Twenty-five years ago it was considered quite adventurous for a British driver to take his car on holiday on the continent, but nowadays over a third of Britain's motorists have experienced the pleasures of driving abroad. If you keep off the busy trunk roads, autoroutes, autostradas and autobahns, you can follow quiet highways which carry much less traffic than you usually find on our crowded island. There is no reason why a competent driver should not feel perfectly confident when driving in an unfamiliar country, on the wrong side of the road. Even busy cities such as Paris and Rome — with their reputation for devil-may-care traffic — should hold no fears as long as you follow the basic rules of advanced driving.
Just like any other aspect of advanced driving, you should plan ahead to make the most of a continental holiday, or even a business trip. When you have decided on your destination, buy the appropriate large-scale road maps from any good bookshop. The Michelin series, which cover the whole of Europe, are among the best, and these are also now available as high-quality atlases of France or Europe, published by Hamlyn. If you are in a hurry you may be forced to use motorways, but remember that tolls are charged to use those in France, Switzerland and Italy. If you have time, it is much more enjoyable to plan a leisurely journey on quieter roads.
A good way of planning a route is to draw a pencil line on the map between your ferry arrival port and your destination, and then ink in a route along roads — choosing plenty of secondary roads if your journey time allows it running close to the pencil line. Your passengers will need to play their part in navigation, but this can add to the pleasure of the journey for them. Choosing smaller roads will force you to allow more time for the trip, but it will provide a delightful and more relaxing way to see the country, and your passengers will certainly appreciate driving through a more attractive landscape.
In addition to maps, you will need guide books to tell you about places of interest and where to stay, but make use also of the free brochures and leaflets which the tourist information centres in most large continental towns can provide. You may even be able to obtain useful information before you leave on your holiday by contacting the London office of the appropriate national tourist board.
RAC or AA members can make travel arrangements through these organisations, which offer particularly good insurance packages to take care of your car's return to Britain if you are unlucky enough to suffer a major breakdown. It would be worth taking out insurance to cover health care and theft, no matter how remote these possibilities may seem. As far as normal car insurance is concerned, you should tell your insurer or broker where you are going and arrange a Green Card. Your normal insurance arrangements (fully comprehensive if you have any sense) should be extended to cover you while you are abroad. Extra cover is not legally required when travelling in EC countries, but the basic cover provided automatically is a bare minimum. You will have enough to worry about in the unfortunate event of an accident or breakdown abroad without having the extra headache of the cost.
Differences to watch for
The moment when you drive off the ferry and into another country is always exciting. At first you will keep reminding yourself to drive on the right, and multi-lingual warning signs along the road leaving the ferry terminal will reinforce your awareness. This should ensure that you get used to driving on the correct side of the road without mishap for the first few miles; but the trouble can come later when you have gained some experience and feel more confident. It is all too easy, when there is no traffic to remind you, to forget momentarily that you must drive on the 'wrong' side of the road. The time to be on your guard is whenever you stop the car, particularly if you do so on the left-hand side of the road. It may seem quite natural to come out of a shop or filling station, get in the car and set off up the road on the left.
Apart from the self-evident fact that you drive on the other side, most continental traffic rules are the same as British ones — with one important exception which we shall examine in a moment. Traffic signs present no worries because Britain long ago adopted the international pattern, and you can decipher the few local pecularities by using common sense and a little imagination. In France, you might see a red warning triangle sign bearing the silhouette of a frog: yes, it means that you must beware of frogs on the road, because the surface will be slippery if large numbers have been squashed by traffic.
You need to be extra careful in spotting traffic lights because they are often suspended from overhead cables, with a small 'reminder' set at eye level to the right for the driver first in a queue. In some countries the amber intermediate stage is omitted, and you tend to find far more filter systems (for left, right and straight on). A continuously flashing amber light is frequently used, but need cause no confusion: it simply means that you should cross a particularly hazardous junction with great caution and be prepared to give way. If you drive in a large Italian city, be prepared for the drivers you see making their own `filtering' decisions at lights by nipping round a corner at red when no traffic is coming. This would rightly be regarded as a serious offence at home, but strangely the Italian authorities seem almost to accept it as an initiative which, if done safely, gets traffic flowing that little bit more freely.
The important exception to British traffic rules mentioned earlier is the notorious 'priority to the right' rule, seen at its most virulent in France. Thankfully, the French authorities, motivated by having one of the highest road accident rates in Europe, are at last trying to sort out the dangers of their 'priority to the right' policy, but you must still be on your guard. Roundabouts can cause confusion because the traditional French system is the opposite to ours, meaning that traffic on the roundabout must give way to traffic coming in at each entrance road. All this is in the process of changing, with many roundabouts now having white lines to indicate that incoming traffic must give way in the normal manner, but always be prepared to find the old system operating.
The same wisdom applies to traffic in towns or on country roads. It has always been necessary in France to expect a Deux Chevaux to come hurtling into your path from any side road to the right. Although better use of white line 'give way' markings is now being made to establish a more logical system of priority, you will still find local drivers joining a major road from the right without even slowing down or looking to see if it is clear, trusting to luck that any oncoming drivers will be able to give way. You need to be especially cautious in towns, because priority to the right applies at any junction without traffic lights or give way road markings. Only when travelling along a major road dotted with yellow diamond you have priority signs can you be reasonably sure that a car will not emerge from a side road to the right.
In addition to this warning, there are a few other aspects of continental motoring which require special care. These are mentioned to help you enjoy your European touring holiday, and not with the aim of putting you off.
Continental policemen, especially the motorcycle police in France, tend to take a much harder line with erring motorists than their British counterparts. They will listen to no excuses about ignorance of the law in their country, and invariably they will deal with a misdemeanour committed by a British motorist in the simplest way — by demanding an on-the-spot fine. Their system is well organised, with all major credit cards accepted! Make sure that you understand the speed limits in each country you enter, because a speeding offence is the most common reason for a British driver being stopped. There is one important point about driving on German autobahns: although they are the only motorways in Europe without an overall speed limit, 100kph (60mph) and 120kph (75mph) limits are often posted for short stretches, sometimes for no obvious reason. They can appear by surprise, but take note of how rigidly German motorists obey them; the fines for not doing so are heavy.
Although petrol of a grade equivalent to four-star can be found everywhere in Europe these days (except perhaps behind the Iron Curtain), make sure that you understand the local description for the grade you require. Be especially careful that you do not unwittingly fill up at an unleaded pump when you need leaded fuel (or vice versa) simply because you do not understand the language.
The yellow headlights fitted to French cars are required by law on all French-registered vehicles, but visitors may use their ordinary white lights. Before heading to any country, however, you must have the right-hand bias of your dipped beam masked by fitting the adhesive shapes available from accessory shops. Do this even if you do not expect to be driving in darkness, because even the best-laid plans can go wrong. If you neglect to do this, you will find yourself 'flashed' by dazzled oncoming drivers because your dipped headlights will look as if they are on main beam.
Apart from this point, your car needs no more preparation than it requires for any other long journey. Make sure the list of European dealers supplied when the car was new is still in your glovebox, and try to obtain a phrase book which lists common motoring terms if you will be struggling with language in the event of a breakdown. Have your car serviced before you leave if one will be due while you are away. Although a red warning triangle is recommended for use in Britain, you must take one when travelling abroad. It is a good idea to take some basic spares, such as lamp bulbs, fuses and a fan or alternator belt, as well as a plastic emergency windscreen. And finally, remember your GB plate!
- Plan ahead as far as possible so that you have a good idea of your route before you leave home.
- Once your initial wariness about driving on the right has disappeared, it is easy to forget momentarily that you are abroad; be especially careful not to drive away on the left after a short stop at a filling station or shop.
- Always be alert to the dangers of the priority to the right rule when driving in France.
- Use common sense and imagination to decipher any unfamiliar road signs; make sure you know the speed limits for the countries you visit.
- Do not think that ignorance of the law will ever be accepted as an excuse by continental policemen.