A Guide to Driving in Europe
What You Need to Know
- Always carry the right documentation. See the 'Things to Take with You' section for more information.
- Buy a phrase book. Learn the words that are most likely to appear on road signs and some phrases you may need if you are caught in a tricky situation.
- If renting a car, be sure to know if items such as reflective jackets and safety triangles are included. Carrying such items is a legal requirement throughout the EU. See the 'Renting a Car' section for more details.
- If you take your own car, remember that your speedometer is in mph, whilst the speed limits are displayed on signs in kmh. You’ll need to convert between the two to avoid speeding.
- At certain times of year winter tyres are required in some countries. Make sure your vehicle is appropriately kitted out.
- Some of the differences in law are subtle. For example, drink driving laws are similar in principle, but the limits you can drink vary. Don’t get caught out. See the 'Differences in Law and Culture' section for more information.
- Beware urban myths such as “there are no speed limits on the autobahn.” These are often totally or partially untrue. Do your research.
Things to Take with You
It’s important to have the right documents with you. You’ll need them in order to rent a car and, in the event that you are stopped by police, you’ll need to be able to produce them. Be sure to have the following things on your person;
- A valid driving license. (In some cases you may need an international license.)
- The original vehicle registration document.
- Your passport.
- Your motor insurance certificate.
Visit the AA’s website for more tips on sorting out your documentation when driving overseas.
Whilst it is not a legal requirement, you’d be very well advised to take a phrase book with you. Learn what the most common instructions on road signs mean. If you are in a country where many languages are spoken be aware that signs might switch languages between regions, in some cases, even within the same city.
Renting a Car
There are a few things you’ll want to be aware of when renting a car. For one thing there are a large amount of items you are legally required to have in the car with you when driving in EU countries. These include; fire extinguishers, reflective jackets, safety triangles and first aid kits. You should try and ensure these are included with the car, otherwise you’ll have to source them yourself. Always look about to find the best rental deal.
Another important, though, often overlooked, matter for consideration is the fact that you’ll be unused to the car. Aside from the obvious issue of it being right hand drive (which can actually be beneficial, as it reduces the risk that you’ll forget that your supposed to be driving on the right) there are also more subtle things to think about. For instance, throughout Europe it is a legal requirement to keep headlights dipped. If you can’t figure out how to do this because you aren’t familiar with the controls, you may cause an accident.
Taking Your Own Car
Taking your own car abroad is one way of avoiding some of the issues that arise when trying to rent a car in Europe. However, it is by no means plain sailing.
Firstly, you’ll need to ensure that your car is appropriately marked so that the authorities, and other road users, are able to designate you as a British driver. The easiest way to do this is to by having a ‘GB Sticker’.
There are some countries in which just having license plates that have the GB euro symbol will suffice but, in some countries, even if you have euro plates the sticker is still required. Failure to comply can result in fines, furthermore these can be issued on the spot.
Secondly, whilst taking your own car means you will be used to your vehicle, this can be a disadvantage. For example, most European speed limits are displayed in kilometres. This means you will not be able to judge your speed by simply glancing at your speedometer, as it measures speed in mph. You will need to be able to do conversions between the kph and mph with some confidence to avoid going over the speed limit.
If you drive a car which uses leaded petrol you should also be aware that leaded petrol is very hard to find on the continent. This problem is compounded by the fact that, in some countries, it is illegal to carry a secondary supply of fuel in your car.
Differences in Law and Culture
The differences between driving in the U.K. and driving in mainland Europe go considerably beyond the simple matter of whether traffic proceeds on the right or left of the road. In some cases these differences arise due to circumstances that wouldn’t happen in the U.K. For example, in colder areas such as Scandinavia winter tyres are required at certain times of year. We in the U.K are ambivalent about rain, but, in Spain and France, the legal speed limit is actually lowered in wet conditions.
Some differences are less obvious and, often, it is the smaller differences that catch people out. For instance, devices which detect speed radars are illegal in most of Europe, despite coming as standard on some Sat Nav devices in the U.K. Another key example is drinking and driving. Belgium, for example, has a drink drive limit of only 50mgs. In some countries it is zero.
The key thing here is to do your research. You definitely should not depend on what you think you know, or fall back on urban myths. For example, most Brits believe that there are no speed limits on the German Autobahns. In fact, around a third of them enforce very strict speed limits. However, ignorance will not serve as a defence and, if your caught doing something illegal, the fine will follow you home.
- No matter how prepared you are you never know what might happen. Before setting off to drive through Europe you should make sure you get a good deal on European breakdown cover.
- For even more tips on driving in Europe check out this helpful article.