American in Spain

Spanish Traffic Ticket

October 9, 2006

I got my first Spanish traffic ticket this past weekend. It all happened like this... On Friday, October 6, 2006, we were about 60% of the way to Madrid. I was driving. Mother Nature picked up the phone and suggested to me that I stop to urinate. Marga was dozing, and when I started to slow down on the ramp up to a rest stop, she asked why we were stopping. I explained about my full bladder. At the top of the ramp, at the entrance to the parking lot, there was a police car, and the officers were standing outside the car. They waved me over and told me to stop.

They asked for my license and the registration and insurance documents for the car. I gave him my license and explained that I was American. The car's registration is in a nice wallet in the glove box, so we showed him that. But we couldn't find the insurance information. There were lots and lots of papers in the glove compartment, many of them from our insurance company. We found the receipt from the first year we paid, which expired in March 2006. The officer seemed patient and told us to look for another paper that looked like the expired one. We showed him paper after paper, and he said that none of them were the receipt that we needed. I asked politely if I could run inside to relieve myself, and when I returned, he was writing out a ticket.

He said that we had five days to go into a traffic office and demonstrate that we really had insurance. The fine for not having it with us would be about 60€ ($75). Before we parted, Marga explained to the officer just how idiotic she thought that particular law is. He gave a "Yeah, well..." shrug and got in his car.

I'm all for requiring drivers to have insurance. That makes sense to me. And having proof in the car also seems like a good idea. However, I don't think that a fine is necessary at all. I'm fine with having to demonstrate my insurance, but I think it should be possible over the phone. In England, you aren't even required to have your driving license with you in the car. If the cops stop you and have reason to doubt that you have a license, you are required to go into a traffic office and show your license, or fax a copy to them. That seems like a better system.

What really ticked me off about the whole thing was how these cops were just sitting there in the parking lot randomly selecting cars. How lazy can you be? Aren't there real crimes to be fighting?

So anyway, this morning Marga bursts into the bedroom at 8:00am and says that we're going to Santander (the nearest traffic office). She had already gotten up, gone in to work, and started looking more carefully through the papers that we had in the car and found the insurance receipt!!! One of the papers that we gave to the officer was the receipt, and he told us that it wasn't! So she had come back home to get me to go to Santander to resolve the problem.

The woman at the complaints desk was a typical government employee. She didn't want to hear our story past knowing which papers to make a photocopy of for someone else to deal with. Marga filled out a form explaining what happened, and we gave it to the woman. Marga didn't even get to use her line about how, if they didn't believe us, they could dust the insurance receipt for prints and find the officer's prints on it.

Who knows how many months and how much tax money will be spent fixing this lazy officer's mistake. We have learned that we should know which papers are the important ones to facilitate the search when asked for them. We should have been more responsible. But, the fact still stands, that we did not break any law. The law requires you to have them and show them to the officer when asked. It's his job to know how to read them. And finally, the insurance company deserves some blame for this fiasco, because the actual paper doesn't look like what it is. It starts with "Dear Customer," and looks very much like a letter to the customer. And the dates of validity are hidden in the middle of a table of information, all in fine print.

I'd say it's about 50-50 on whether we'll have to pay the 60€ or not. All this, just because I had to pee...