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Driving in Europe

Anyone who likes to drive will love driving in Europe. Europeans more than Americans truly appreciate that driving can be an art, a skill, a sport. Oh yes, you will encounter the car-as-appliance mentality familiar from back home, particularly in Switzerland and many parts of France and Belgium.

But generally Europeans really like to drive – the process of getting there rather than just getting there.

If you are planning a European trip that will involve driving you’ll be happier if you are aware of some differences before you begin. Here are a few:

COST: Even if you have been filling up where fuel is at its costliest prepare to pay at least double that wherever you are. And consider the extra hit a weak dollar adds.

SPACE: Maybe since cars are smaller and drivers can survey their entire domain people drive in tighter masses in Europe. The road may be a two-lane road but there could be three cars wide, maybe four, using it now and then. Expect it and deal with it. Think of it as walking on a crowded sidewalk or letting one more in a crowded elevator. It’s kind of a clubby way to go, actually. Just don’t freak out; move over.

ROME: Every place is Rome and when in Rome etc. Watch carefully and learn the local ways. Take that make-room-for-me bit – see how others work it where you are before you try it. And notice the local ways with stop light, too. Some places are sticklers for stopping on yellow; some allow a little leeway on the decaying end. And remember French cops are real bears about double yellow lines – not even two wheels over to pass a stopped vehicle.

SPEED: Sadly for any of you leadfoots the days of unlimited speed on motorways and autoroutes have yielded to the reality of heavier traffic and dramatic crashes. Ah the old days: I once covered the distance from Modena to Milano in one hour. That was in my Ferrari Berlinetta when the Autostrade del Sol was new; it was an early Sunday morning in a nearly empty world. The distance: 100 miles.

And more recently in a passenger sedan I have cruised the Autobahn with the needle on 150 mph (still checking my rearview mirrors in case someone might be moving faster.) This miles-eating speed can still be done on some sections of the German superhighways but now in fewer places. The point is, be aware that the general velocity of traffic in Europe is probably greater than you are used to. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because you’re tooling along faster than you’ve ever gone on the highway that nobody is going even faster. Someone probably is and they are right behind you.

For anyone used to fudging upwards of 10 mph on American speed limits for their cruising speed be advised, you may be fast at home but you are only half fast abroad…(say that aloud.)

You also are not used to really high speeds and can misjudge how fast the closing rate may be. Don’t just jump in and play with the hot dogs until after you log some experience. Be observant and wary and learn. For instance if you signal your intention to pass a car in front of you look at any car coming up on the outside lane; if it responds with its left blinker that driver knows something about your relative speeds that you don’t. That driver is better equipped to judge the choreography of the two passes and his blinker is claiming priority to the passing lane. Stay put - using your signal to indicate that intention - and wait until the car has flashed past. It will be only an augenblick.

DISCIPLINE: The Autobahns work only because the drivers on them are highly disciplined and law abiding. They stay right except to pass; they never pass on the right; they always use their signals; they minimize the time they spend in the passing lane; they quickly get back in the right lane. When any speed limits are posted (near exit and entrance ramps) they quickly and completely obey those signs. That’s easy to do when you know you can challenge the wind once beyond the restricted zone.

Be aware that this wonderfully reliable discipline has been eroded of late with many drivers from East Germany, either never disciplined or rebelling against the notion, throwing a monkey wrench into the smooth workings of the system.

Indeed a few years ago I was making excellent time on the way from the Swiss border to the Stuttgart airport. A ratty small truck defiantly moved his crawling pace into the left lane simply because I was approaching him at a rich rate of speed in a rich car. I could have stood the Mercedes-Benz 500 on its nose to keep from collecting this sorry crate, but this miscreant was dealing with an American familiar with bending traffic rules. I flicked on my bright lights; bore right up to his scruffy tail then slalomed around him in the forbidden left lane. Hey, we were the only two vehicles in the scene.

A German’s heart would have stopped before so using the right lane. The one riding with me managed to keep his voice from cracking: “We get a lot of that since the wall came down” he croaked, meaning the silly slow truck moving into the fast lane on purpose.

PROTOCOL: When I first started driving on the Autobahn headlights were flashed to lay claim to the passing lane or to chastise cars loitering overlong while affecting a pass, but then through some instant, folkloric rule adjustment flashing headlights were adjudged rude. The more subtle blinker became claim enough. Learn that language and communicate using it.

If an autobahn denizen does flash headlights at you then realize that you are doing something truly egregious. Figure out what it is and don’t do it again.

Actually driving in Europe can seem like the first lap of an old Class C SCCA race. I suppose whether you really enjoy it depends on how you felt about the frantic first lap of such a race. But I think it will fit most of you like fingerless knit-back gloves.

Smile, you’re on the Autobahn.

08/20/10 • 08:48 PM • How To Drive • No Comments


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