Spain drivers slow down to cut rising energy costs

The Associated Press
Monday, March 7, 2011; 3:22 PM

MADRID -- 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 kilometers per hour (68 miles) instead of 120 kph (75 mph).

"I'll try to obey," said 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.

The imposition of the reduced speed limit was reminiscent of a similar, widely hated 1974 move by the United States to reduce energy consumption.

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 percent of its energy and costs are rising just as the country tries to repair its damaged economy. The European Union average is 60 percent.

The government estimates Spain will save euro2.3 billion ($3.2 billion) 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 kph (112 mph) years ago chauffeuring 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," 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 euro100 ($140) for exceeding the new limit, but won't be penalized on their licenses until they go above 150 kph (93 mph).

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