Driving in Europe: Observations From a First Timer

EuroDriving350We drove over 5,000 km through 5 European countries in our rental car – an Opel Astra – on our recent family holiday. The car worked very well, though it was hardly the performance vehicle that my husband was craving (he nicknamed it the ‘gutless wonder’), especially for the German Autobahn.

Driving in Europe has some unique advantages over driving here at home in North America. Not the least of which in my view, is the fact that there are rules of the road that people actually follow.

Here are some observations about driving in Europe.

1. No Passing on the Right

This is completely verboten in every country we visited, and the police will nail you with a serious ticket if you get caught speeding past another car in the right lane of the highway. The passing lane is the left lane, and as soon as you are done passing someone in that lane, you move to the middle or right lane immediately, or risk getting rear-ended (or worse) by that Ferrari or Mercedes whipping past you at 200 km (or more) an hour. Even when you may be going 160 km an hour!

Nobody ‘sits’ in the left lane biding their time as they creep by to pass someone. Nor do they pass moral judgment on other drivers who are going faster than them, by sitting in the passing lane clogging up the roads. If only this tradition could be grafted onto our driving culture in North America!

I find that this system is safer in that you do not need to be worried about people passing you on both sides of the highway, which is the way of the world in the New World, and a recipe for road chaos and traffic disorder.

2. No Speed Limits

Now, the speeding issue is something else entirely. While many countries (Switzerland, Austria) have strict speed limits that are heavily enforced, others appear to allow more latitude. Germany is the most open, though Italy seemed absent of any traffic enforcement during our travels, even in construction zones.

If you love to drive and have a car that can match your desires, Germany is the driver’s utopia. While many roads and highways do have speed limits, when you are on the Autobahn and see 130 posted with a slash through it, move to the right lane and watch the drivers max out their high-end vehicles. Some of the speeds traveled are astonishing and not just a little frightening. The downside of no speed limits is of course that when car accidents happen, they are catastrophic and deadly. I don’t know if the risks are worth it, but then I don’t dream of being a racecar driver either.

3. No Right Turn on Red

Safer for pedestrians by far, and other drivers as well who don’t have to worry about a car sticking half-way into the intersection trying to turn on a red light. Many of our accidents in Vancouver over recent years have been caused by this practice, and while it is convenient for drivers, one wonders how much time is really saved on a journey by allowing right turns on red lights.

4. Priority of the Right – Belgium

Belgium has very aggressive drivers. Not only do drivers not facilitate new cars merging on highways by changing lanes (cars merging have to wrestle their way onto the highway), the priority of the right at intersections signifies that cars coming from that direction have priority over you, and will burst past you at high speeds with nary a glance in your direction.

You are responsible for ensuring that nobody is coming from the right (if the intersection is unmarked by yields or stop signs), hence the common sight of traffic mirrors to assist you in ensuring you are not t-boned in downtown Brussels. A comfortable drive in the city or country, this system does not make.

5. Cars and Bikes – Live and Let Live

On many city and country roads in the countries we visited, cars, motorcycles, and bicycles co-exist in harmony. While we give lip service to ‘sharing the road’ in Vancouver, it is in Europe where this practice is truly honoured and respected. Part of the reason may be the maturity of the biking culture, which is strong and vibrant and well-respected. Commuters and students biking to work and school have priority. Bike lanes are separated from car lanes, or marked by coloured paving. Racing cyclists aren’t honked or yelled at when being passed by cars. It all seemed much more civilized and free of the anxiety and stress I experience when I bike on the ‘shared’ bike lanes of Vancouver.

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Research and pre-book your rental car (we used Europcar) from home before you leave on holiday. You will have a good choice of cars, be able to compare prices and find better deals than by booking at the airport upon your arrival. Also, booking a diesel vehicle will save you money on fuel costs, especially if you plan a lot of driving. Even diesel fuel, the cheapest fuel available in Europe, is more than double the price of our lowest-grade regular fuel in North America.

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Older comments on Driving in Europe: Observations From a First Timer

Cristina Dima-772
17 September 2009

Priority of the Right is the same in Hungary, Romania and Austria. More over, in Hungary the speed limits are VERY strict. 130 kmph on the highway and many cities have 40 kmph max speed limit.

In many countries, you can turn right on red ONLY if it’s marked wt an interrupting green light pointing to the right.

I’ve recently noticed that drivers are becoming more disciplined in some European countries, probably b/c the fees are quite high if you break the rules.

jim humberd
17 September 2009

I searched in one of the books I had printed, and found a few stories that might be of interest, concerning driving our RV 87,000 miles in 28 countries, during 9 trips in 25 years in Europe.

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If we watch the drivers in Paris, Berlin, or Rome, we can see how their Army acted and reacted during WW II.
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The German drives as if the street is his, and the law says this lane goes here, and that stop-sign means they will always stop, so he pays little attention to the needs of others, he just follows orders and plows ahead. On the Autobahn, that means speed.
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The Italian drives as if there are no rules, and when there is a traffic jam or some other problem, he just gives up, throws his arms in the air, smiles as if to say, “No big deal, I wasn’t going anywhere anyway.”
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We have seen traffic jams in Paris, where, if one driver backed up a little, and the other driver turned a little, the jam would disappear. But when the Paris driver arrives at, or causes a traffic blockage, he will not employ any initiative to solve the gridlock, he just sits there with a pained expression on his face, waiting for someone to help him out of the mess..
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Most countries have traffic “Laws and Regulations.” Italy has traffic “Hints and Suggestions.” Three guesses what a red light means, or a left turn lane, or a two lane road, or a Do Not Enter sign.
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As we tried to leave Macaire, I could not find my way out of town in the direction we wanted to go. Emmy says that I now know a little about how most people feel when they drive in a strange place. No one said I was the perfect driver all the time, just most of the time. .
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For example in Los Angeles, and in Rome, Italy, people will be driving at 50 mph, on a street with a posted limit of 30 mph, and regardless of how much I blow the horn, they won’t move over and let me pass. (A letter in the Los Angeles Times.).
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In Sweden the drivers are required to drive with their headlights on, always. In the rear view mirror it appears we are leading a funeral procession..
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It’s funny how a line can be painted in the middle of the street for two lanes, but there will be three or four lanes of traffic. The drivers in Rome, Italy, let us know if there is space for three or four lanes, three or four there will be. Even the huge orange city busses followed those homegrown rules. Italy is crowded with beautiful, friendly, congenial people who welcome us, confuse us, charm us, disturb us, enrapture us, discombobulate us, and ensure that we have a fascinating vacation. .
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Of all the roads we’ve driven, we would not recommend the road along Italy’s Amalfi Coast for beginners. Not just because the extremely narrow, twisty, sometimes water level, sometimes cliff hanging road might be difficult to drive, but the unbelievably gorgeous scenery makes it almost impossible for the driver to keep his mind and eyes on the job at hand. .
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Drivers in Naples on Sunday morning seemed to ignore traffic signals more than usual. Maybe because it was Sunday, but when we would stop for a red light where there was no cross-traffic, the other drivers would blow their horn and angrily wave for us to go. .
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When you near the top of a mountain in Yugoslavia, you can be sure that just around the next curve there will be a little old lady in the middle of the road herding two goats. Drive as if you expect that, and neither of you will be surprised.
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One time while riding a crowded city bus, we noticed a lady reading what appeared (by the pictures in the book) to be a driver education manual. I mentioned to Emmy that I didn’t think they needed to know anything to drive in Rome..
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To successfully drive or walk in Paris, Rome, and most other cities, we must become aware of the eye movements of the drivers and pedestrians. They look straight ahead, and act as if we don’t exist. As the driver or the pedestrian proceeds, we can see him looking out of the corner of his eye, making sure we aren’t going to run over, or in front of him, but he will do anything except admit we are there..
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Suddenly the traffic jam in Italy was cleared, a car entered the tunnel at high speed, and as it came from the bright sunlight the driver was unable to see the next car start a U-turn not far behind us. In the mirror, I could see a terrible crash, then a stream of cars, all with drivers momentarily blinded, came racing into the tunnel. .
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When a traffic problem develops on a Paris street, the French driver starts to creep, millimeter by millimeter, to make sure he doesn’t get left out, and to make sure no one gets even a centimeter ahead. .
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When our driver (me) does something in the RV that causes, or results from a traffic complication, or that results in a driving problem, we get the feeling some Italian is saying, “That looks like fun, I must try that some time.”.
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Some Greek had been so kind as to place small stones around one hole, so it’s easier for the next driver to see the road is missing. There is plenty of room for the whole RV in that hole! .
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While driving on a highway near Copenhagen, Denmark, we saw a huge tour bus, with an enormous windshield, coming down the road toward us, but saw no driver. Then we noticed the bus was from England, and the driver’s seat is on the right side of the bus. We’ve seen that several times, but we never learn, we are always shocked..
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While driving through a small city in Poland we were given, and paid for in cash (maybe $5) right then and there, a traffic ticket for driving through a red-light. It should come as no surprise to hear the driver received more grief from the passenger than he did from the Polish police. .
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young lady at the Swiss Air office who had just returned from a vacation in the US. She really loved it, said the people were genuinely friendly and polite, and said that American drivers, especially in Southern California, were an agreeable, pleasant improvement over drivers in Europe. .
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An Italian man told us the roads in Greece are almost impassible and the drivers are almost impossible. That’s not what we found at all. Can’t imagine an Italian complaining about the way someone in another country drives. The pot and the kettle, the mote and the beam, a silk purse and a sow’s ear, … ..
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I was the driver and and my responsibility was to find the most beautiful spots to park the RV for meals. In Budapest, in 1980 while the Berlin Wall still stood, we went to the top of a hill in Pest, overlooking Budapest..
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