School holidays special: Driving in Europe

Going by car this summer? Mark Rowe offers the latest advice
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The Independent Travel

It's set to be Groundhog Day on the continent for British motorists this summer.

Fines for obscure driving violations, traffic jams and road works will make many question the wisdom of driving rather than flying or taking the train.

This year, though, while anecdotal evidence from the AA and RAC suggests more of us have booked driving holidays in the wake of industrial unrest and the chaos caused by Iceland's volcanic ash during the spring, there is even less excuse than usual for not being prepared. Travel websites, such as aa.com and fco.gov.uk, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office site, are now rapidly updated with driving laws and developments on Europe's roads.

Among the newer laws that are likely to catch out drivers is the requirement in France to carry a high visibility jacket in the passenger compartment, rather than in the boot. Another headache is strict enforcement in Italy of car-free areas. "The sign for 'no traffic' in Italy is a white circle with a red border – the same as in the UK," said Rosie Sanderson, of the AA. "It's being increasingly used in Italian cities but British drivers seem to think it doesn't apply." Fines are now being routinely administered, up to a year later, and average out at about €113 (£96).

Slovenia and Slovakia are two more countries where rule changes must be followed. Both have abolished tolls but now require drivers to purchase a sticker, either at the border or at a petrol station close to it. If not, you face rigorously enforced fines. Traffic police in Portugal have introduced portable ATM machines, so rule-breaking motorists can pay on the spot.

On the positive side, some of the more fiddly requirements are being quietly dropped. It is no longer compulsory across the EU to carry a spare set of halogen or xenon lightbulbs – a concession that recognises that fitting them is a specialist job for a mechanic. In Spain, drivers need no longer carry a spare pair of glasses. In Germany, though, you will be fined for running out of fuel on the autobahn.

The AA also warns that a bumper sticker must state GB – stickers that only mention individual nations of the UK can get you fined.

In a world of apps and instant information, there is as yet no pan-European website that drivers can visit to check for the very latest roadworks or jams. But an RAC survey has shown that UK roadworks are the safest and best-operated in Europe.

The best country-specific website is offered by France on – www.bison-fute.equipement.gouv.fr/diri/Accueil.do – which has an English-language section on roadworks. And, for Germany, there's www.alltravelgermany.com/Germany/Car_Rental/Driving_Tips.htm, which has an English motoring glossary.

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