No matter how long you’ve been driving in your home country, taking the wheel in a foreign country can be a nerve-wracking endeavour.
From making sure your car is properly equipped to knowing what lights are customary at different times, here’s a list of driving rules and tips to keep in mind when driving in Europe.
Preparation for Driving in Europe
When preparing for a road-trip in Europe, make sure you have your important papers to hand. This includes:
- A full, valid driving licence
- Proof of insurance
- Photographic ID (a passport is perfect)
- Registration document or relevant rental documents
In addition to your legal documents, most European countries require you to carry:
- A basic first-aid kit
- Replacement headlight bulbs
- A high-vis vest
- Warning triangle
Drivers from the UK must also display a “GB” sticker on their car if they take it into most European countries (but British drivers using a European rental car don’t need to worry – it’s for the vehicle, not the driver).
Satellite Navigation Laws in Europe
In some locations, like France, it is illegal to have radar detectors in the vehicle, even if it is switched off. You will also find that GPS and sat-nav devices that identify speed cameras are outlawed too. Check the local country-specific rules before bringing your own sat-nav.
Dash Cam Laws in Europe
Finally, many countries have specific rules about dash cams. For example, in Belgium and France, recorded footage is strictly for private use and may not be uploaded to the internet for any purpose. Dash cam use is strongly discouraged in Switzerland due to potential infringement of data protection rights and, in Germany, cameras are only permitted if they do not record people’s faces or number plates. Portugal, Austria and Luxembourg forbid dash cams altogether so, again, do your research before you hit “record”.
Dress for the Occasion
Drivers who use glasses or contact lenses must remember to pack a spare pair before getting into their car in Portugal, Spain or Switzerland, where you are required to have a second set readily available in the car.
Remember to take your sunglasses off during tunnels! This might seem obvious but it’s an easy mistake to make. Tunnels on the continent can be exceptionally long – for example, the Lærdal Tunnel in Norway, which extends for 15 miles.
Footwear is another important consideration when driving in Europe. Many people believe that it is illegal to wear flip-flops while driving in Spain. However, this is not strictly true. Most countries (including Spain) simply stipulate that drivers are responsible for ensuring safe and appropriate attire that allows them to be in full control of their vehicles. In fact, the UK has some pretty specific advice about what this means for your driving shoes – more so than Spain!
On the Road
Food & Drink
Most people are aware that French laws require all drivers (including motorcyclists) to carry a self-test breathalyser for alcohol. This rule has been in place since 2013, so there’s no excuse for not knowing!
Feeling peckish? When you’re behind the wheel in Cyprus, don’t even think about eating. It’s illegal to consume anything at all while you’re in the driving seat, including water. Pull over and take a break, instead.
In Scandinavian countries (that’s Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland), it’s illegal to drive with your lights off – even during the day. Dipped headlights are the minimum requirement at all times.
While we’re on the subject of lighting, know that in Slovenia it’s required that you put your hazard lights on whenever you are reversing – your reversing lights alone aren’t sufficient.
Speed limits in France often change according to the weather conditions – for example, a toll motorway typically has an 80kph limit unless it’s raining, when it drops to 68kph.
You’ve probably heard all about Germany’s Autobahn (motorway) network, which has no speed limit. As fun as this might sound, keep in mind that it is illegal to stop on this road – so even breaking down or running out of fuel can get you into serious trouble.
It’s important to check parking laws, too. In Spain, for example, the appropriate side of the street for parking often alternates each day of the week. Keep an eye out for what locals are doing and be careful about leaving your car overnight – you could wake up to a big fine or even an empty space where your car has been towed!
Rules, What Rules?
No matter how respectful tourists are, there are some countries where locals are notoriously bad at following the national laws of their own roads.
Both the Italians and the Portuguese are known for regularly breaking speed limits and taking chances by overtaking in tight gaps. It’s best to exercise caution and try to not get intimidated if they drive aggressively. There is also a lot of online advice on how to drive in Portugal for instance.
You may also find that these drivers seem to avoid travelling in the right-most lane (the “slowest” one) on motorways, meaning it’s often empty. There’s no reason for this, other than impatience and belief that they will be able to get past more people by lingering in the “overtaking” lane.
Of course, try not to flout the driving laws of whatever country you’re in, but do employ a little common sense and adapt a little to the style of the people driving around you. Driving too slowly is often more dangerous than going too fast and you may need to fake a bit of confidence in busy traffic… but perhaps keep any hand gestures to yourself!