Know the European road rules
Navigating the roads in Europe can be either an exhilarating experience or harrowing escape, based on where or when you choose to travel. One thing is certain; no matter what country you drive through or how far you go, you must understand the rules of the road to be a successful and safe European traveler.
The European Union (EU) is comprised of 28 sovereign or member states (with the accession of Croatia in July 2013). Although most of the countries in the EU adopted an open border policy, some countries check documentation when you cross borders. It is your responsibility to ensure that these documents are valid and on your person when traveling between countries. Without these documents, you and your party could be turned around at the border, receive fines or have your car impounded for illegally entering a country.
• USAREUR driver’s license
• Stateside driver’s license
• International Driving Permit –this document translates the requirements of your U.S. driver’s license into 10 different languages. You will need this to drive in EU countries other than your host country.
• Vehicle registration document –the original, not a copy
• Vehicle insurance certificate
Here is a current breakdown of many of the general and country-specific rules for driving around Europe, as compiled from the 2012 European Consumer Centre Belgium (ECC-Net) and Europe’s top automobile clubs, such as AA, ACF, ACI and ADAC.
Cellphone use while driving – Most EU countries banned talking on cellphones while driving without a hands-free device. In the Netherlands, fines can be thousands of dollars or up to two weeks in jail. Pull off of a roadway, park and shut off your vehicle before picking up and using your cellphone.
Compulsory safety equipment – Most European countries require that your auto and motorcycle carry an EC regulation warning triangle, reflective vest/jacket and first-aid kit. Greece, Hungary, Poland, Sweden and Norway require that you also carry a fire extinguisher. If you rent a vehicle, it is your responsibility to ensure the car carries these items. The AAFES Exchanges, Shoppettes and gas stations on the economy should carry these inexpensive items. In the U.K., do not use the warning triangle on roadways.
Congestion charges – Congestion charges of £10 must be paid before driving in central London on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. (excluding public holidays). Zones are marked with signs indicating a white letter “C” on a red background. Cameras capture license plates of cars entering and exiting these zones with continuous database monitoring. Fines for noncompliance are £50-£170 per offense. For more info or to pay the charge online, visit www.tfl.gov.uk/cc.
Italy also has controlled zones, called zona traffico limitato (ZTL), or limited traffic zones, in historic or central locations of cities such as Milan, Florence, Pisa and others. Although signs mark the zones, they can be obscure, and drivers have received fines for each time they drive past the camera. Research the ZTL zones in Italian cities and map out your driving/parking routes before you go.
Damaged vehicles – Hit-and-run crimes and other vandalism in the Czech Republic have caused border authorities to verify/certify any visible damage to a vehicle entering the country. If any damage occurs while visiting, a police report must be obtained at the scene. Autos with visible damage not recorded on entry may not be permitted to leave without evidence of a police report. Be sure to have any dents in your car verified on entry!
Driving directions – In the U.K. you must drive on the left side of the road. Many military and civilians stationed in Europe also like to visit Malta; driving is also on the left.
Driving while impaired – For many EU countries, a blood alcohol level of 0.05 is over the limit and against the law. Some countries in Europe, however, have either a zero rating, meaning no alcohol whatsoever should be in your bloodstream while you drive, or very low limits, such as below 0.02. Those include the Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden, Poland and Hungary. Great Britain’s legal limit is slightly higher than average, with 0.08 or below the limit. In Greece, there is zero tolerance for motorcyclists. In Germany, anything 0.032 and above is illegal if involved in an incident.
Law officials in many EU countries can detect drug use by a saliva test, and can demand a test be done on site.
Fines – Authorities may ask for driving offense fines to be paid on the spot. Noncompliance may result in higher fines and a court date. Always carry a little extra cash in the local currency when traveling, just in case.
GPS with speed camera detection – It is illegal to use a radar detector in most European countries; several countries have also banned the use of speed camera detection on GPS navigation devices. Countries include France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Slovakia. The device must have the “fixed speed camera POI (Points of Interest)” function deactivated or removed, or violators face fines and device confiscation. French authorities plan to remove all road signs indicating speed cam locations and add 400 new cameras on roadways. However, Italy has done the opposite. While increasing the number of cameras, they allow GPS devices with cam detection, and publish the locations of their speed cameras.
Insurance – Most countries require you to carry third party compulsory coverage, including for trailers. Talk to your insurance provider about rental car coverage, too.
Lights – Passing lights or dipped lights must be used in most countries when visibility is poor. Some countries like Switzerland require that you give a short blast of your horn when driving around blind curves in poor or dim visibility.
Motorcycles – Most countries require that drivers and passengers wear helmets and reflective vests or jackets. In France, drivers and passengers of motorcycles and tricycles over 15 KW/h will be fined if they are stopped not wearing a minimum of 150 square cm (23 square inches) of reflective clothing or material on the upper body between neck and chest.
Passengers/children in cars – USAREUR requires U.S. servicemembers and dependents to comply with host-nation child safety seat laws. Member states must enforce child safety seat laws with the minimum requirements: Children who are shorter than 135 cm (53 inches), or traveling in cars and trucks fitted with safety devices, must be in a restraint system approved for their size and weight; children taller than 135 cm may use an adult shoulder/lap restraint; rear-facing child restraint systems must be used in back seats unless front passenger seat airbags are deactivated.
Some member states (Germany and Italy included) increased their height standard; children under 150 cm (59 inches) tall must be restrained in a booster seat. Before traveling, ensure that your child’s safety seat meets the standard where you plan to visit.
Pedestrians – In many areas, pedestrians have the right of way and may step or dart out in front of your car — especially in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg.
Railroad crossings – Do not cross a railroad crossing when it is not permitted, such as when lights are on or guards are down. In Belgium, crossings are monitored by cameras with fines up to €2,750 for violators.
Seatbelts – All countries require seatbelts and fines vary. Check with your installation’s military police for detailed lists of fine amounts.
Speed limits – Most European countries adhere to standard legal limits as listed in your USAREUR license manual, with a few variations. If caught speeding, many countries demand on-the-spot payment, sometimes hefty amounts. If you’re speeding and cause an injury accident, you may face criminal charges and jail time. It’s best to adhere to the legal speed. No matter where you are, be sure the fines and offense stated on the ticket match what the officer originally said.
Tolls – Many European roadways are maintained by tolls; usually you pay as you enter each different toll road within a country. London has tolls on certain motorways and sections of bridges. Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic require that you purchase a toll pass in the form of windshield stickers (vignette) before entering their country. You may buy those at gas stations near borders of neighboring countries, post offices and currency exchange offices for weekly, monthly or annual clearance. Steep fines can be imposed for non-display.
Now that you know the rules, you are ready to hit the road and explore your new continent. For even more detailed information on the specifics of driving in Italy, Germany and the U.K., pick up a copy of the Stars and Stripes Road Guide. The guide is available at Shoppettes, gas stations and auto skills shops on your installation, or online at the Stripes store at www.stripes.com/special-pubs/road-guide. Happy trails!