly agreement” between the drivers as to the basic facts, without anyone admitting liability. The insurers will use the information in the form to expedite the claims process. Note that there is a carbon copy that you can give to the other driver.

8. Inform the insurer

Under Spanish law, you are under a legal obligation to report any and all accidents to the insurance company as soon as possible after they occur. In all events, make sure they are informed within seven days, but ordinarily, you should file your report immediately. This is particularly important where the policy includes breakdown cover, as you will need to let them know so that they can arrange to recover the vehicle and transport you and your passengers to your destination.

9. Seeking compensation

If the accident was not your fault, you might be entitled to some form of indemnity or compensation for costs incurred and any injuries sustained. If this applies to you and you intend to take legal action, you must report the details of the incident and the nature of your claim to the authorities within six months.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

ENJOY THE OPEN ROAD

Spain is a country unrivaled for its natural beauty and its vibrant cities. There really is no better way to explore everything that Spain has to offer than by car. If you have never driven outside the United States before, driving in Spain with a US license is nothing to be alarmed about, and is something that thousands of visitors do every year without incident.

In summary, the most important things to keep in mind are as follows:

  • Plan ahead – ensure you have your international driver’s permit and speak to your insurance provider and credit card company to see if they can offer you a favorable deal on insurance.
  • Familiarize yourself with European road signs, and make sure you know the ones that are specific to Spain.
  • Read the small print on your car rental agreement. Pay particular attention to the parts relating to insurance and the fuel policy.
  • Abide by the rules. Remember, some driving practices that are “no big deal” in the US are strictly prohibited in Spain and can lead to a major fine, or worse.
  • Never drive in Spain if there is any chance you might be over the drink drive limit or if you have been taking recreational drugs.
  • If you are stopped by the police or are involved in an accident, remain calm, be polite and follow any instructions given by the authorities.
  • Drive defensively. It will reduce the chances of an accident and will also work wonders on your blood pressure. If bad driving by others makes you angry, remember the Spanish approach, and shrug it off with a smile and a wave.

Keep the above tips in mind, and you will be as relaxed and confident behind the wheel as any local, as you explore the cities, villages and countryside of Spain at your own pace and on your own terms. Safe travels!

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. Spanish drivers might have a few bad habits, but aggression is definitely not one of them, so drive with a smile on your face and enjoy the open road.

Sources:
Directorate-General for Traffic (June 2018). Road Accident Rate 2017 (Extended Edition)
Joanne Thomas (August 2018), How to Rent a Car in Spain, USA Today
Amanda Thomas (February 2018), The Law on Mobiles and Driving in Spain, Spanish Solutions
Driving in Spain,The RAC
Going Abroad – Spain, The European Commission
How to Deal with a Road Traffic Accident in Spain (June 2019), HealthPlan Magazine
European Accident Report Forms (May 2016), Going Nomad
Mark Nolan (July 2016), Red Light Stop, Guardia Civil
Road Rules on Safety Belts in Spain (Including for Children) (May 2018), Spanish Solutions