Spending cuts that can kill
Lower investment in highways sees the risk of fatal traffic accidents increase
Repair firms rail against drastic cutbacks, while government denies any great change
On March 8, 2011, around 11am, a 27-year-old woman called Marta Jorgoso Torres lost control of her Seat Córdoba as she drove across a bridge on the outskirts of the city of Granada. The accident was similar to one experienced by another driver on the same bend in August 2010. Concrete barriers by the side of the road had saved that motorist's life, but were severely damaged by the impact. The regional government of Andalusia's highways department replaced the concrete blocks with a few cones and plastic barriers that did nothing to prevent Jorgoso's car from plunging off the side of the bridge and falling 40 meters. Two weeks later, the highways department replaced the concrete barrier.
What happened to Marta Jorgoso illustrates how poor road maintenance can turn an accident into a tragedy. The Spanish Highways Association (AEC), which brings together the companies tasked with road repair, has issued a report warning of the "dangerous deterioration" of the country's network, and that accident deaths were likely to increase over the coming years as a result.
Investment in road maintenance has fallen over recent years as a result of the deep cuts in public spending imposed by the last two governments. In 2009, the Public Works Ministry spent 1.3 billion euros on road repairs, a figure that includes road surface repair, signage, barriers, and lighting. This year the figure is 873 million.
The AEC says around 325,000 signs need replacing; almost 50,000 kilometers of road have severely worn lane indications; and 21 percent of lights have been turned off or do not work. Most serious, it says, is the state of road surfaces, which are at their worst for 25 years. Between 2007 and 2008, 500 million euros were spent annually, a figure that dropped to 28 billion in 2009, and to 14 billion in 2010. "It has been three years of virtually no real investment, and that is having an impact on road safety," says the AEC's Elena de la Peña.
Many drivers will already have noticed the deteriorating state of the country's highways, with cracks and potholes, signs that already barely readable at night and poor road markings. Returning to Madrid from Toledo via Santo Tomé del Puerto along the A1 involves suddenly hitting a stretch of road works and continuing along an uneven surface that requires slow and careful driving. The trip is even more dangerous by motorcycle, with constant breaking and swerving to avoid potholes and grooves in the road surface caused by heavy trucks.
Listening to Spain's road users and the companies tasked with the upkeep of the network, it becomes clear that the country's highways are far from "forgiving," a concept based on the design of roads that take human and mechanical error into account, thus reducing the risk of serious injury in the event of accidents.
"Up to around 10 years ago, drivers were blamed for the accident and death rate, but the policy now is much more about shared responsibilities," says De la Peña. "The problem here is that we always wait until a road has become dangerous before doing anything. Our job is to convey the message that our roads are everybody's responsibility. They need to be periodically maintained. This is the way to avoid accidents."
The Public Works Ministry plays down the AEC's assessment, noting: "The country's roads would really have to be in a ruinous state for the death rate to go up. Lower budgets may not make the companies in the sector very happy, and they may well make less money, but these companies have enjoyed unchanged contracts in recent years," says a spokesman. The ministry says it is working with the road-repair companies on ways to maintain the standard of the country's routes at a lower cost.
Regional governments are also to blame. A report from 2010 by the motorcycle association Mutua Motera details the parlous state of the roads in and around Granada, mentioning the spot where Marta Jorgoso was killed. Juan Manuel Reyes of Mutua Motera says that part of the problem in getting roads improved is that accident victims or their families rarely bring legal action against regional governments because of the cost and difficulties involved, despite the fact that the law allows for prison sentences of up to two years for public officials who fail to maintain roads to an adequate standard.
Jorgoso's family tried to bring charges against the Andalusian government for criminal responsibility, but a judge refused to admit them. The family has since demanded compensation. The region's highways department will not comment on the case until a decision has been reached by the courts. It has rejected accusations that it failed to repair the stretch of road in time, despite taking seven months to replace the concrete blocks after the first accident, and two weeks after the death of Jorgoso.