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Driving in Europe can be a scary experience for those not used to it. For a start, the cars are all on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Different countries have different rules, regulations and toll systems and some of them take quite a bit of working out. Here are a few helpful tips to make your driving experience in Portugal a little less stressful, so that you can enjoy your time here more.
It seems as though half of the drivers in Portugal are patient and courteous, particularly in small towns. You can stop in a street to let someone into or out of the car and people will wait patiently behind you for a minute or so without beeping. The other half of the drivers here seem to be in a desperate hurry to get wherever they are going and will happily overtake at high speed on blind bends.
The EN125, which runs the length of the Algarve, has long been hailed as one of the most dangerous roads in Europe – it was once known as the ‘road of death.’ I have been overtaken dangerously on it on many occasions since living here, by cars, vans and even a coach. On the most notable occasion, a car overtook me directly into oncoming traffic, despite the fact that I was already driving at the speed limit. Both I and the oncoming car had to swerve hard to avoid a nasty collision. Keep your wits about you when using this road.
One thing that can seem unnerving when driving in Portugal is how closely cars will drive behind you. The concept of leaving a safe braking distance is not something that seems to be cherished here. Drivers will happily sit so closely behind you that they appear to be mere inches from your back bumper. It can be unsettling when a car does this and terrifying when an HGV does it, but it’s not intended to intimidate – it’s just the way things are done here.
Licences and insurance
You can drive in Portugal with a driving licence from an EU country. If you have a non-EU licence then you may need an international driving licence before you can legally drive here. If you are bringing your own car, make sure you have insurance that covers you to drive in Portugal (and any other countries you might drive through to get here). If you’re hiring a car, I would highly recommend purchasing as much insurance as is available through your hire car company. Both us and our guests have had mishaps in hire cars that would have been costly had we not purchased the additional insurance options available.
Be sure to carry your licence, vehicle registration documents, passport, insurance documents and any rental agreement in your car whenever you drive. Older style (green) UK licences are valid, but the AA recommends voluntarily upgrading to the newer photocard licence before you drive in Portugal, as these are more widely understood and accepted.
If you’ve moved to Portugal and are driving on a UK driving licence, you need to present yourself to the authorities and register your licence to your Portuguese address within 30 days of obtaining your Portuguese residency certificate. This is done at the IMTT, which is Portugal’s equivalent of the DVLA (well, sort of – the IMTT’s remit is actually wider than that of the DVLA). The IMTT’s website includes a list of its locations, so you can find the one nearest to you. (The site can be viewed in English, but is limited to three pages – if you want to see the rest of it you will need to view the Portuguese version.)
It is important to ensure that you visit the IMTT and fill out your paperwork within the required time. It is a requirement to do so under Portuguese law and you can be fined if you don’t do it. It also avoids the problem of you living at an address which is different from that on your UK licence, which is an offence in England. Once you have the completed form from the IMTT confirming your Portuguese address, keep it with your driving licence at all times.
It is possible for residents to exchange their UK licence for a Portuguese one should they wish. This is done at the IMTT as well.
Although there are obviously variations across Portugal, speed limits are generally 120 km/h on motorways, 90 km/h on main roads and 50 km/h in towns.
Drinking and driving
The permissible alcohol limit in Portugal is lower than in the UK, at 0.5 mg per ml (or 0.05%). This is so low that the best advice is simply not to drink at all if you will be driving. Penalties for drink driving can be harsh. Despite this, drink driving is still in evidence in many parts of the country, particularly on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. A national campaign is underway in order to try and stamp out this practice.
Portugal has a number of toll roads, which are in good condition and generally quiet and pleasant to cruise along. Most have two payment systems – cash/cards or an electronic transponder that fits on the inside of your windscreen. The transponder can help you to beat the queues at the tolls, as there is generally less traffic in that lane than in the cash lanes.
A number of toll roads operate an electronic toll system, so have no cash booths. To travel on these roads, you need to comply with the payment requirements of the company that manages the road. A good summary of these is available on the Visit Portugal website.
Toll charges can be quite expensive. It costs around €10 to drive from the western end of the Algarve to Spain and about €20 to drive from the Algarve to Lisbon. With petrol being expensive in Portugal, driving excursions can end up costing quite a lot with the tolls added in, but if you’ve tried the bumpy alternatives to the motorways for any long distance, I’m sure you’ll agree the cost of the tolls is well worth it.
I will refrain from joining in any debate regarding the implementation of tolls on the Algarve’s A22 motorway. There’s plenty online about it if you are interested!
As well as the standard requirements of ensuring your vehicle is roadworthy and so forth, Portugal requires you to carry a number of items in your car. These include a high visibility jacket (which must be accessible without you having to leave the vehicle), a spare set of bulbs and a reflective warning triangle. It is compulsory to use your high visibility jacket and warning triangle in the event of an accident or breakdown.
Having a First Aid kit in the car is suggested, but not compulsory. It is also recommended that you carry a spare pair of glasses with you while driving. Having lost my sole pair of glasses in the sea while on holiday in Spain, I can attest to the sense of this advice!
Children shorter than 1.50m and under 12 years old must travel in the back of the vehicle and use a restraint system appropriate to their age/size. Children under three years old can travel in the front seat if an appropriate restraint system is used. Please note that if the restraint system involves a rear-facing seat, the airbag must be switched off.
You have to be 18 to drive in Portugal. Although in the UK you can legally drive from age 17, and you can drive in Portugal on a UK licence, you might have a hard time explaining that (in Portuguese) if you are pulled over for any reason. It may be best to wait until you are 18 before driving in Portugal on a UK licence.
You will often see Portuguese vehicles, including lorries and coaches, parked on roundabouts. I am unclear as to why this is. It is not legal and you should not do it!
Dealing with the police
If you are pulled over while driving for any reason, be polite and respectful when dealing with the authorities. If you are fined for anything, the payment must be made immediately, either in cash or using the portable credit card machine that most police cars carry. If you refuse to pay, the police can take your driving licence and registration document. They should give you a receipt for these and tell you where and when you can collect them. If you refuse to hand over your documents, the police have the power to confiscate your vehicle.
It is compulsory to use your headlights at night, when driving in tunnels, and in poor visibility during the day. Non-compliance with this may result in a fine.
It is compulsory for all passengers to wear seatbelts and it is the driver’s responsibility to ensure that they do. If you are pulled over and one or more passengers is not wearing a seatbelt, it is the driver who will pay the fine.
Although the above is correct at time of writing, please note that rules and regulations do change from time to time, so be sure you have the latest information to hand before driving in Europe. Safe travels 🙂
For more helpful hints and advice on all things Portuguese, why not check out our book: Moving to Portugal: How a young couple started a new life in the sun – and how you could do the same
Image credits: Pixabay, Fotopedia, Dennis Mojado