Going abroad by car? Take the Green Card: Though barriers are tumbling, an international certificate of insurance may still prove useful, writes Andrew Bibby

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PASSPORTS, currency, ferry tickets, holiday insurance, phrase book for communicating with foreign lorry drivers . . . and the Green Card.

British motorists packing for their holiday abroad, even those just venturing across the Channel for the weekend, have traditionally had to add this international certificate of insurance to their luggage.

Even though the barriers are tumbling in Europe, the Green Card is stubbornly refusing to die. The scheme, overseen in Geneva by the United Nations-sponsored Economic Commission for Europe, provides documentary proof that motorists have car insurance up to the minimum legal levels for the countries they are visiting.

A Green Card is no longer strictly necessary for most popular European holiday destinations, however.

A European Community directive lays down that a normal British certificate of insurance is adequate proof that you have the necessary minimum cover for each of the other 11 EC countries. A similar arrangement applies in the non-EC Scandinavian countries, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Switzerland. But you must remember to take your insurance certificate.

Roger Snook of the Motor Insurers' Bureau, which oversees the Green Card scheme in Britain, says however: 'In the European Community, a Green Card is advisable. Outside the EC you should always take one.'

Thirty-one countries, including almost all the west and east European states, participate in the Green Card scheme. Albania, Slovenia, Croatia and the former Soviet republics are excluded. Outside Europe, Morocco, Tunisia, Israel, Iraq and Iran are participating members.

Green Cards should technically be issued free by motor insurers. The situation is complicated because most insurers assume you want the same level of cover abroad as you have in Britain, rather than the legal minimum. This seems eminently sensible: with minimum cover only, damage to your own car or loss from theft or fire would be unlikely to be covered. You would also run the risk, if you had to meet third- party claims, that your cover was inadequate for the full claim, leaving you personally liable for any shortfall.

Some insurers are happy to extend full cover free of charge to policyholders travelling abroad. General Accident provides up to 45 days' cover free. Norwich Union offers a maximum of 30 days' cover in each policy year. Both companies insist policyholders inform their insurer of their travel plans. Angela Robertson of GA says: 'We don't charge, but people do have to let us know. If they don't, they would only have the minimum cover applicable in the country being visited.'

Other insurers are not so helpful. Legal & General, for example, charges an additional pounds 15 to cover a 1400cc Ford Escort for two weeks in France. Direct Line charges pounds 16 and the Sun Alliance pounds 17. Policyholders with Sun Alliance get the worst of both worlds because the insurer chooses not to issue Green Cards to motorists who are travelling to EC countries for short periods only, while charging to extend the cover.

Insurers advise motorists travelling to Spain to equip themselves also with a 'bail bond'. 'Under Spanish road traffic laws, a policeman has the power to arrest and imprison you, unless you can show you have reasonable funds to settle any claim that may arise,' says Roger Snook. He added: 'I think Spain is the worst country in which to have an accident.'

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