Important European Rules of the Road and Driving Laws that You Don’t Want to Break
For experienced drivers, handling a car and following the rules of the road (and sometimes bending those rules) become second nature. Steering, accelerating, braking and stopping at red lights are all done instinctively while we listen to the radio, talk on our phones (hands-free, of course) or think about our day.
That can change when people find themselves driving in a foreign country. Anyone planning on driving in Europe, will need to make some adjustments, and focus a little more than they do during their daily commute to work.
Americans driving in Europe need to become comfortable with roundabouts, which are traffic circles where traffic moves in one direction. Although they aren’t that common in the U.S., they are quite popular in Europe. Drivers seeking to enter roundabouts must yield to cars that are already in them. The real problem can come when you want to exit. Knowing your exit the first time you drive a roundabout isn’t always easy, but don’t panic. You can stay in the circle, continuing to drive it, until you learn which exit is yours.
To help you drive overseas with confidence and make the transition smoother, these tips that will make it easier to drive in various countries.
Drivers coming from the right in Belgium generally have priority, but buses and trams always have priority. At traffic lights, a flashing orange light means the driver should pay attention, while a steady orange light means you cannot drive through the intersection.
Look out for ‘no cruise control' zones, which are marked with signs. Running your engine while stationary isn’t allowed, and there are other circumstances where unnecessary running of an engine isn’t allowed, including at crossings. Talking on your phone in a place where you’re not familiar with the roads and driving laws is never a good idea, but if you do have to talk, make sure it’s done hands-free, because holding a cell phone while driving in Belgium isn’t allowed.
Perhaps the most important adjustment in France is being aware of the 'priorité à droite,' which is signified by a black cross in a white triangle with a red outline. It means that traffic from the right driving into your road has the right of way, and does not have to stop, but you do. This is particularly important to be aware of in rural areas.
Even hands-free cell phone use isn’t allowed in France. Also forbidden are right turns on red lights. Everyone in the vehicle must wear seat belts, and children under 10 must sit in the back. Foreign vehicles must display a sticker indicating the country of origin. Horn honking is illegal in cities unless it’s to avoid an imminent collision.
Driving in some historic downtown areas in Italian cities and towns requires a permit, called a “ZTL,” which works similarly to EZ Pass in the U.S. Violations are tracked via cameras and most verification stations are clearly marked. However, if you are cited for a violation, you won’t find out until you return home, because fines don’t involve contact with a police officer, and are sent to the driver’s home in the U.S. A similar system is used for other violations on many highway stretches.
Driving is done on the right, with passing on the left. Seatbelt use is mandatory, and children under 150 centimeters (which is a little under 5 feet) must sit in a child seat designed for their size and weight.
Hands-free cell phone use is allowed. Fines are given on the spot to motorists who use bus or cycle lanes. Trams, buses and emergency vehicles always have the right of way, and a vehicle going uphill has priority on a gradient.
Required paperwork includes a red warning triangle (called a “trangolo”) and a reflective vest, to be used in a breakdown or accident. Eyeglass-wearing drivers must have a spare set of glasses or contact lenses, and special documentation is needed for vehicles with 10 or more seats.
Tolls for motorways are charged for each journey, with tickets usually being dispensed at the start and paid for when leaving the motorway. If you’re taking a long drive, be prepared for tunnel driving. Italy is a mountainous country, and the motorway system involves lots of long tunnels.
Anyone from the U.S. who’s going to do some driving in Germany is likely looking forward to—or is fearful off—driving on the country’s famous autobahn highway system. These highways do not have federally mandated speed limits, but that doesn’t mean you can zip along them at top speed. Speed limits are established in areas that are urbanized, sub-standard or accident-prone. Limits also exist in areas where construction is going on. Limits also are set for certain weather conditions, and those are strictly enforced.
Also be aware of Germany’s environmental green zones, which require all vehicles to display an environmental badge in order to drive through such zones.
Portugal is considered by many to be one of the more difficult countries to drive in, and that reputation is supported by Portugal’s high rate of accidents.
Be sure to strictly follow all driving laws because penalties there are big. Passing on the right, for example, can result in a fine of EUR 1,000. On motorways with three lanes, the center lane is for passing. Failing to stop at a stop sign also can lead to a costly fine. And fines can be collected on the spot.
Drivers also are required to have a reflective jacket and a warning triangle, both of which are to be used in the case of a breakdown. Know that the roads in Portugal are not well-lit, and drivers of motorized vehicles share the road with other users.
The United Kingdom
Even if you’ve never been to the UK, you probably know the big difference — drivers drive on the left side of the road, and that passing is done on the right. Once you get a handle on that—and the roundabouts—you should adjust well. Keep in mind that right turns on red aren’t allowed, and you cannot block an intersection, even if that means not driving through a green light. Cell phone use while driving is prohibited, and the driver and all passengers must wear seat belts. Horn use is forbidden in built-up areas from 11.30 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Driving in the Netherlands should be pretty easy for U.S. drivers. Passing is done on the left. Cell phone use is allowed if you’re talking hands-free, but simply holding the phone, even if it’s not being used, is illegal. Everyone in the vehicle must wear seatbelts. Be aware of cyclists as they’re common there. Vehicles coming from the right have priority, and buses have priority when pulling out. Trams have priority, except where noted.
The most important thing to be aware of while driving in Switzerland is that driving on toll roads requires a sticker, known as a vignette. They cost 40 Swiss francs, and allow drivers unlimited use of toll roads. Keep in mind, that a vignette is required even if you’ll be driving on one toll road, just once.
Other than that, the laws in Switzerland are pretty basic, and the country has a reputation for quality roads. Vehicles must have a warning triangle to display in case of an accident. Drivers who wear prescription glasses must keep a spare pair in the car as well. Cell phone use is forbidden, and all passengers are required to wear seat belts. Fines can be given on the spot.
Spain has a reputation for tough driving laws, and strict enforcement of those laws.
Be sure to pay attention to speed limits, and to follow those limits. Drivers in Spain must have two red warning triangles in the vehicle, and those must be displayed in the event of an accident. You must also have a reflective jacket, to be worn in case you need to exit the vehicle on the side of any highway. These jackets should be kept in the car, not the trunk, because you need to put it on before leaving the vehicle. These jackets are readily available in stores. Drivers who wear glasses must have a spare pair.
In some Spanish cities, parking is allowed on one side of the road, and the side parking is permitted and changes from day to day. All cell phone use is prohibited, and passing is mostly done on the left. Spain also has very strict drinking and driving laws.
Luxembourg is known for its quality roads and toll-free driving. Driving here doesn’t come with a lot of surprises, passing is only allowed on the left, you can talk on a cell phone hands-free, and everyone in the vehicle must wear seatbelts. One small thing you may notice is that stop and yield signs aren’t common in Luxembourg, and horn honking is allowed only in emergency situations.
Some culture shock is likely to come with driving in Moscow. The city’s roads are big and busy, and traffic is notoriously heavy. One piece of advice is to stay calm in traffic; Moscow drivers are used to bad traffic, and tend not to get frustrated with it. It’s common to see people eating, putting on makeup, reading, using their phones, and even flirting while stuck in traffic.
Some laws to keep in mind are that it’s illegal to cross double white lines; turning right on red isn’t permitted without a green arrow light; it is illegal to pick up hitchhikers; and driving a dirty car, especially when the license plate is covered by mud, can result in a fine.
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