After a couple of weeks in Spain, a driver returning to Maryland's roads experiences a severe case of culture shock.
There's no place like home — to scare your pants off.
Five times in the first three days back from work after an idyllic vacation with my wife, I've witnessed blatant cases of red light-running right in front of me. The most recent incident was the most frightening — the driver simply ran a red light, forcing me to brake hard to avoid a T-bone collision.
Never saw that while driving in Spain.
Americans have a tendency to think foreigners are crazy drivers, and in some cases that's true. I wouldn't recommend driving in Palermo, Sicily, for instance.
When I first considered travel to Spain, I asked a colleague who knows that country well whether it was safe to drive there. He looked at me a little oddly and assured me it was.
Now I know why the odd look. It is the Spaniards coming to the United States — particularly to Baltimore and Washington — who should be asking whether it's safe to drive here. While I was sitting around eating tapas and drinking cerveza, Allstate Insurance's annual "America's Best Drivers" report once again put Baltimore near the bottom of the barrel nationwide based on the number of collisions.
At one time, Spain's drivers had a terrible reputation, but aggressive safety efforts have cut the fatality rate there in half during the last decade. Maryland has seen reductions, but not on that scale.
The Spaniards with whom we shared the road were, for the most part, skilled and courteous. Passing lanes were used to pass, and not at excessive speeds. There were a few tailgaters, but no more than you'd encounter any day on Interstate 95. The road system was comparable to our interstates, though the tolls on some roads were high when translated into our pitifully weak U.S. dollar.
One of the most striking things about driving in Spain — or at least on the newer roads — is that the system is obviously engineered to minimize left turns. In some places, right-hand exits curl drivers around so that they cross the intersection rather than turn left. These cambio de sentido, or "change of direction," areas — known to American engineers as "jug handles" — are a great idea.
Also in widespread use in Spain are roundabouts, which minimize the need for both red lights and left turns. That cuts down on two of the most dangerous driving maneuvers right there.
Maryland and its counties have eagerly embraced the roundabout concept, putting in almost 300 of them. Nevertheless, plenty of signal-controlled intersections would be safer if the money were there to make them traffic circles.
The State Highway Administration has a few innovative intersections around Maryland that help avoid left turns, but they are not common.
Norie Calvert, deputy director of the agency's Office of Highway Development, said Maryland is looking at a variety of intersection designs to improve safety. She said the state is also trying to limit the number of points where drivers can enter major highways.
"The more you can minimize any conflict points between traffic, then the better operations and safety characteristics of the highway," she said.
Calvert said each intersection needs to be looked at individually.
It seems the Spanish are looking a little more intensively, however.
This is not to imply that everything about driving in Spain, or in other European countries, is wonderful. The signage in the central cities can be confusing and parking is chaotic.
But whatever you think of the bloodthirsty tradition of bullfighting, it sure beats the unofficial Maryland state sport of red light-running.
High-speed train envy
Someday a transportation enthusiast will go to a major European country and come home without raving about the train system.
This is not that day.
Our plans included only one trip where we could make use of Spain's famed high-speed rail network — a relatively short 75-mile jaunt from Seville to Cordoba (roughly the same distance from Philadelphia to Newark on the Northeast Corridor). But that was enough to get a feel for Spain's AVE train, which operates at top speeds of roughly 155 to 185 mph depending on track conditions.
Our trip between the two cities in the southern Andalusia region took a mere 45 minutes, with the train reaching top speeds only after having cleared the Seville area. That's about 10 minutes better than the Amtrak Acela train over the same distance. The time savings would have been more impressive had we taken the full 21/2-hour ride to Madrid — roughly a 12-hour journey by car.
It isn't so much the speed that's impressive about AVE but the quality of the ride. The train seems to glide rather than rumble. It's impressively quiet.
There are some worthy arguments made against federal investment in high-speed rail. They are expensive systems, without a doubt.
Such a service in the Northeast Corridor would likely require a subsidy — anathema to free-market conservatives. But when you figure in the likely productivity gains of professionals who need to move between Washington and Boston, the benefits come into better balance with the costs.
Mostly, it just doesn't feel right that an American has to leave the country to enjoy the experience of a true high-speed train running on a high-quality track. Don't we deserve better than second rate?