NMA E-Newsletter #274: Some Observations on Driving Overseas

Editor’s Note: The following comments come from a longtime NMA member who has lived and traveled extensively overseas. His insights should prove valuable for anyone planning to travel abroad this summer. If you’ve driven in another country, we’d like to hear from you. How do American drivers stack up against their international counterparts? What is traffic enforcement like in other countries? What’s the best country in the world to drive in? What’s the worst? We’ll publish reader comments in future newsletters.

Some countries have very aggressive and/or inattentive drivers. The Lonely Planet guidebook for Turkey says the average motorist drives with an attitude of kismet, or fate. If Allah decides you should live to the end of the day you will, and if not then you won’t, so why worry about it? The book warns of driving in rural areas at night where you can encounter a nearly invisible lady in a full, black, hooded chador riding a donkey that you will hit at high speed if you are not very alert.

Speaking of staying alert, I used to live in Moscow, and I can tell you drivers there were the most aggressive I ever encountered. You need to maintain 110 percent alertness every hour of the day or night. If you don’t believe me, just check out YouTube for some scary examples captured on dash cam.

Contrast those with my experiences in Western Europe where I believe the average driver is more attentive than North American drivers. Part of this is the need to be more alert. Traffic is dense and fast, and many roadways are less forgiving than ours. British motorways have no fast-lane shoulder, and rural roads in Britain rarely have any shoulder at all.

Lanes tend to be narrower in Europe in general, requiring more attention to stay fully in your own lane. Part of this is the age of the roadways, which often predate the automobile by centuries. When you encounter semi trucks coming the other way on a two-lane highway in Europe, they almost touch the center line in many places and go over it a bit on very sharp curves. But they don’t slow down much, and you don’t have to either—so long as you are careful how you place your car in the lane.

In most European countries, the initial licensing and driver training are far more rigorous than in North America. Unlike in our culture, you really have to learn to drive, or you don’t get a license at all.

There are some interesting contrasts. Italian drivers have a reputation, well deserved, for being aggressive. The difference is that most of them really love driving and perfect their skills. They may bluff you, but they don’t hit you. A serious breach of etiquette in Italy is to waste other drivers’ time. We were in Palermo in Sicily on a Sunday and virtually every traffic light was turned off. We encountered many main intersections of one four-lane road crossing another four-lane road—with no light. Drivers took turns, much like what happens at a four-way stop, and it worked remarkably well. But if you hesitated for a couple of nanoseconds when it was your turn, you got a dozen horns blaring at you to GO.

In Italy on good rural two-lane highways, you can have the occasional experience of two cars coming at you from the other direction, one pulled to the right edge of their lane and the other straddling a double yellow no passing stripe. You move to the right of your lane and the passing car goes between the two of you. It scares the @#$% out of you the first time, but then you realize the passing car will not do this unless there is enough room for the three cars to be abreast of each other.

German drivers are fast, but highly skilled. I drove a bit on an unrestricted Autobahn at 90-100 mph and was passed by several cars going much faster. But they did it with skill, and I never felt uneasy.

In general, I am more assured that the drivers around me in Europe know what they are doing and are less likely to make mistakes than those in North America.

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