Driving in a Foreign Country
Publication date: 24 March 2010
by Barry Williams
Touring abroad would be a lot safer if drivers were more aware of the way rules of the road change from country to country. A lot has been done to harmonise regulations and signposting across Europe but there is still a lot to be done – which is why clubs such as ours are making concerted efforts to provide the necessary information.
Safe driving abroad involves basic driving ability, knowing precisely where you are heading and being aware that traffic rules may not be the same as you are used to at home. You need driving skills wherever you are and cheap satellite navigation systems have largely taken away the headache of map reading. But, despite several years of harmonisation of laws across EU countries, there are still significant differences between them.
Did you know, for example, that in some countries the speed limits change in bad weather? Do you think all German drivers realise they could end up in prison for driving at 160kph on the motorway, doing something that it is legal in their own country?
One area with little harmonisation concerns the equipment drivers must carry. Depending on the country, you may be legally required to carry warning triangles (one or two), high-visibility vests (one for the driver or one for each occupant), spare tyres or, at certain times of the year, studded tyres. Special markers if the vehicle has an overhanging load (for instance a cycle rack) are required in some countries but not others and might even be illegal elsewhere. The rules are usually enforced for any car or caravan in the country, even if it is not registered in it.
Many road signs (speed limits, stop, give way etc) have the same general design in all countries or at least they are recognisable. However, information signs (city names and directions, for instance) do not necessarily follow any standard. Blue and green are used to identify highways or roads with different criteria in different countries. Sometimes text descriptions rather than symbols are used in information signs – not much use if you don’t speak the language.
Urban signage may even change from town to town, and varies widely between European cities. Parking restrictions, for example, usually have a clearly recognisable signage; but the texts explaining their validity periods or exclusions may not be easily understood by foreigners. In most European cities the police or parking attendants may clamp an illegally parked car or even remove it from the street until a fine is paid, and the fact that you are a foreign visitor gives you no special rights.
Motoring and touring clubs have been pressing national and European authorities for many years to get rid of these anomalies, to increase the safety of all European drivers. In the meantime, before you drive in any foreign country, contact your club. Every club affiliated to the FIA should be able to inform its members about driving rules in other countries. The FIA has developed OTA (the Touring Information Centre) specifically to collect this information and make it available to all member clubs. For more specialist questions these clubs have access to a network of correspondents.
However, before you drive in any foreign country there are a number of things you should always take into consideration, including:
- Be familiar with traffic laws in the country/countries you are heading for, including speed limits and mandatory equipment in the vehicle
- Be aware of actions that are considered a violation of traffic rules, eg talking on the phone, driving without headlights, not signalling when entering highways, the right of way at roundabouts, not keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front
- Always carry your driving licence, vehicle registration document and certificate of motor insurance
- Ask for the procedure you should follow if you are accused of commiting a traffic law offence
- Prepare in advance a list of phone numbers of emergency services and roadside assistance
- Respect local drink driving laws. Remember, the best advice is always to avoid alcohol altogether if you are going to drive
- Write down basic words you might come across on road signs – diversion, road closed, flood etc