Top tips for driving abroad

Motorists risk spot fines and high breakdown costs if they don't get check the law and their policies before leaving home. Mark MacKenzie reports

In the UK, flashing blue lights in your rear-view mirror mean there's a one-in-three chance you're about to face a patronising lecture. And attracting the attention of the local constabulary on the Continent can be the prelude to an equally tedious experience: an introduction to the myriad ways to break the law on Europe's roads.

Vehicles entering Bulgaria, for example, are required to have their wheels disinfected to minimise the spread of livestock diseases. In Germany, it is illegal to run out of petrol on the Autobahn, as it is to make derogatory signs at fellow drivers, a rule unlikely to deter England football fans this summer. The special tax discs required for travel on Swiss motorways are available at border crossings, while in Greece it is illegal to carry petrol inside a car's cabin. In Spain, spare headlight bulbs and reflective safety vests are also compulsory, while another law requires children under 12 to travel in special seats when sitting in the front.

Research carried out by the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) on behalf of Saga Breakdown Assistance suggests that almost half of Britons risk a brush with the law when driving in Europe. "There are currently around six million Britons driving on the Continent each year," said Angela Clifton of Saga, "and a significant number are unaware of even the most basic legal requirements." In its survey of 2,000 adults, the BMRB found that 44 per cent had not displayed the compulsory "GB" sticker when driving in France, and another 40 per cent failed to carry a warning triangle.

"These are mandatory requirements in many European countries," said Nigel Charlesworth of the breakdown service Green Flag, "and getting away with some of the more minor infringements will depend on the discretion of individual police officers.

"One thing that always surprises British motorists is the fact they can be fined on the spot," said Mr Charlesworth. In France, for example, speeding could have a detrimental effect on those euros earmarked for recreational purposes. Mr Charlesworth suggests carrying a kitty for emergencies, because instant fines for both speeding and jumping red lights may exceed £100. French police will prosecute drivers if the time it takes their car to get from one autoroute tollbooth to the next is deemed too swift.

Perhaps just as important as driving on the straight and narrow is ensuring that adequate breakdown cover in the event that your car decides it doesn't want to come home.

"The cost of repatriating your vehicle could make a dramatic difference to the cost of your holiday," says Ms Clifton. "If you break down in St Tropez, the typical call-out charge is about £60. However, if you live in Manchester, getting your car home could cost you around £1,500, or about a pound a mile."

That is, of course, once you've found a garage that will agree to take your car on a cross-Channel ferry. Ms Clifton's advice to motorists is to check that breakdown cover includes not just the cost of returning the car, but emergency accommodation while arrangements are being made. She also suggests checking the type of breakdown cover when buying a policy, because some providers require drivers to specify the number of days they will be abroad.

Alarmingly, she adds, the BMRB's research found that 32 per cent of those British drivers questioned failed to take out any European cover whatsoever.

Others precautions, however, are simply a question of common sense. "Make sure you really use your mirrors if your car is right-hand drive," said Mr Charlesworth, "and make sure you know the phone number of the emergency services for the country you're travelling in."

Perhaps the least surprising BMRB finding was that when driving abroad, the vast majority of Britons, 85 per cent, in fact, always remember to pack at least one thing - their lunch.