Driving in Europe: Advice, Tips and Fun Facts 

The Great British Summer, so the old adage goes, consists of three fine days and a thunderstorm. That assertion has been variously attributed to Charles II, George II and George III among many others, but whoever its originator was, they weren’t far off the mark.

Your granny will probably tell you stories about the great British summers of yore, like the great heat wave of 1976 where long, hot and hazy days in the sun were spent sunbathing on a crowded Dorset beach, or perhaps celebrated with an impromptu game of cricket on the rapidly-charring village green.

The sad reality of it is that events like these have stuck so firmly in the public consciousness because they never actually happen. At best, you’ll get a few days of blazing heat before your garden party is crashed by the unwelcome weather that’s come to rain on your parade and sodden your vol-au-vents.

This year, if March came in like a lion and left like a lamb, then June has come in like a bowl of soggy cereal and will probably go out just the same, according to the Met Office’s projections for the month ahead.

Just this morning, the AA reported that some two and a half million of its members are planning to take their cars abroad this year and is it any wonder that so many of us are leaving for foreign shores this summer?

However, driving regulations and customs are often quite different abroad than they are at home, and many a motorist has fallen foul of unusual foreign driving laws, with horror stories of European traffic abound. If you’re planning a continental excursion this summer, then have a look at our handy list of tips to keep you right during the holiday season.

Prepare your car beforehand:

It might sound a little obvious, but going on a touring holiday abroad inevitably means that you’ll be using your car for long periods of time. Even if your car is already in good condition, extended use will still cause an increase in wear and tear, as well as the build-up of dirt and dust. Likewise, if your car has seen better days, you could find yourself in an embarrassing situation on the side of a French autoroute.

The easiest way to avoid this is by taking your car in for a simple service. There are also checks you can make yourself before you leave, like checking tyre pressures and tread, as well as topping up engine oil and coolant. It’s also a good idea to make sure that you check tyres, windscreen, mirrors and lights daily.

Have your paperwork ready:

Appropriate documentation is necessary to comply with requirements of immigration and customs, notably your driving licence, driving licence counterpart, vehicle registration document, insurance certificate and passports. It might seem like a bit much to bring, but it’s always better to err on the side of caution than be caught out in the middle of what was supposed to be a relaxing holiday.

For British drivers in Europe, a GB sign must be displayed on your vehicle. Failure to comply with this rule could result in an on-the-spot fine, however if your car’s number plate includes the GB euro-symbol, the GB sticker isn’t necessary while travelling within the EU.

Blue Badge users beware:

If you have mobility issues, you’ll probably be aware of the Blue Badge scheme, which allows for the use of disabled parking spots, as well as the ability to park on double and single yellow lines under certain circumstances.

While the Blue Badge is officially recognised in all European countries, the specifics may differ. The Blue Badge will entitle you to the parking concessions allowed for the country’s own citizens with disability, which will differ from country to country so it’s always important to know where, when and for how long you can park in each nation.

Additionally, outside the EU, the Blue Badge is not universally recognised so it’s important to know your rights in each country. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile have a handy online guide for the disabled traveller which can be used to view your rights, country by country.

Driving on the right:

The vast majority of countries, both in Europe and abroad, drive on the right-hand side of the road, which can be tough to get used to as a Brit accustomed to driving on the left. One tip to make sure you don’t forget where you are meant to be is to repeat ‘drive on the right’ to yourself until you’re sure you’ve got it. It works, trust us.

If you’re taking your own car abroad, also be aware of and take into account the disadvantage in visibility and manoeuvrability your car will have on continental roads; overtaking will be difficult and so should be done with extra caution while moving out from a town parking space can be a perilous situation too, especially when reversing, as everything is in the ‘wrong’ place, so take extra care.

A less obvious but no less important safety measure is to ensure that you adjust the light beam pattern of your headlights to suit driving on the right so that the dipped beam doesn’t dazzle oncoming drivers. Adaptor kits that are simple to fit can be bought for a couple of pounds in the UK, and while they’re also available on the mainland, they’ll inevitably be much more expensive.

It’s also worth noting that while most European countries drive on the right, certain places including Cyprus and Malta drive on the left as we do, so it’s worth researching before you leave.

Know your environment:

When driving abroad, it’s just as important to equip your mind as much as it is to equip your car. Depending on the place and the time of year, driving and traffic conditions could be vastly different to what you’re used to at home.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office have a website that shows travel and motoring advice for countries in Europe and beyond, with tailored advice for each area that allows travellers to check driving conditions easily before even leaving.

Country-specific requirements:

Although there are certain blanket laws, such as most European countries requiring drivers to carry a warning triangle and fluorescent vest on them at all times, each country will invariably have its own specific laws which you must meet in order to drive safely and without hassle. It’s therefore always best to do your research before leaving in order to avoid trouble.

Here’s a short list of some of the common (as well as some of the not so common) laws you might encounter on a European excursion:

France – All drivers in France, including motorcyclists, are required by law to carry a breathalyser kit. Although it sounds expensive, the kits are available for as little as £2.

Scandinavia – In Scandinavia, it’s illegal to drive without headlights, even in daylight. To do so will probably incite other drivers to flash their headlamps at you and the law also applies in Iceland and Switzerland after being recently introduced.

Cyprus – Motorists caught eating or drinking anything, including water, behind the wheel will be facing an €85 fine from the authorities in Cyprus.

Germany – It’s illegal to drive without winter tyres at certain times of the year in Germany, and there’s also a lot of misconceptions about the use of German Autobahns. While popular opinion will tell you that the Autobahns have no compulsory speed limit, limits are in place for certain vehicles and vehicle classes, which should be researched thoroughly before driving.

Spain – In some Spanish cities, cars must be parked on different sides of the road according to the day of the week, which can present a nightmare for potential tourists.

Serbia – Compulsory equipment to be held by drivers in Serbia includes a tow bar and a rope at least three meters in length.

Belarus – Belarussian law dictates that it’s illegal to drive a dirty car and for children under the age of 12 to travel in the front passenger seat.

Of course, the list is non-exhaustive, but you can find a few more odd European driving laws here, as well as our advice for driving in the summer weather, regardless of whether it’s abroad or much closer to home.