The number of people learning to drive has dropped significantly in the last year. For the whole of 2004, the Direcção-Geral de Viação (Transport Directorate) is only expected to hand out between 80,000 and 90,000 new driver’s licences, representing a 40 per cent drop from last year.
There are two main reasons which have been given to explain this fall in the amount of young drivers in Portugal. Firstly, a decline in the birth rate is said to be a factor and, secondly, Portugal’s economic crisis. But, according to Cremilde Dias, administrator of the Sameiro driving school – one of Braga’s oldest schools – financial considerations are uppermost in people’s minds. “We have experienced a lot of difficulty with respect to payment. Whereas, three of four years ago, people paid for their entire course from the outset, they are now paying in instalments and, even then, many are late with their payment obligations.”
According to Dias, the tradition of parents paying for their children’s driving lessons is also becoming increasingly untenable in the current economic climate. Perhaps strangely, in tandem with the reduction in the number of pupils taking driving lessons, there has been an exponential increase in the number of driving schools throughout the country. There are around a thousand driving schools, 10 times the number in 1990, most of which have sprung up in the north of Portugal. There are currently 370 driving schools in the north, 272 in the centre, 248 in Lisbon and the Vale do Tejo, 64 in the Alentejo and 53 in the Algarve.
The good news is that competition between schools has led to a 20 per cent fall in prices in real terms in the last five years. And most independent observers agree that standards are now improving. The Direcção-Geral de Viação is conducting more inspections of driving schools throughout the country to ensure compliance with regulations continues.
But, in spite of these advantages, a source close to the sector has revealed that, unless there is a sudden reversal in the trend of fewer candidate drivers, up to 100 schools could be facing bankruptcy by the end of the year.