Spain hit millions of lead-footed motorists where it hurts the most Monday: imposing a lower speed limit and heavy fines to cut oil imports and help lift the nation out of its economic morass.
Banker Luis Manuel Majado fumed as he filled up his late-model BMW in Madrid, saying driving will become downright boring now that he has to go no more than 110 kilometres per hour instead of 120 km/h.
“I’ll try to obey,” said Mr. Majado, 42. “But driving at 110 is monotonous, and could cause accidents” now that he won’t be able to floor it on the highway to zip by slow-moving trucks and buses.
Spaniards were divided Monday over whether the move will save consumers energy costs in a nation hit hard by Europe’s financial crisis and rising oil prices caused by Libya‘s oil production chaos.
But Spanish officials say the new speeding limit plus a host of other energy-saving measures are essential, because Spain depends on imports for 75 per cent of its energy and costs are rising just as the country tries to repair its damaged economy. The European Union average is 60 per cent.
The government estimates Spain will save $3.2-billion U.S. through the entire energy savings plan, which also includes tax breaks for energy efficient tires and switching to more efficient lights. Although motorists will spend less on gas, the government has not predicted how much tax revenue it could lose from lower gas sales.
With more than one out of every five Spaniards jobless amid grim economic growth prospects, some motorists said the new speed limit makes sense because every euro saved is worth it, and many people will be forced into compliance since they can’t afford the speeding fines.
“It’s fine with me because it saves energy,” said Alberto Garcia, a 65-year-old architect. “Everything you save is good because Spain is in terrible shape.”
But taxi driver Jose Luis Rico, who used to drive up to 180 km/h years ago driving a Mercedes when Spanish enforcement was lax, speculated Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodrigo Zapatero’s government just wanted more fines to shore up government coffers.
“The speed limit is just an excuse,” Mr. Rico said. “If you compare the cost-benefit of the savings compared to how much time motorists will lose, it’s clear that the expense is more than the savings.”
Violators face fines of $140 for exceeding the new limit, but won’t be penalized on their licenses until they go above 150 km/h (93 mph).
A weekend poll by the leading El Pais newspaper showed that 69 per cent of Spaniards oppose the lower speed limit. The telephone survey of 1,004 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
In Madrid, retired engineer Juan Maca said it “almost feeling like I’m not moving.”
Mr. Maca, 68, said he’ll adapt quickly – but that his sons were seething and will probably start racking up violations soon by speeding past highway camera-radar systems that send fines in the mail.
Motorcyclist Rafael Menendez said the new limit won’t bother him because he took a trip to Canada and saw firsthand that Canadians do just fine with lower speed limits.
“If it saves energy, it’s worth it,” he said, adding that the lower limit may well reduce accidents like the government predicts.
High profile critics of the reduced speed limit include two-time Formula One race car champion Fernando Alonso, who said last week it will be “hard to stay awake” on the highway with the new limit.
“Hamilton doesn’t fall asleep at 110 mh/h,” Sebastian said.
The new highway speed limit will stay until June 30 and could be extended, meaning it’s uncertain how fast European drivers will be able to go when they flock to Spain for summer vacations.
The 1974 U.S. law cut highway speed limits to 89 km/h, but was so widely loathed that it was eventually raised to 105 km/h (65 mph) on major highways. U.S. states now set their own limits. Some western states allow 129 km/h speed limits in flat rural areas.
Spain and other European nations depend heavily on Libyan crude, and Libyan oil production has been drastically curtailed amid intense fighting between government forces and rebels trying to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Prices at one point Monday rose above $106 a barrel in New York on fears of a prolonged cut in crude exports from Libya.