Harriet O'Brien: Watch out for the big beasts of the highway

How happy are you driving abroad? Arriving in Newfoundland's capital, St John's, earlier this month, I immediately headed for the car rental desks and collected my keys.

I was looking forward to fairly stress-free driving in this far-flung part of Canada where traffic is light and wandering moose are the biggest challenge to motorists. But at the car park I stared aghast at the so-called car that I had been assigned.

It was a monster vehicle that barely fitted into the allocated parking space. With no other rental options available I simply had to get in and drive away.

Given that my usual runabout is a modest two-door effort, this behemoth's spatial dynamics were daunting. At first, moving forward seemed distinctly challenging. Worse still was the tricky business of reversing – a perspiration-inducing process involving the use of an onboard video screen on the dashboard.

Yet I and my passenger survived, and during our week's driving we had just one near problem, a tiny collision when a mouse (not, fortunately, moose) crossed the road. It died, I'm afraid.

But driving that beast of a car did set me wondering. You arrive for a relaxing break in a foreign country, tired and very often very work-stressed. And the very first thing you do is to jump into an unfamiliar car and drive off. You don't fully understand the highway signage; you don't (unless you're very organised and have done your homework) know if any special traffic laws apply in that part of the world, and you're probably having to drive on the other side of the road – about a third of the world's population drives on the right.

But, particularly during the summer holiday season, thousands and thousands of us do this every day. Surely it is nonsensically unsafe.

Speaking to Nick Mountfield, head of marketing at Avis UK, last week I picked up some surprising statistics.

In the UK, he said, 4 per cent a year of their rentals result in damage. That figure, he continued, increases by less than half a per cent when it comes to rentals Avis UK organises overseas.

"Those numbers might not be what you'd expect," he said. "However, people tend to be nervous about driving abroad and so they're much more careful."

Take your time, don't take risks and try to plan your routes carefully was his advice. It helps, he also commented, that the Brits tend to be fairly law-abiding and are pretty good at obeying the traffic rules abroad – when they know them.

Meantime, how do we rate as drivers compared with other countries? The Department for Transport figures published on the Foreign Office travel advice website (fco.gov.uk) offer more surprising insights: in 2008 in the UK there were 4.3 road deaths per 100,000 people while France had 6.7 road deaths per 100,000 population and Italy 7.9. Looking further afield to North America, Canada had 7.3 and the US 12.3 road deaths per 100,000 residents – all the more startling given the low speed limits there.

So, whatever the size of vehicle I'm assigned, the next time I drive abroad I'll set out feeling a great deal more confident.

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