Off the multi-lane turnpikes, the roads in Europe are narrow and often wind through the countryside, flanked by hedgerows, stone fences and trees. Bucolic, in one way, but North Americans can feel a little claustrophobic. On the plus side, the tarmacs are well maintained and the signs on secondary roads provide good directions between major centers.
Getting from A to B sounds easy in guidebooks and when someone says, oh just head north towards Upton Downberry and stay to the right. But the European countryside is a tangle of criss-crossing small roads. On these side roads, the signs are not entirely trustworthy. You need good maps. Michelin produces excellent ones for France, as does IGN. The Ordnance Survey series is unmatched for Britain, as are the Carta Turistica in Italy and Kompass in Germany.
Tip: Even the best maps can still be confusing, particularly once you’ve made a wrong turn. Your best bet is to bring, rent or purchase a GPS which covers the area you’re driving in. That reassuring voice somehow always manages to get you back on track, no matter how lost you may think you are! Money well spent.
The vast majority of road signs are universal—stop, yield, right lane must turn right, and so on. But a few in each country are not. A triangle with a red border and an exclamation point may throw you. It is the symbol for “roundabout approaching”. And the infamous French priorité à droite (below) calls for watchfulness.
Alert: know rules on alcohol consumption limits: penalties can be stiff, beginning with a night in jail. Most of this information is readily available on the internet.
Roundabouts (traffic circles)
The intersections of major roads in Europe are governed by roundabouts: cars already in the roundabout have the right of way. You enter yielding right-of-way to vehicles to your left, circle counter-clockwise until you locate your desired exit point, and exit to the right. (It’s the opposite in the U.K. and other right-hand drive countries) If you’re unfamiliar with the system, it can be tricky at first but once you get the hang of it, you might prefer it to light-controlled intersections.
Tip: you’re not required to exit at any point, so if you miss your exit, make a second loop until you’re comfortable turning out.
Turnpikes versus Secondary Roads
Motorways and superhighways connect most of the major centers in European countries. These freeways are often toll routes: they whisk you on three and four lanes quickly from one urban center to another. There are also non-toll roads, usually of one lane per direction. By contrast, these meander through the countryside and its many cramped and quaintly cluttered towns. The downside is that traffic plugs up at every town—and you can be trapped behind a lorry going 40KpH for 30 or more kilometres.
Choose your poison—the freeways are fast but costly and you don’t see the countryside; the picturesque smaller roads can be slow and frustrating.
Partageons la Route
If you’re trapped behind a lorry, you simply have to wait it out. Europeans drive fast and well compared to North Americans. But they also respect others on the road: sheep crossing between meadows, a tractor chugging from one field to another, cyclists out on a ride. There’s little zooming past such encumbrances.
Britain’s “right-hand” Drive Set Up
Most people have heard that motor vehicles in Britain drive on the opposite side of the road to everywhere else. It’s surprisingly easy to catch on to being on the “wrong” side of the road. The tricky bits are making turns crossing traffic (left-hand turns for North Americans, right for Britons), and backing up—where the disorientations are multiplied.
Tip: if you rent near an airport, take a half hour to drive around near the lot just to familiarize yourself before heading out onto the highways and freeways where traffic is really moving.
Europe’s priorité à droite (priority to the right)
Under this rule, traffic entering intersections (including T-junctions) from a road on your right has the right of way, no matter how small the road it’s coming from (unless that traffic has a stop or yield sign or two broad white bands of paint indicating it must stop). A yellow diamond edged with white is the sign that indicates you are on a “priority” road. But drivers sometimes play loose and easy, so always exercise caution.
A few points on renting in Europe:
All the major companies are at the international airports and rail stations, but prices vary greatly, so you’ll want to shop in advance of your arrival. Europcar often offers the best deals – you can expect to pay about $50-$75 / day. It’s very important to check with your credit card company about third party liability coverage. If you aren’t covered, you’re best to buy liability insurance — in some countries drivers seem to treat parking as a giant bumper-car game.
Photo Credits: fotoVoyager, DivaNir4a, aspectimages, Wayne Tefs, wikipedia, jimx