As Spain's highways hum with vacationing motorists, relief from fears of being stopped and fined is coming from an odd quarter: the country's economic and debt woes. Traffic cops angry over a pay cut and other slights are slapping wrists rather than writing tickets.
That 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, for instance, was 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 whose summer was first rattled by a threatened strike by air traffic controllers whose salaries were also cut in the name of fiscal discipline.
The highway cops have not come right out and 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 thus cannot unionize, said the protest began spontaneously after the pay cut was announced, 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 euros ($2,100) to 1,800 euros ($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 all the time.
The pay cut seems to have been the last straw, said the association official. "It is only natural," he said. "Those of us who work in traffic need to be stimulated."
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, arguing that, statistically, that number is not 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, which is part of the Interior Ministry.
Civil Guard traffic cops are eligible for a 150 euros productivity bonus every month, and under a reform introduced in July — the patrol officers call it a backlash against them — handing out fines earns them more points than, say, 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 road 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 of shying from fines was wrong.
"If it is their job, it is their job," he said. "It is their responsibility."