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Top Ten European Driving Tips

  Monday, 27 March 2017

Map of Europe

When travelling abroad, a car helps you to maximise your reach and experience everything offered by your holiday destination.  Driving through Europe is a renowned pleasure.  In fact, in regards to the law it’s not too different from driving in the UK.  However, if you’re planning a journey to the continent, there are a few pieces of advice we’d like you to be aware of.  Read on for our top ten European driving tips.

1. Understanding European driving culture

Using Expressways

First of all: expect toll booths.  Driving on the majority of motorways in the United Kingdom is free of charge, with notable exceptions in the M6, Dartford Crossing or Gloucestershire’s Severn Bridge and Second Severn Crossing.  Germany’s world-famous autobahn is also free.

However, many of Mediterranean Europe’s expressways – in countries such as France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece or Croatia – are dotted with periodic toll booths.  Generally, you would expect to pay fees based on the distance driven, somewhere between £5-£6 per hour.

Other countries – including Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland – instead require drivers to display a permit sticker bought especially for their car.  You can typically buy the permit needed in short-term, monthly or annual formats from gas stations, post offices and border crossings.  A short-term permit should cost in the region of £8-£16, but the price is well worth it.  Not only does using expressways save on fuel and valuable time – failure to display the permit could result in fines of up to around £120.

Extra notes:

  • Check to see that your rental car doesn’t have an unexpired, usable permit before buying a new one
  • If you avoid expressways to favour secondary roads, you don’t need to buy a sticker or pay for road use

Avoid city centres

Prepare to embrace public transport or taxi fares: many European cities employ congestion charges like those in London.  Designed to combat polluting conditions, a congestion charge is effectively a toll charge for passing through urban centres.

Sometimes low emissions vehicles are exempted.  Nevertheless, these charges apply in Sweden’s Stockholm and Norway’s Oslo, while many of Italy’s finest cities ban car traffic altogether.  Be sure to do your research before passing through – automated camera systems are set up to catch and fine careless drivers.

Bonus tip:

  • If your hotel is located within a traffic-restricted area, ask your hotelier to direct you to legal parking or, alternatively, register your car in the appropriate place.

Drive defensively

It’s hard to overstate just how much of driving is comprised of instinct and muscle memory.  Though you may be an ace at the wheel on British roads, it’s best to take a safe approach when driving in Europe.  Some local conventions fly in the face of widely-accepted traditions of driving in the UK.

Driving cautiously is best advised when in Italy and Greece, in particular.  In Rome, red lights are considered more “advisory”.  If – upon reaching the red light – a driver sees no cars coming that might obstruct them, they are considered within their rights to drive on through.  Be on the look-out for circumstances such as these which could surprise an unwary tourist.

2. Overtaking in Europe

When you attempt to overtake in Europe, the usual guidance still applies: be bold, but be careful.  Yet there are additional regional habits worth being aware of.  You’ll want to confirm if the citizens of your holiday destination drive on the right, like most countries on the Continent.  If they do, that means you’ll likely be overtaking on the left.

On narrower, more winding roads, look for turn-signal indications by the driver ahead.  Often – though not consistently – drivers may use their indicators to alert the faster driver behind of a safe overtaking opportunity.

Be sure that you understand where line markings differ from the UK’s, too.  In France, a singular solid white line in the middle of the road forbids overtaking in either direction.  The equivalent in Germany is a double white line.

Although this next rule should apply in the UK as well, be careful not to linger in the “passing lane” or to attempt undertaking, no matter how tempting.  In many European countries, this kind of driving is considered to be illegal.

3. Be prepared with local knowledge

By this we don’t mean arming yourself with notes of local attractions, tourist sites or the hottest spots for food and drink.  When you’re driving on foreign roads, it’s very handy to have a basic understanding of what you’re going to face – geographically and culturally.  France and Germany restrict driving in certain weather conditions, for example.

Here are some other pointers for those who’d rather steer clear of potential trouble:

Satellite navigation and maps

Ensure your satnav is updated and ready to navigate the countries you’re heading through.  Don’t wait until the night before travelling, either.  Although known satnav brands should offer European maps for a small fee, the downloading and installation process can sometimes be time-consuming.

It’s considered good practice to ensure some traditional map books are kept in the vehicle for emergencies.  For the best results, study your intended course in advance – this way you might detect errors in the route plotted by your satnav before the situation becomes unsalvageable.

No turning right on red lights

This one is self-explanatory: it’s illegal to turn right on a red light unless a signal or signpost explicitly allows it.  Although this rule is most commonly applied in Germany, for maximum road confidence you should confirm the rules at your intended destination.

Hands-free only

By now, nearly all countries have banned talking on the phone while driving.  Ensure you have a hands-free headset if you’d rather avoid an awkward run-in with a police officer speaking a language you can’t fully comprehend.

4. Travelling with children

When it comes to travelling with children, European Union rules differ very little from our own.  That means children up to 12 years old – or up to 135cm tall – must legally have a suitable child car seat.  Children under 12 aren’t allowed in the front seat without an appropriate booster seat.  Some countries even extend front-seat bans for children up to the age of 18.  Be sure to check which applies to you and avoid any holiday blues.

5. Notes about lights

Many European countries require headlights to be running at any time the car is – even during the day.  Carrying a bulb kit – useful to do in any country – is actually a legal requirement in France, along with the equipment you’d need to access the bulbs.

Important warning:

  • If you’re driving in Spain, don’t be alarmed if drivers behind you are flashing their headlights; it is Spanish law for drivers to warn motorists of their intention to overtake in this manner.

6. Prepare for every eventuality

Have you car serviced

Be sure to book your car into the garage for servicing before the peak holiday season ramps up.  Driving in a car which has recently been checked will provide confidence, and should prevent the need for paying for costly mechanics once on the road overseas.

Bring a camera

You may need a camera for more than selfies and holiday snapshots.  If you should have an unfortunate accident, it’s a good idea to take an immediate record of any damage caused.  This will serve you well in insurance, helping to bolster your own claims while defending against false claims from third parties.

Bonus tip:

  • If hiring a car, photograph any evidence of existing damage to show the hire company.  Ensure they accept liability for those damages before you put pen to paper and confirm the rental.

7. Insurance and breakdown coverage

Although many car insurance policies including cover for short periods of driving abroad, it’s a good idea to double check this prior to setting out.  Some insurance companies may require an extra payment to cover a hired vehicle.  In either case, you’ll also want to ensure the countries you’re visiting are covered.

Likewise, make sure you’re covered in the event of breaking down.  Your UK breakdown cover won’t automatically cover travel abroad.  Pan-European coverage will ward against disaster if your car experiences failure on a foreign motorway.

Extra guidance:

  • Consider adding additional drivers who are joining you on the trip.  When you’re making a long-distance journey, it’s nice to be able to rely on another person at the wheel and take a break without losing progress.

8. Driving Licence

British drivers are advised to carry both parts of their driving licence.  Any non-European licence should be coupled with an International Driving Permit.  You’ll be required to supply both parts if you want to hire a car, and especially in the case of being stopped by police.

9. Drink driving

Mixing alcohol and vehicle operation is a bad recipe no matter where you are in the world.  It’s worth being aware, though, that the risk increases in Europe, where the tolerated blood alcohol level is often much lower.  In Spain, drivers who have been on the road for fewer than two years are over the limit at only 0.1 unit per mg.  For more experienced drivers, the tolerance is set at 0.5, the equivalent of one small beer.

In France, it’s illegal to drive a car – or ride a motorbike – without access to your very own breathalyser.  You’ll be fined if found without one.  You’ll likely incur time in jail if you allow yourself to be caught over the limit as well.

10. Other useful kit to take

The usual supplies are recommended, of course – a spare tyre or emergency repair kit, for instance.  You’ll also want to make sure the spare you have is fit for driving.  While you’re at it, check that your sealant bottle, pump and car jack are in working order.

A light-reflecting warning triangle is sensible to carry and a legal requirement in many European countries.  Some amongst them have an additional rule that drivers should also carry a reflective safety vest.

We hope these tips prove useful to you in whatever adventure you’re plotting.  With the right preparation, there’s no reason a European road trip shouldn’t go as swimmingly as a drive around your own neighbourhood.

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