Driving in Europe this summer? Check the rules of the road

Speed limits, insurance, fines...there's a lot to consider before you get behind the wheel of a car abroad. Mark Rowe reports
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The Independent Travel

You're off the aircraft and you're thinking that the most dangerous part of the holiday is behind you. Yet statistics suggest the opposite is true, particularly if you are hiring a car at your destination.

In 2006, which provides the most recent figures available, the highest death tolls occurred in Italy (5,436), Poland (5,243) and Germany (5,094). The UK's death rate that year was 3,355. Over the same period, Belgium and Portugal, which both held notorious reputations for road safety, reduced road deaths by 30 per cent and 42 per cent respectively. The most dangerous countries to drive in? Rated by fatalities per million passenger cars, they are Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary and Greece.

RAC research reveals that 76 per cent of Britons who drive abroad feel nervous about doing so; 21 per cent admit to having strayed to the left of the road while on the continent. Yet, for many of us, driving abroad is a cheap and essential way of getting to our destination. The main European destinations for Britons in 2009 are France (55 per cent), Spain (31 per cent) and Italy (12 per cent).

The good news is that car fatalities across the EU are dropping significantly – collectively falling by 23 per cent since 2001, from more than 50,000 deaths in 2001 to 38,000 in 2006, according to data produced by the Community Road Accident Database, the European centralised database on road accidents.

"The vast majority of people will drive carefully, perhaps more so than they would do at home, because it is unfamiliar or they are in a hire car. And, 95 times out of 100, there will be no issues," said Nick Caunter, managing director of APH, which collects data on international road speeds.

Just remember that key number: for emergency services in mainland Europe, dial 112.

Speed limits

The most common pitfall is the vagaries of speed limits. In most EU countries, the speed limit in built-up areas is uniformly around 50kph (30mph), but speed limits for motorways and rural areas can be more variable. "Overall, the differences in speeds are not large but they are enough for you to be caught out," said Mr Caunter.

Speed restrictions can drop significantly in residential areas in some countries. In Spain it's 20kph (12mph) but the Spanish have five speed limits, from 20kph up to 120kph (75 mph). Speed limits on major roads such as motorways and highways can vary from 62mph (100kph) in the Netherlands to 80mph (130kph) in France. In some countries, such as France, limits are reduced in bad weather or on toll roads to 110kph (68mph).

Fines

Punishments for speeding abroad can be severe. In France there are on-the-spot fines and licences can be confiscated if you exceed the speed limit by more than 40kph (25mph). The Dutch also monitor speeding vigilantly, and cars can be impounded. On-the-spot fines can be issued for most driving offences – including running out of fuel on the autobahn – in Germany. "Our customer feedback suggests that on-the-spot fines and confiscation of vehicles is the most unsettling element and one of the biggest deterrents," said Mr Caunter. "It can be frightening, culturally, to be handing over money on the spot, which is not the way it is done here."

Legal requirements and local laws

There are other anomalies that repay doing some homework on your destination. If you wear glasses you must carry a spare pair when driving in Spain, along with a spare set of lamp bulbs for your car; the use of indicators on motorways in Spain is strictly enforced and you risk being fined for not indicating before overtaking. The RAC recommends that drivers stow away a fire extinguisher if driving in Belgium, just as Belgians are required to do so.

Headlamp beam converters are compulsory in France, as is carrying a hazard warning triangle and reflective jacket in all vehicles; high-visibility vests are also compulsory in Austria, Belgium, Italy and Norway and are likely to become compulsory throughout the EU. Remember that in France you give priority to traffic coming from the right (la priorité à droite) in built-up areas – unless a yellow diamond indicates you have priority. Pedestrians normally have right of way in Switzerland. In Germany, it is compulsory to carry a first-aid kit.

Licences, insurance and breakdown cover

Sixty-four per cent of all breakdowns involving British drivers abroad happen in France. Check whether your current driving insurance includes European breakdown cover.

While you may have fully comprehensive insurance in the UK, your cover abroad is usually restricted to third party. This meets the legal requirement for travelling in the EU, but to raise the cover level you will have to pay extra. Green cards are not strictly necessary in the EU, but your insurer may still require you to hold one. An international driving permit is required in countries outside the EU, and within it, for those with old-style green licences.

Germany is the most expensive place to be involved in a crash that is your fault, with the average bill coming in at £2,940, more than 50 per cent higher than the typical bill anywhere else in Europe; it is also obligatory to report motoring incidents to the police in Germany, at the time they occur, even a minor bump.

The RAC recommends that all drivers abroad obtain a copy of the European accident statement (EAS) from their insurer. This is the English translation of the constat amiable, a legal document widely used across continental Europe. It enables drivers involved in an accident to exchange facts while events are fresh in the mind, helping to settle claims quickly.

Drinking and driving

Alcohol limits are often lower than at home. The UK's blood/alcohol limit is 80mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood, or 0.08 per cent, but in most EU countries, including France, Spain and Finland this drops to 0.05 per cent and just 0.02 per cent in Sweden.

Further information

For a guide to requirements in individual countries, visit rac.co.uk .

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