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Driving Abroad

This article was written for the general motorist and first published in Club A1 Magazine in 2002 but I thought you might like to read it too.

French flagThis year some three million British motorists will cross the channel or North Sea to France and Holland (Netherlands) and on into the many countries beyond. On top of that millions more holidaymakers will hire a car soon after landing at their holiday resort. With increasing standardisation of road signs and vehicle documentation it has never been easier for we Brits to drive on the Continent but there are some pitfalls to avoid so it pays to be well informed and well prepared. I’ve been driving abroad in UK cars, European hire cars and both rhd and lhd motorcaravans for more years than I care to remember so here are some thoughts on the topic.

French road signWhat can possibly go wrong? You might ask. I have a good vehicle, I’m a safe driver, it’ll all be fine. Well it might well be - and I hope it is - but there are reasons to be more rather more cautious and better prepared. Continental terrain is much more varied than here, you could encounter freezing conditions and stifling heat-waves within days of each other, climb thousands of metres up demanding alpine passes, drive thousands of kilometres instead of hundreds and do all this on the wrong side of the road where both driving regulations and local driving customs differ from our own! Good preparation is the key to enjoying what is to come and after all this is a holiday we’re planning, so it should turn out to be relaxing and fun, not traumatic! The preparation and planning needs to include not just the vehicle but also the driver and passengers, the vehicle documentation and some protection against disaster. OK disaster is only an outside chance but do you really want to get stuck with a hospital or vehicle recovery bill amounting to thousands of pounds? 

Swiss flagSo what are the tips? Let’s start with the vehicle. Do any servicing and safety checks a few weeks in advance so that any ensuing little problems can be found and sorted before you set off. I know some people find having an MOT done both more efficient and cheaper than asking a garage to ‘check it over’ but this only looks at the mechanicals, it doesn’t look for problems in cooling, ignition and fuel, some of the most common causes of breakdowns. Tyres are usually under a lot of stress during a holiday so check that there aren’t any cuts or bulges or crazing anywhere and that they will still be within the 2mm European limits after the trip. You can do this yourself or take your vehicle to the local tyre fitting bay. Also find out about the tyre pressures needed for running fully loaded so that you can inflate them properly before you start piling in the suitcases. (Pressures for 'commercial' and/or 'Camping' tyres are quite different to car tyres so if these are new to you, have a look at our tyres pages under the Vehicles section too). It might pay to carry a pressure gauge as well since many foreign gauges only show ‘bar’ not p.s.i. Make sure your anti-freeze is up to strength - yes radiators can freeze in alpine regions even in Summer! Test your cooling fan is working properly, you might not need it in Britain but if you get stuck in a jam in Continental heat or have to labour up a mountain pass fully loaded you’re going to need it in earnest. All you have to do is let the vehicle idle until the fan kicks in, then see the temperature drop and the fan cut out - if it doesn’t, find out why and quick! 

Dipped lights signStock up early with the legal requirements - GB sticker, beam benders, first aid kit, bulb kit, extinguisher and warning triangle - two triangles for some countries. Make sure you’ve got a supply of British headlamp bulbs, they’re nearly impossible to get outside the UK and absolutely essential for any night driving and in tunnels too! I think the days of carrying umpteen spare parts are pretty much over but I do always carry a universal alternator belt, a pair of jump leads, some basic tools, spare fuses and a tow rope. So far I’ve always rescued other people with my emergency kit but my day will surely come! Others may want to include life hammers and the like but I’m keener on having good European maps and an in-car compass (we’ve just gone digital - wonderful!). Don’t carry spare fuel, it’s now prohibited all over the place and will cause you more headaches than it's worth. Finally make sure that all passengers, especially children, have enough to occupy them and make them comfortable throughout the trip, there’s nothing worse than driving hundreds of kilometres on foreign soil with a fractious and bad tempered bunch in the back!! Oh, and get yourself some Euros for the few tolls and service stations that don’t take plastic and that’ll be another little crisis avoided.

Greek flagNext the documents and insurance - boring stuff but vital just the same. Unlike here, you must carry your driving licence - the new British pink ones are fine but the old green ones aren’t and while the new photo cards are best you must remember to carry the paper portion as well while abroad. You also need to carry your insurance certificate showing that Continental use is allowed and your MOT and the V5 registration document and a letter of authority if your name and address aren’t on the V5! These things do catch people out and yes we have been asked to show them. It pays to have a duplicate photocopied set kept separately to the originals - we include copies of our passports and tickets too. Green cards aren’t needed in many places anymore but you should ensure that your insurance certificate does show that you are covered. Our latest certificate has the European cover set out in several languages on the reverse, your insurance company should be able to do the same and do remember that you must tell them you’re going to be sure you’re fully covered. While on the topic of insurance you’d be barmy to go over the water without breakdown cover. An astonishing one in twenty three of us need assistance of some kind while abroad. If you don’t have adequate European cover it can be very difficult, very time consuming, and very expensive to get yourself sorted after an accident or breakdown. I could give you several recent examples of recovery and repatriation costs of over £2,000 for a vehicle and four people, now that would make a hole in next year’s holiday budget wouldn’t it?!

So we’re off at last - sensibly packed, not overloaded and not attempting an endurance or speed record for the first leg - we’re not, are we guys? Are we sure? No - really? I'm serious here, I can't remember how many times I've been told "you can do Spain in two days", this is just madness for the vast majority of us. We're simply not used to such long haul driving in this country and would be risking tiredness and loss of concentration with potentially disastrous consequences. The French sensibly put up summer Autoroute messages along the lines of "what's the hurry? the sea isn't going anywhere!" - we should all take note!

Priorty road signsAnyway, what about the driving itself, just what are the problems and what are the essentials for a successful trip? Well, I reckon the basic problem is unfamiliarity and the essential tip is to behave like a local! Now that doesn’t mean trying to beat an Italian away from the lights or out-speed a German down the Autobahn but just trying to fit in with local rules, regulations and customs. You’ll find all the essential rules and regulations for each country in many different pamphlets and books such as the excellent new, and bang up-to-date, “Driving Abroad” from Haynes manuals but the real trick is to fit in with local driving customs. Let me give you some examples. German drivers have exceptional lane discipline on two and three lane autobahns, moving out for just long enough to overtake then straight back in again to the nearside, so any tendency to linger out there on your part will be met with full beam headlamps in your mirrors. French town & city drivers make good use of the European ‘give way to the right’ rule, they barely pause at junctions, filtering straight out into the traffic flow - so you need to give way to them when they do, and also to make sure you don’t stop when they’re not expecting you to, otherwise you’ll get ‘rear ended’! Many southern European drivers are both fast and competitive but most will pull over towards the nearside to allow faster cars to overtake, and they’ll expect you to do the same. See what I mean about fitting in? Look around you, give yourself time and space to see what the majority are doing and go with that. It’s true here too if you think about it - it’s the drivers who stand out as very different who cause lots of trouble, you know, the ones who never have accidents but see lots of them!!!

Austrian flagThe unfamiliar can cause problems too. All driving pushes enormous amounts of information at you at a tremendous pace but at home we know what to ignore and what to concentrate on. Abroad we all have much more difficulty sorting out the priorities, especially at busy town and city junctions. Even on the motorway unfamiliar names, numbers and other signs all make for a less relaxed drive. To some extent that good preparation we talked about earlier will help you here - a good route plan taking into account both national and European ‘E’ route numbers; a good guide book telling you about the dreaded ‘give way to the right’ rule, about the yellow diamond sign meaning it doesn’t apply on this road and that French ‘vous n’avez pas la priorité’ sign approaching a roundabout meaning the British system applies - priority on the roundabout. One thing to keep firmly in your mind in all countries is the three different kinds of red road signs, they’re the same in any European language - the prOhibition circle, the wArning triangle and the inforMative square. This really helps when there are lots of signs, at least you can work out which are the most important! 

Spanish flagTalking of multiple signs, do be prepared for multiple speed limits - different for cars and trucks and some motorhomes and different in the dry and in the rain too. If weight limits apply you'll see the usual speed repeater signs with the weight limit displayed immediately underneath - often 7.5t but sometimes 3.5t so in some places quite a few motorhomes and RVs are speed limited. And while on the topic, note that speed limits are often applied much more strictly than here. Many German exit roads have cameras and those that don’t are sometimes so tight that cameras are not needed! The French and Italians have another trick up their sleeves, they monitor average speeds between tolls using your recorded check in times - get out of that one! Town centre speed cameras are commonplace throughout developed Europe and may have very little tolerance compared with the British equivalent. Another quick caution on the legal side, most EU countries have tighter drink-driving limits than Britain so be very careful about alcohol consumption especially where that lunch time holiday tipple is concerned.

German flagAnd what about the special problems for us Brits? The obvious one of course is driving on the opposite side of the road. On modern busy roads this isn’t too much of a problem, sure you’ve got to get used to checking your road position and using the left mirror for following traffic but generally it’s not too difficult in either a lhd or rhd vehicle. Now quiet roads and roundabouts are another thing altogether! Even worse is a small quiet road that you join first thing in the morning or after a stop for lunch or even just after filling with petrol - that’s when the vital clues are missing and you make that momentary mistake that can cost you dear! Quiet roads without white lines are the worst of all. A passenger can help here since it’s well worth repeating to each other every time you’re about to make a manoeuvre “think right - look left”. I have this message stuck to my steering wheel too. As long as you both agree to this routine at the outset it’s not a problem repeating it endlessly and it prevents the dangerous confusion that can be generated by sudden late warnings from a well-meaning passenger. A disciplined passenger who makes small well defined contributions but doesn’t become over-excited is worth their weight in gold! This co-operation is needed for overtaking too. If in a rhd vehicle I fit a continental overtaking mirror to the inside of the passenger screen so that I can glance over to see the oncoming traffic stream. If it looks quiet I check my rear view and pull out just a little and ask my passenger “how is it?”, we’ve already agreed the answer can only be “no” or “maybe”, so if the answer is maybe, I indicate and pull out further still to see for myself and make my own decision. Do remember that your passenger can help but can never make the final decision for you and also that the following traffic needs to know your intention while all this is going on! 

Swedish flagEnough of all this you cry - tell me about the fun stuff! Well yes, there’s plenty of that; the legal ‘tons’ on the toll-free Autobahns; gloriously empty roads in much of France; stunning alpine drives in Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Scandinavia; real adventure tours in Eastern Europe; your own special interest tours - for cars, castles, art, wine, food, birds, etc; sunny touring around the smaller towns and villages of the South with impromptu breaks for refreshment or a lingering lunch in some undiscovered Taverna, all just wonderful - it’s why we do it! There’s more of course but I simply can’t cover everything here, I would have to write a whole book to do that. So, instead, I hope I’ve got you thinking about how to approach driving on the Continent, how to plan for success and how to learn to enjoy it by watching others around you. 

Happy motoring and happy holidays, or should I say “bon voyage mes amis”?!


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