You may be prepared for driving on the righthand side of the road, but do you know what the foreign signs and road rules are in Europe? Here’s ten tips for a European road trip.
This is a French term that translates as “priority to the right”. This means that you need to give-way to traffic joining your road from your righthand side. This includes traffic joining the roundabout and traffic joining from smaller side roads. This is popular in built-up areas in France and Italy, but you only need to do this in specific “Priorité à droite” zones. These zones start with a yellow diamond sign, and then end with a yellow diamond that has a black line through it. Take extra care driving in built up areas as traffic can often behave like this regardless of whether a sign is displayed or not.
The D952 along the river Loire in the Val de Loire region, France
Many cities in Italy have Limited Traffic Zones called “Zona Traffico Limitato” or ZTL. They are used to reduce traffic and minimise the decay of their historic buildings. They are popular in Italian tourist destinations like Florence, Milan, Pisa and Rome. ZTL areas are indicated with a signpost (pictured). Anyone passing the boundary without permission will be recorded on a camera and issued a fine. As these zones are regulated by individual cities, you can't rely on your GPS navigation device to avoid them.
Zona Traffico Limitato sign, Italy
Firstly, you'll need a passport. You may even need a visa for countries outside of the European Union. If you are driving, you will need an in-date driving licence. Also, be aware that some countries (like Andorra and Hungary) won’t accept the old-style green paper licence.
If you are travelling in your own vehicle it is a good idea to take your V5C registration form and a motor insurance certificate. It is also a good idea to call your insurance provider to check that you are insured to drive your car abroad. Finally, check the road tax requirements. Switzerland need you to buy a tax disc (either online or at customs) before entering the country.
Siena, Tuscany, Italy
Many countries require you to carry certain items by law. In Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and Italy you need a reflective jacket, a spare tyre, and a warning triangle. France have recently added breathalysers to the list as well. Some countries, like Switzerland, may even enforce snow chains during the winter. If you are hiring a car, these items should be provided, but it is a good idea to check the boot before you set off.
Cars will need a country flag on their number plate or a sticker to show where the vehicle is registered. For example, UK cars need a certified “GB” sticker on the back of the car. If you have a right-hand drive car, your headlights may dazzle oncoming traffic when you drive on the righthand side. It is not a legal requirement to use headlight deflectors or stickers, but you could get fined if your headlights are too glaring.
Traffic lights are like ours in most of Europe, but you may find that they change from red to green with no amber light. This shouldn’t affect your driving too much, but the amber light does get used on its own elsewhere. In Italy a flashing amber light indicates the need to apply caution. This is often found when two roads merge or where smaller roads join your road with a blind spot. While it is not mandatory to stop, you should prepare to slow down at the very least.
In the UK we are told when the national speed limit has become 30mph when entering a residential area. Some countries will expect you to know that the national speed limit has changed on entering a town, village or built-up area. When you cross a country border on a busy road you will be informed of the national speed limits. A silhouette of a town marks the speed limit for built-up areas and the silhouette with a red line through it indicates the national speed limit out of town. Motorway speed limits are in blue or next to the motorway symbol. If you see a weather symbol next to a speed limit, the motorway speeds may be lowered without warning during bad weather.
Umbrail Pass at border between Graubünden (Switzerland) and Lombardy (Italy)
In the UK, we are often told when speed cameras are present. We are also used to having cameras coloured yellow. Not every country will highlight speed cameras with a sign or bright colour. In Italy, the speed cameras are rectangular orange boxes hidden in small villages. In Germany, speed cameras can come in the form of grey pillars with no markings at all. While Google Maps and some satellite navigation devices have started adding speed camera alerts to their software, this information can’t be guaranteed and it is still legally enforceable that you maintain the speed limit everywhere. The best practice is to check national speed limits before you enter a country and be aware of any signage as you pass in and out of towns and villages.
Italian speed camera
The Autobahn is famous for disregard of the speed limit, but it is not completely limit free. There are recommended speed limits marked in blue square signs with a white number. These are advisory and not enforceable by law. As these speed limits are only advisory, you can legally choose any speed. This means that other cars can be driving in excess of 100mph, so a great deal of attention is needed on this road. What’s more important to note is that not all of the Autobahn is speed limit free. The mandatory speed limits are written within red circles, much like our own signs, and are legally enforceable. These include red circle signs displayed in electronic form, as we see in our own motorways, which are changeable.
Autobahn in Germany
Most countries require safety seats for children under the age of three. Some, including Ireland and Germany, even require booster seats for older kids. Much like in the UK, children under 12-year-olds are not allowed to ride in the front seat without a booster seat. Some countries have specific rules for under 18s, and some forbid kids from sitting in the front seat altogether.
Some countries require you to take snow chains in the winter, but mountain roads can still encounter snow in the Summer. Look out for the snow and ice signs. Mountains can permanently shade roads from the sun, so you can encounter black ice during warm days.
Be vary waring of oncoming vehicles when taking sharp switchback corners. Some traffic will swing out onto the opposite side of the road to keep their momentum. While it is not a legal requirement to move over, is good etiquette to pull over in a lay-by to let fast traffic pass you. This keeps the traffic moving and will reduce people stalling or piling up on steep sections of the road.
If you're planning to see more of Europe then be sure to check you're covered. Age Co Car Insurance offers European cover for up to 180 days a year, so that you can make the most of exploring the continent during later life.
Age Co Car Insurance is administered by Ageas Retail Limited.
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Those of us that grew up driving in the 1960s have seen a great deal of change on our roads.