Driving in Europe
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  Posted June 6th, 2015 by Zdenko  in Travel | 6 comments

Traveling in Europe

By: Zdenko Kahlina

Road rules and courtesy in Europe are the opposite of what you are used to in Canada
I’m starting this a little early … but our European holiday’s rapidly approaching. According to my son’s counting on the Facebook, only 35 more days before they go. The rest of the group will leave in July… Because for some of you this will be first trip to old continent, I would like to mention few differences in driving rules over there. So pay attention and remember all of the following:highway_sloveniaRental Car
If you’re renting a car for any longer term, it is advisable not to rent the car at the Airport locations. The reason for this is to save 17% of the rent a car cost on airport service charge; they charge you when renting a car at the airport. For example, Vera and I are renting a car for 46 days, so it is well worth to spend and extra 25-30 Euros on taxi and rent a car in the city instead.

Driving in Europe
Get used to the idea of paying a road toll. Toll roads are not very common in most parts of the US and Canada. They are, however, easy to find in Europe. Main highways commonly have free sections and toll sections.

Countries like Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia require tourists to purchase “Vignette”, a road tax for using their roads. Vignettes are small, colored stickers affixed to motor vehicles passing through motorways and motor roads in some European nations. They are not issued in Germany where the autobahn is a non-toll road system.

vinj-txtIn Italy the rules are a little different. The Autostrada system is operated by a private company and you pay tolls to use it. On some parts of the Autostrada you get a ticket when you enter and pay when you exit (you pay for the distance you drive). In other parts you pay set amounts at toll booths (up front).

In addition to road tolls and “Vignettes”, in the Alps you have to pay for the passage through the tunnels. The tunnels will save you a lot of time (going around or over the mountain) and it is well worth to pay for them.

There is no highway patrol per se.
The speed limit on the highways is generally 120Km per hour, which is about 75MPH, on long stretches. Near urban centers the speed limit is lower, and you’ll do damned well to heed it. Since there are no highway cops, the governments usually place radar speed traps here and there. I know people who have paid the equivalent of about $1,000.00 USD in speeding tickets in their first months of living in Europe. On long, open-road stretches, have a blast: unless you are near a moderately large city, speed traps are rare.

In Europe, highway speed limits may be variable.
You may see one speed next to a snowflake, another next to a raindrop, and another still next to a picture of the sun. I sure wish we had that here in Canada.

Europe is not big on stoplights, and what stoplights there are, are usually either weirdly or just plain badly executed.
In Canada or USA, you are probably used to pulling up to a red light and seeing the light well-elevated and across the intersection. In Europe, stoplights are usually on the closer-to-you side of the intersection.

Stoplights do not light in exactly the same manner.
You expect it to go Green, Yellow, Red, Green. What it will actually do is Green, Green+Yellow, Red, Red+Yellow, Green. Sort of like ping pong. It is common for drivers to start when it turns from Red to Red+Yellow, particularly if there isn’t any cross traffic draining out of the intersection.

You usually can’t turn right on a red light.
Sorry. Even if there’s no cross traffic, you have to wait for it to turn green. Obviously, if the light to go straight is red but you have a green right or left arrow, then you can go in the indicated direction, just like in the States or Canada.

Turn Signal
Please use it when attempting to make a turn. It’s simply a matter of being respectful to other drivers. And no, you can NOT make a left turn over the FULL centre lane on the road. Please remember that.

p1040015Europe has lots of roundabouts.
Also called rotaries. These are employed in certain older locales in the USA and Canada, and amount to a circular drive with roads leading away like spokes from a hub. Here’s how it works: Traffic flows counterclockwise in most places, except for the UK, where it flows clockwise. (That should be obvious, since they drive on the opposite side of the road.) You will see a sign placed well ahead of the rotary. It will tell you which way all the roads leading away from the rotary head. As you approach the rotary, watch for traffic coming from your left. They have the right of way. If the coast is clear, DO NOT STOP at the entrance to the rotary. Just roll through.

Once you are in, just drive to the road you want to exit at, and then turn right onto it. You have the right of way. Just be sure to watch out for walkways, stoplights, stalled vehicles, pedestrians, etc. On rare occasions, you may enter a rotary and then have to yield to a road coming in.
gostilnaRight of Way at crossings
In Europe, they usually call it priority instead of right-of-way. Anyway…

In certain countries, like France, it is common to see bright red octagonal STOP signs identical to those in Canada. They work exactly the same, too. “Stopless” intersections (i.e. no stop sign, signal, or rotary) take a little getting used to. Depending on what country you are in, you may pull up to an intersection where you don’t have the right of way. Pretty much like in Canada, right of way goes to the “bigger” road, or the road that goes straight through if it’s a T-intersection.  

On the Freeway

It isn’t the fast lane, it’s the passing lane.
Freeways generally have two lanes, occasionally three.
The leftmost lane is for passing, not normal driving. Consider this scenario: You are cruising at 140KPH in left lane. Some guy comes up behind you and tailgates you for a couple kilometers. You think s/he/it is being rude. Wrong. In this situation, YOU are the one who is being rude. It is highly impolite to hold up traffic in the passing lane. The norm is to drive in the right lane, using the left lane ONLY for passing – i.e. you duck in and out of it as necessary. Obviously at rush hour both lanes are used for driving.

Road rage isn’t the same there.
By now you should be able to realize that if some guy tailgates you in the left lane and then follows you into the right lane, it is probably not a gesture of aggression. Europeans are accustomed to driving in the right lane most of the time. Of course, you do something like that in Edmonton, and you’ll probably wind up scaring/annoying/enraging the person in front of you. But you aren’t in Edmonton. You’re in Europe.

  • “The left lane is the passing lane in Canada also. Get out of the way if someone comes up behind you.” — Well, technically, yeah. But in practice, the mentality tends to be, “Hey, fuck you, I’m driving here. You can pass me on the right if you want.” In any case, in Canada, the norm is to stay in your lane until you have a compelling reason to leave it (as opposed to staying in the “slow lane” all the time and only darting in and out of the fast lane to pass a vehicle or vehicles). Around here, the norm is to speed up to a point when someone presses from behind. After that, we start worrying about speeding tickets.
  • “In Scandinavia, it’s usual to actually HONK if you want to pass another car. The car should move over as far as possible, and assist the other driver to pass. (I can imagine this being seen as aggressive here in Edmonton)” — Yeah, you’re right, honking in Canada and US when nothing bad is happening is considered annoying. Some people flash their lights when they want you to get out of the way.

p1030717General Strategy

Study up on the language(s) spoken in your target country/countries.
This should be dead obvious. You don’t just go stumbling around like a schmuck saying, “Poo-vay vouss… uhh… decanter… uhh… mwah… uhh… oon tasse d’ eau?… Mare-see-bow-kew!!!” …Same thing for road signs. Learn what the local words for things like Onramp, Exit, Merge, Yield, Caution, etc. are. For example, in English, we call it an offramp. In French, they call it a sortie. In German, they call it an ausfahrt.

It isn’t necessarily called “gas” over there.
In the UK, it is called petrol. Look for local-language variants of gasoline, petrol, petroleum, benzine (in Poland the word is pronounced benzinnah), etc. For example, asking for directions to a “gas station” may land you at a propane fill station or some other place like that where you can’t fuel up. :)

Gas (or petrol or whatever) stations are abundant next to major freeways. In fact, it is common to see an offramp that just goes to a gas station and then back onto the freeway, without any other roads leading away from it. Sometimes you’ll have a picnic area, etc.

Regular or unleaded?
Leaded gas is common in Europe. Be sure to find out what kind of fuel your rental runs on. Mine ran on unleaded. Don’t worry, the leaded gas pumps have thicker nozzles – they won’t fit into the fuelling port on an unleaded-gas vehicle. As with gas, you may not see “leaded” and “unleaded”. In French, it’s “sans plomb.”

Get used to the idea of parking on the sidewalk.
Yes, they do it all the time. It’s freaky at first, but eventually you will have to do it as well. Just be careful to mind the distance between the curb and your car’s undercarriage. A good rule of thumb is that if you park just far enough that the tires on one side of your car are a couple inches in from the edge, you’ll be OK. Lots of curbs are low (only a couple inches high) because people have to park on the sidewalk.

Parking tends to suck in the city.
One of the reasons why people drive those hilariously dorky Smart Cars is that parking is horrible in metropolitan centers. Huge multilevel parking structures are not as common as they are here.

It is recommended for tourists not to go in any city centers (downtown), because it will be very difficult to find parking. Instead leave your car somewhere in the suburbs, write down street name or name of the nearest square, and use public transportation to tour the sites.

100_3579Gas is expensive like a bitch.
The cheap stuff is about $3 a gallon US and is 96 octane or higher. You will find yourself surrounded by Renaults and Citroens and Peugeots, and for some reason, a slew of Focii. Many of these vehicles will run on diesel because it is considerably cheaper. You might want to consider renting a diesel vehicle. They have crap for torque but the fuel savings are nice. No one drives a SUV in Europe. I saw an average of only one per week while I was over there.

Drive like you are in Tijuana.
Id est, very carefully. Drive like you are expecting the most unusual, bizarre, unlikely, implausible thing to happen, i.e. someone doing 100 KPH on the wrong side of a country road in the winding hills of southern France right as you are coming *VERY* cautiously around a blind corner or cresting a blind hill. They will probably be doing this in a Citroen 2CV or some similar rattletrap car.

Pedestrians are just as dumb as you’re used to. Maybe even dumber.
They may step out into a street without looking. If they are crossing a crosswalk, you have to stop for them, regardless of whether or not there is a traffic light, stop sign, or anything else. They know this. They may cross even though you are coming up at 80 KPH.

Keep your passport in your pocket AT ALL TIMES.
You will need it to exchange currency at the borders. You may also be stopped at the borders and asked to present it. You’d better have it with you if a cop pulls you over. If it gets lost or stolen, contact your embassy immediately. While travelling in Europe, it is by far your most prized possession, for without it you are royally screwed. You can’t board an international flight without it, and even if you could, US customs won’t let you enter the country anyway.


Well, that’s the nut. Be careful, practice very defensive driving, and have fun. I hope all this information will be helpful to make your driving experience in Europe more pleasant.

See you all in ZAGREB, capital city of Croatia.

Have a good and healthy season.

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6 comments to “Driving in Europe”

  1. Comment by Josh Maxwell:

    I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job. I really enjoy reading your posts.

  2. Comment by Ivan:

    I would like to know if driving 200km/h on freeway in Italy is considered as defensive driving?
    Nemrem verovat da si ti ovo napisao, ali je korisno za sve koji zele poslusati…..

    Bok, Ivan

  3. Comment by Neven Kahlina:

    Good blog dad, but try to use less swear words – it doesn’t suit your personality. Sounds weird to read you say “metrick fuckload”. That is how welders talk.

    Otherwise see you there and try not to loose me too often on those winding roads.

    Neven

  4. Comment by Luciana Freil:

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  5. Comment by Don Colyer:

    I am not really sure what possessed you to start a blog of this capacity, but Kudos to you for doing it. I could never be that brazen. But I suppose, it has to be said, why be silent you know? Good Job! I’ll be back!!

  6. Comment by Danny:

    Hurrah! After all I got a web site from where I can truly obtain valuable facts concerning driving in Europe. For an American like me this info is very important and useful.

    Thank you Zdenko for sharing your experiences…

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