Spain's economic woes give relief to drivers as cops angry at wage cuts shy from issuing fines

MADRID (AP) — Spanish traffic cops upset over a pay cut and other slights have found a new way to express their anger: slapping motorists' wrists instead of writing them a ticket.

That protest against Spain's economic and debt woes is raising concerns about whether road safety is being jeopardized in one of Europe's top tourism destinations. The number of traffic deaths last weekend hit 29 — the highest so far this year.

In June, the first month after government salaries were reduced 5 percent as part of an austerity plan, the number of traffic tickets handed out by patrol officers fell by nearly 50 percent compared to the same period in 2009, according to figures from the Civil Guard highway department obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

Official numbers for July are not yet out but news reports say the go-easy policy of letting people off with warnings rather than a fine has pressed on.

The protest — which the Spanish press has baptized the strike of the "downed pens" — is another headache for a beleaguered government that also faces a threatened strike by air traffic controllers whose salaries were also cut.

The highway cops have not said they are going easy on drivers, but their boss acknowledges they are.

An official with the Independent Civil Guard Association, which acts like a pseudo-guild because the Civil Guard is a paramilitary organization and cannot unionize, said the protest began spontaneously and then spread.

"There is a generalized bad feeling," said this official, who spoke on condition of anonymity saying he feared reprisal if he were named.

The 10,000-strong Civil Guard traffic department was already miffed because its officers earn less than other police officers in Spain — their salaries run from €1,600 ($2,100) to €1,800 ($2,400) a month — and have not seen the extra hiring promised by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Then, in April, the department circulated a moneysaving memo urging officers to use their radios more, rather than cell phones, and spend more time parked watching out for traffic violators instead of being on patrol.

Last weekend, highway deaths went from an average of about 20 to 29, and alarm bells went off amid worries that the police go-slow is encouraging Spaniards to drive less carefully.

The government's top official for traffic safety said no, saying that number is not statistically significant because it refers to too-short a time span.

"I will never say that the protest by the Civil Guards has caused an increase in highway accidents," said Pere Navarro, head of the National Traffic Directorate.

In addition, under a new reform, traffic cops handing out fines earn more points toward a monthly bonus than helping a motorist with a broken-down car.

The nation's top-selling daily, El Pais, has lashed out at both sides: the traffic cops for exerting pressure with a tactic that could make roads less safe, and the government for giving the impression that the officers' job is less about protecting drivers than raising revenue by fining them.

Out on the street, 38-year-old graphic designer Oscar Trevino said he understands the Civil Guard is in a bind because it cannot go on strike, but he insisted the "downed pens" movement was wrong.

"If it is their job, it is their job," he said. "It is their responsibility."