Before you put your foot down on rue 66...

Driving to the Continent this summer? Then ensure you're fully covered and up to speed with local rules, says Jasmine Birtles

Taking the car with you if you're heading over to the Continent this summer might seem convenient, cheap and the surest way of enjoying your freedom. But it is not necessarily the safest option, as Vince Yearly of the Institute of Advanced Motorists points out: "As soon as you cross the Channel, your chances of dying in a road accident double. Continue into Greece or Portugal and they triple."

Taking the car with you if you're heading over to the Continent this summer might seem convenient, cheap and the surest way of enjoying your freedom. But it is not necessarily the safest option, as Vince Yearly of the Institute of Advanced Motorists points out: "As soon as you cross the Channel, your chances of dying in a road accident double. Continue into Greece or Portugal and they triple."

Only two countries, Iceland and Sweden, have lower mortality rates on the road than Britain. Not only that, but because you are a visitor, you are likely to be more at risk than the locals. For a start, Britons drive on the "wrong" side and are faced with an unfamiliar highway culture.

And tourists often drive on the most dangerous roads. In Spain, for example, some of the highest accident rates are on the N-340 coastal road, which runs through major tourist centres along the Costa del Sol.

So if you are taking the car abroad this summer, it can help if you have already done your homework on the roads, the signs and the driving etiquette of the country you are visiting.

The AA has an excellent free guide, European Motoring Advice, on its website (www.the-aa.com), while maps and details of the most dangerous roads in Spain (and Britain) are available on the European Road Assessment Programme's website (www.eurorap.org).

"A good starting point is to read Robert Davis's book Driving Abroad," says Mr Yearly. "Every country is different and they all have different rules and regulations. Some can do on-the-spot fines, others will tow your car away. You really need to know about these things before you go."

Another sobering thought is that tens of thousands of British families risk an average bill of £3,078 for repatriation and other associated expenses if their vehicle breaks down or the driver falls ill, says car-care specialist motoreasy. The cost can escalate once call-out charges, vehicle parts, unplanned accommo- dation and new tickets are taken into account.

To avoid an expensive disaster, check your motor insurance and consider taking out specialist breakdown cover.

"Some policies provide fully comprehensive cover in EU countries as well as Britain for up to a month each year," says Malcolm Tarling of the Association of British Insurers. "So check your policy first. If you don't get this automatically and you'd like to be fully covered, you'll have to buy extra cover for the time you're away." On most standard policies the extra cost is usually 10 to 15 per cent of your annual premium.

About one in 20 UK cars break down when taken abroad, says insurer Norwich Union. This can be expensive: the cost of being towed to a garage can be around £200. So make sure you've got European breakdown cover before you go.

"There are three main things that can ruin your motoring holiday abroad," warns Luke Bosdet of the AA. "You can have a mechanical breakdown, your driver can get ill or they can get into trouble with the police. In France and some other continental countries, the police can take away your driving licence if you break the law."

If you travel to the Continent regularly, it may be worth taking out a full European breakdown policy for the year. Shop around as prices and the level of cover can vary greatly. Check www.insuresupermarket.com or www.find.co.uk for a range of choices or contact breakdown companies direct.

If the holiday is a one-off, you could opt for bolt-on European breakdown cover on your existing policy. This will cost £50 to £70 for a fortnight, depending on the age of your vehicle. Standard cover should provide roadside assistance and a free tow to a local garage for repair, together with labour charges. For more details, contact AA Five Star Europe (0800 444500), Europ Assistance (01444 442211) or the RAC (0800 550055).

"It's also important to get cover that includes repatriation costs," says the AA's Mr Bosdet. "Another thing you could consider is having two drivers, so that if one gets ill and has to stay in hospital for a week or more, at least there is another who could bring the family home."

As well as ensuring you have comprehensive insurance and breakdown cover, you can reduce the risk of accidents while abroad by keeping the motto "Think right, look left" in your head, says Mr Yearly. He also recommends driving more slowly than at home to give yourself time to react.

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