“Helping others is one of the few things in life that make sense”

He is a road safety activist and, as such, has returned to the front line. His goal is clear: to reduce traffic accidents and see to it that Spain sets the road safety benchmark for the whole world. Also to raise awareness among the public and explain the social drama that stems from stepping on the gas, using a cell phone and drink driving.

It is five in the afternoon at the DGT headquarters in Madrid. Pere Navarro (Barcelona, 1952) receives us in his office on the second floor of a building that houses the central services of the DGT, one of the institutions with the best reputation in Spain. We talk about cell phone addiction, his work in Morocco and his return to Spain. He admits he cannot find anywhere he wants to live more than in his own country. He feels the people here are incredible, generous and understand the importance of slowing down, as well as the need for the driving license points system. And he adds that, unlike other countries, Spaniards respond when things are explained properly to them.

You are back in a position you held from 2004 to 2012. What have you been doing in the meantime?
I left Spain. I had to choose between Paris and Rabat, and it took me three seconds to choose Morocco, where I lived for almost four years. I worked there as a counselor at the embassy, taking charge of matters affecting the Spaniards who, after the Civil War, migrated to Tangier and Casablanca, and are now in a vulnerable position. Going overseas is something I’d recommend to everyone. Adapting to a different culture makes you question many things you never even considered previously. That’s important. There’s a custom in Morocco that I like. First off, you ask people about their family and their health, and only then do you ask permission to send them an email. Asking about work is frowned upon. Now that I’m back, I have really fond memories of that time.

There are many people who missed you and have applauded your appointment. Are you aware that many remember you as the best DGT director general ever? How have you dealt with coming back?
There’s a lot of pressure. Past successes do not guarantee anything. I’ve come back because I feel I can help, because I believe I can be of use. It forms part of my philosophy. In life, there are few things that make sense and one of them is the ability to help others. If you think you can contribute, you’re almost obliged to accept the challenge.

After you left this institution, one of the country’s most reputed, they failed to reduce fatalities; in fact there was an upward shift in the mortality curve. The number of victims on our roads has risen in recent years. Why do you think this is?
Today there are nearly 900 fewer traffic police and almost 900,000 fewer sobriety checkpoints have been set up. We are well aware that, the greater the police presence, the fewer accidents occur and, therefore the fewer victims there are. The fundamental problem was that the sense of impunity had increased. Road safety is an equation with four variables: training, information, monitoring and control. The latter two are key. I believe what the European Union affirms. Compliance with traffic legislation is the most effective way of reducing accident and victim numbers. In this regard, the countries with the best results are those with the most effective authority systems. If you cut down on monitoring, people speed and drink more. These have also been difficult years, with the financial crisis, where there were clearly other priorities on the political agenda. And the results reflect this.

How do you feel you can help buck this trend?
In the first place, by opening the debate. Because, as I said earlier, this issue has to be put back on the political agenda. Secondly, it’s essential to underscore the role played by civil society, which is really decisive. And thirdly, by adopting certain measures, which is what affords credibility to a government, to political discourse. In Spain, we have many problems, but there are few that lead to 1,830 deaths and 9,500 seriously injured. What other situation leaves a similar trail of blood? Within a few years, nobody will be able to explain how we could put up with this le vel of suffering.

One of your first decisions was to review speed limits. What reactions have you come up against?
The truth is that we’ve been pleasantly surprised. I believe this is all because we’ve outlined the reasons why we’re considering these changes, resulting in the comprehension and willing acceptance of the general public. 75 percent of fatal accidents occur on secondary highways, and about half are due to vehicles running off the road, which clearly shows they were going too fast. Spain is the only EU country where the 100 or 90 km/h limits were still established on the basis of whether or not there exists a shoulder. With the exception of Poland and Romania, there were barely any European countries left where driving at 100 km/h was permitted on this kind of highway. Once again, if you explain things, citizens respond.

You introduced the points-based license system, which certainly marked a turning point in road safety policy. Do you feel it has lost its effectiveness?
The points-based license system was launched in July 2006, which means it’s time it was updated. This is what we intend to do now, because, among other things, at that time WhatsApp didn’t exist. Now it’s a real problem and it’s important to reflect this. There will also be greater penalties for not buckling up or not wearing a crash helmet, and we’ll simplify aspects related to drivers recovering their lost points, always provided that no further offenses are committed for two straight years. I believe this points-based system was a tremendous innovation, as drivers were held directly responsible for the first time for their behavior behind the wheel. They are the ones managing their points and this, generally speaking, is appreciated.

You are back with hard-hitting awareness campaigns. Why do you feel they are necessary?
I think we’ve been sleeping on our laurels. Over the past four years accidents and fatalities have increased. This forces us to sound the alarm and explain the drama an accident actually entails. Society must react and be more aware. This year’s campaign is directed especially at young people, trying to put across the full consequences of ending someone’s life as a result of breaking the rules. The messages are clear and highlight true-life situations: you won’t be able to look at yourself in the mirror; you’re going to end up in court; you may go to prison; and you’ll definitely have a criminal record. We want the public to come to the conclusion that it’s not worth the risk.

“In Spain, we have many problems, but there are few that lead to 1,830 deaths and 9,500 seriously injured. What other situation leaves a similar trail of blood? Within a few years, nobody will be able to explain how we could put up with this level of suffering”

There will be tougher penalties for using a cell phone while driving. Is increasing fines and imposing points penalties enough?
The cell phone is mainly a social problem, although it’s true that it impacts directly on road safety. People still believe alcohol is the leading cause of accidents; however, the truth is that, since 2016, distractions top the list, above excessive or inappropriate speed and alcohol consumption. This is why we are focusing on educating, informing and raising awareness, as well as increasing penalties for the manual use of cell phones. We need to engage everyone, from society to the operators and manufacturers, to tackle this problem. I’ve met people who go on a cell phone ‘fast’ once a week. Steps are already being taken to combat this addiction.

Have you tried it?
I must admit I haven’t. Whenever I leave my phone behind, I go back for it. My work demands this. However, in the car, I activate driving mode. You should always keep both hands on the wheel. Nor am I in favor of using screens and being able to program a navigation device with the vehicle in motion. This is something that worries us. We have found that, after talking on a cell phone for a minute and a half (even with handsfree), drivers don’t perceive 40 percent of signals, their heart rate accelerates and it takes them longer to react.

Many people are knocked down due to alcohol and the same debate arises again and again. Do you feel the Criminal Code is too lenient with this behavior?
I don’t think so. At the time, we made great progress when driving with high blood alcohol levels was introduced as an offense in the Criminal Code. It’s true that we’re reviewing some aspects related to the paradoxical situation whereby the sale of alcohol to young people is prohibited and yet they may drive with a blood alcohol level of 0.15. There is a draft proposal, yet to be approved by the Lower House, urging the government to boost commitment to zero tolerance of alcohol in the under-18s.

You are particularly concerned about road rage.
This is undoubtedly a serious matter, as it’s a kind of violence that affects people who do everything in their power to be responsible road users, yet they unfortunately encounter drivers who cut them up or crash right into them. The most graphic case is someone who goes out running or riding a bike on a Sunday morning and comes across a driver who has not yet gone to bed, is driving too fast and causes an accident. This gives some idea of the drama behind a traffic accident. The victims complain that we call this kind of situations an accident, and they are perfectly right. This is not accidental. Someone who is driving at 200 kilometers an hour or has consumed alcohol already knows what may happen.

“I think we’ve been sleeping on our laurels. Over the past four years accidents and fatalities have increased, forcing us to sound the alarm. We must explain the true drama of an accident, resorting to hard-hitting campaigns so society reacts”

How can we fulfill our Vision Zero?
We’ve spent our whole lives blaming drivers. If they drink, if they don’t fasten their seat belt, if they break the speed limit… What is interesting about Vision Zero is that it stems from the idea that sometimes people drink and step on the gas. We engineers also bear some responsibility, with the vehicles and infrastructures we design, here and throughout the world. In short, it’s a question of rethinking things, sharing the responsibility and, above all, coming together to put forward solutions that can help reduce the number of accidents.

There are ever more people riding bicycles and scooters. What aspects are going to be included in the new legislation you are working on?
It’s a text that proposes some basic ideas. It will require these vehicles to have a type approval certificate; stress that the sidewalk is a sacred space, exclusively for pedestrians; limit their use to certain types of streets, making it clear that they cannot be used on highways; and they will be included in the Vehicles Regulations, thus enabling us to legislate other important aspects such as alcohol consumption and the use of headphones, for example.

How can we reduce traffic congestion in our cities?
Our cities fulfill a statistical principle known as the 80/20 rule, which means that 20 percent of the streets endure 80 percent of the traffic, while 80 percent of the streets handle 20 percent of the traffic. Our challenge is to calm the traffic, reduce the speed limit to 30 km/h so that pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles and cars can coexist peacefully, while facilitating entering and leaving the city, and preventing cars from moving around the center all day long. This is the model we are aiming for, which will lead to fewer vehicles on the streets. We will soon become used to the shared taxi concept.

And in Latin America? What are the challenges there?
The first challenge is that these countries need institutions, whether competent agencies or organizations, with the capacity to implement the road safety plans designed by their governments. The second objective is to promote monitoring and enforced compliance of the regulations, as we believe that the sanctioning procedures are deficient at this time and there exists a tremendous sense of impunity. Not handing out or collecting fines in the countries of this region is a fundamental issue for road safety, as is improving the infrastructure and limiting the importation of vehicles over five years old. Also warranting special attention are the motorcyclists, especially in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Costa Rica, where their numbers have increased the most and awareness campaigns are needed to avoid risks. The good news is that major advances are being made in road safety education, and the programs are working very well.