We drove over 5,000 km through 5 European countries in our rental car – an Opel Astra (not shown above!) – 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 driving in Europe on 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 five handy European driving tips to get the most out of exploring the wonderful world of mountain passes and the autobahn.
Top 5 Tips for Driving in Europe
1. No Passing on the Right
This is completely verboten in every country we visited. Be warned: 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. As soon as you are done passing someone in that lane, you move to the middle or right lane immediately. Otherwise, you risk getting rear-ended (or worse) by that Ferrari or Mercedes whipping past you at 200 kms (or more) an hour. Even when you may be going 160 kms an hour!
Nobody ‘sits’ in the left lane biding their time as they creep by to pass someone. They don’t pass moral judgement on other drivers who are going faster than them either. Drivers don’t sit in the passing lane clogging up the roads. They more to the right lane, like they should. 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. This is of course, the way of the road 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 travelled 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 race-car driver either. (Find a great Road Trip Planner for Germany here.)
3. No Right Turn on Red
This practice is so much safer for pedestrians. Other drivers also don’t have to worry about a car sticking half-way into the intersection trying to turn on a red light. Many accidents in North America have been caused by this practice. Sure, it’s convenient for drivers, but we wondes 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. They do 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 they 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. We give lip service to ‘sharing the road’ in Vancouver. In Europe, this practice is truly honoured and respected. Part of the reason may be the maturity of the biking culture. It’s strong, 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.
[travellingmom tip: Research and pre-book your rental car (we used AutoEurope) 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.]
Photo Credit: S. Laroye
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Have you rented and driven a car in Europe? What did you think about the experience? Share your comments below.