In this Ryanair-easyJet age, when you can reach a host of destinations within a couple of hours, the whole concept of the European road trip seems strangely antique. Why go to all the trouble of checking your tyres and your green card, and loading up your hi-viz waistcoats and self-breathalyser kits (French law), when you can take the dawn bus to Luton with your 10kg wheelie case and be in Lyon in good time for lunch?
Well, here’s why I love driving the highways and byways, not just here, but abroad. Motoring across Europe gives you a sense of the distance, the changing cultures and the shifting landscape that you fly over in a matter of minutes in a plane. What is more, you can stop on a whim and savour that difference. And while most border posts have been dismantled (or converted into shopping centres), you have scarcely passed the “Bienvenue” or “Willkommen” signs before the architecture, the taste in food – and the number plates – have changed, too.
Ah, the number plates! For all the talk of a single Europe and a globalised world, surprisingly few people cross even the most benign national borders – or, in the United States, the state line – except, that is, for the professionals: the hauliers, and incorrigible car tourists like me. The roads either side of almost any border are still poorly maintained, badly signed and devoid of traffic, because few people use them. You can get hopelessly lost around Maastricht – believe me, I have been. In a continent of nations, big and small, there is such a thing as no-man’s-land.
If national identity is alive and well, however, the distinctive national car number plate is fading into history. Having made several road trips, north, south and east, in the past 18 months or so, I can attest that it is becoming harder and harder to see at a glance the provenance of another vehicle, as number plates become ever more standardised. That is a fact, but it is a fact with consequences. I would also argue that the change could have negative implications for road safety, because experienced cross-border drivers engage, almost without thinking, in a sort of national and regional profiling that helps to keep them out of trouble.
Time was when you could tell instantly not only which country a vehicle was from, but which region of that country. And those regional identifiers are also in decline. One of the sadder explanations for abandoning regional plates in Italy was that it would stop Roma fans having their cars vandalised when their team played away in, say, Naples. In France, they said that new number-plate recognition technology made a département number superfluous. This seems to underrate the role of what we might, in these intelligence-aware days, call “humint”. People have, or used to have, a keen eye for an unfamiliar number plate – which could help law enforcement. But that is by the by.
In Germany, they have moved the other way – towards, rather than away from, local identifiers. Perversely, though, the effect has been similar. Quite small towns and districts may now introduce their own registration codes; these are now so many and so complicated that fewer and fewer vehicles are recognisable as coming from, say, Berlin or Hamburg or towns in the former East.
In Britain, regional identifiers have never been so obvious. Long ago, AA and RAC yearbooks contained lists of suffixes that told you where a car was registered. It was a game we played as children travelling in the car, as French children would learn, and try to spot, département numbers. Now, you have no way of easily divining from the number plate whether the vehicle in front of you is long distance or local, or even – until you get close enough to see the tiny country code – from what country. Knowing where a driver is likely to be from, however, is often extremely useful information.
I know it is not politically correct to say – or even think – this, but you are likely to exercise particular caution if the lorry’s national plate identifies it as Polish or Bulgarian, even more if it is Romanian. You also know, if you drive a few times on a French autoroute, for instance, that French lorries and Spanish lorries will tend to behave quite differently. The Spaniard is far more prone to speeding and barging out without looking or indicating.
A Dutch car or lorry will be stolidly law- abiding, as will a British one (so long as the driver remembers which mirror to look in); a British driver’s main fault abroad – oh yes, mine, too, if you ask my husband – will be timidity. And that, of course, has its own dangers, too.
In many years of Continental driving, I have learnt that Italians are not (usually) as irresponsible as you might suppose. I have learnt that the French can be admirably cautious in really terrible conditions (a sudden rainstorm or blizzard). I also know that a German driver is likely to whizz up behind me terrifyingly fast and sit on my tail, but that there is no need to panic and it is nothing personal; it is just how Germans drive. They generally don’t misjudge the distance, and they know who has priority at slip roads (unlike the otherwise responsible Danes, who expect equal rights when they join the motorway).
When driving in France, it is also useful to know that a car is from Paris, Lyon or Marseille, so you can let them pass. Their drivers – I admit to crude stereotyping here – are often selfish and arrogant, all in their own way, and hell-bent on getting home for lunch. It is reassuring to know, too, that an infuriatingly slow or erratic driver is local (because your torment will probably not last). Without that knowledge, you could be tempted to take that needless risk.
Which is why I think the embrace of standardisation has a serious downside in depriving drivers of knowledge that can be critical to their safety and that of others on the road. This is one area where national and local stereotyping should be indulged. I would like to say, “Long live traditional number plates; they save lives”, but I fear the argument has been lost before it was ever really able to start.