Ever wondered whether driving in Europe is different to driving at home? Are you planning a trip that will involve you driving in Europe? This article is an explanation of everything you need to know to drive safely in Europe (including the UK), broken down into key aspects so you can drive safely and confidently on your next European Road Trip. This is very comprehensive but I’ve written it as concisely as possible from both my own experiences and research I’ve done to check current driving laws around Europe; I have this article saved to my computer to print out to take with me whenever I drive in Europe. Feel free to do the same.
Side of the Road,
Indicators and Overtaking,
Smoking in Vehicles,
Things You Need In Your Car,
Tolls and taxes,
Carrying Hazardous/Dangerous Items in Your Vehicle,
Side of the road:
1. In Malta, Cyprus Ireland and the UK (excluding Gibraltar), you drive on the left.
2. Everywhere else you drive on the right.
Roundabouts are often used instead of traffic lights where roads intersect each other.
Where you drive on the left (in the UK etc):
Go around the roundabout in a clockwise manner. Always give way to oncoming traffic from the right hand side and ignore traffic on the left (unless it’s cutting you up in which case peep your horn at them to warn them of your presence). You can imagine most roundabouts as a complicated type of crossroads, and some of them have traffic lights on them as well. You indicate as you approach the roundabout to inform people that you are either not getting off the roundabout yet (indicate right, for right turns or straight ahead) or you indicate to inform people that you are getting off the roundabout at the very next exit (indicate left, for the very next left turn). If it’s busy and you are in the wrong lane, people will cut you up as you try to get off the roundabout so always check mirrors and blind spot before changing direction unexpectedly and position your car so other road users know you’re changing roundabout lanes before you pull out.
Where you drive on the right (in France etc):
Go around the roundabout in an anti-clockwise manner. Always give way to oncoming traffic from the left hand side and ignore traffic on the right (unless they’re cutting you up in which case slow down). To indicate, do so whilst you are on the roundabout (or two or three cars away from joining it) and indicate left (staying on the roundabout) or right (getting off the roundabout), EXCEPT in Slovenia where you only indicate to show when you’re leaving the roundabout. If it’s busy and you are in the wrong lane be aware people will cut you up as you try to get off the roundabout, so check your mirrors and blind spot before changing lane unexpectedly, and position your car so other road users know you’re changing roundabout lanes before you pull out.
Where you drive on the left (UK, Ireland etc):
Stay in the left hand lane until you need to overtake someone. If you are on a motorway (3 lanes or more) you may see big blue signs showing that the road is going to split into two new roads. When this is happening, pick the lane that follows the correct blue sign to where you are going. If in doubt, keeping right at a fork is usually to stay on the road you’re currently on. As soon as you are on the new road or as soon as you have passed the fork or new road split, return to the left hand lane if it’s safe to do so.
When overtaking, it’s good practice to pull back over to the left after you’ve overtaken, however, because other people don’t always do this, and because people don’t leave a sensible amount of space between themselves and the cars in front, it can sometimes be more efficient to stay in the right hand lane if you know you need to overtake again soon, because it can be very difficult to rejoin overtaking traffic once you’ve had to slow down. If you see a police car, pull into the left hand lane because it is now illegal to just drive in an overtaking lane (which is every lane apart from the left lane), although nothing’s changed in terms of how people drive because UK police don’t appear to be enforcing this OR the new law against tailgating.
In Ireland, there are a lot of elderly drivers but people seem to be more mellow and courteous on the road, so I always pull back to the left after overtaking although not everyone does. Ireland doesn’t seem to have the same horrific traffic congestion as the UK does, probably because people drive with courtesy and are more tolerant of mistakes (such as being in the wrong lane).
Where you drive on the right (France, Germany etc):
Stay in the right hand lane until you need to overtake someone. If you are on an Autoroute or Autobahn or Autostrada (freeway, motorway), the left hand lane is the overtaking lane. If you need to overtake someone, check your mirrors (especially in Germany where there’s no upper speed limits on some routes) and only pull out where there’s no-one approaching at speed – if someone’s passing you at 150 miles an hour and you’re pulling out at 60, it’s not going to end well for anyone. When you are done overtaking, pull back in, and remember to overtake EACH VEHICLE INDIVIDUALLY. In the UK people have a tendency to stay in the overtaking lane when they shouldn’t, because they can see another car ahead that they will want to overtake in a couple of minutes – in Europe, this can get you pulled over by the police, but not before a VW Kamper has tailgated you for a couple of miles flashing his lights at you to draw your attention to the fact that you’re in the wrong lane. Once you’re done overtaking, get out of the overtaking lane.
Near some European cities such as Florence (and Glasgow), there are now moments when you will either get corralled through the city on a motorway that avoids all the junctions, or you will be moved onto a motorway that HAS all the junctions. It is critically important here that you are aware a) how long you will be on a no-junction motorway and b) whether you will miss your exit. We didn’t understand the signs because the with-junctions motorway was signposted with suburbs of Florence (which should have been closer than our exit), and the without-junctions motorway was signposted with Milan, which was a VERY long way away compared to where our exit was. We were trying to get to Verona. We chose the Milan motorway, thinking the other was a ring road type system around Florence. Big mistake. We were shuttled 50km north of our starting point, all the time in slow moving traffic in 40 degree (Celsius) heat, with no air conditioning and a thick fog of petrol fumes surrounding us; we had realized as we passed the exit to the other motorway that we were on the wrong road. We then spent three hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling until we FINALLY reached the first exit off this road which was far, far beyond the exit we had needed. For the first forty minutes on the shuttle road, our road was directly alongside the road we should have taken, and there was no way to get to it. We had to turn around at the first exit 50km later, and then we had to sit through another two hours of traffic to get back to the place where we could turn around again to choose the correct road because it wasn’t reachable from the other side of the road. Many road signs in Italy make no sense and I would highly recommend you get a sat nav as well as a paper road map if you intend to drive in Italy (and don’t rely on the Google sat nav on your phone because a) you’ll wear your battery down by charging it and using it at the same time and b) it’s dependent on you getting a phone signal as well as a GPS one). The moral of the story here is to be aware of these shuttle roads (I don’t know if they have a fancy name) if you plan to drive anywhere in Europe.
Indicators and Overtaking:
In every European country, you must not overtake a school bus while it is stopped to let passengers on or off. In the former Eastern Bloc countries (such as Serbia) you may not overtake any buses that are stopped. Use your common sense – if the rest of the traffic has overtaken the bus, or if the bus is clearly stopped for a lunch break, it’s probably safe to overtake if you take care and do so slowly, so you don’t hit any pedestrians crossing in front of the bus.
On autoroutes/autobahns (motorways, freeways) some nationalities continue to indicate even after they’ve maneuvered, until they have pulled back into the right hand (non-overtaking) lane. This might seem strange to people who have driven in the UK where many high end cars (BMWs, Audis, Mercedes etc) don’t actually appear to be fitted with indicators since their drivers just pull out without warning. It is not compulsory to indicate with the expressive gusto of drivers from Luxembourg, but it is compulsory to use the correct indicators to inform other traffic that you are changing lane or turning.
On roundabouts in Slovenia, you do not indicate when entering a roundabout, you only indicate to show that you are leaving the roundabout.
Smoking in Vehicles:
It is now illegal to smoke in any vehicle where children are passengers in the UK. It might be illegal to NOT smoke in any vehicle in Montenegro (joking; the UK one is true though).
Things you need in your car (by law):
Some things are needed everywhere in Europe, other things are needed only in one country. In general, the Eastern European countries require you to take more stuff than Western Europe. As far as enforcement goes, unless you get stopped by the police and your vehicle checked for some reason, you shouldn’t really have any problems, so if you’re a flexible good driver (as opposed to one who inflexibly follows every letter of the highway code regardless of situation) you will probably never need to prove these items are in your car.
A spare wheel.
Most countries in Europe, including France, Germany, Austria, Spain and Scandinavia:
Warning triangle (always 2 in Spain, 2 in some other countries IF you’re towing a caravan)
First aid kit
A spare wheel
A bumper sticker showing which country you have driven from (eg. GB sticker) unless your registration plate states a country code on it.
Countries where it gets very cold and snowy, including Austria, Scandinavia and most of the former Eastern Bloc:
Your vehicle MUST be fitted with winter tyres, usually between October and March. Check each country’s requirement on the AA website before taking your vehicle.
Countries where it is very hot:
In Spain, most window tinting is illegal.
In most hot countries you are not allowed to carry spare petrol, but you are generally allowed to carry diesel.
Former Soviet-Bloc countries (Czech, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Former Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Albania, Moldova, Montenegro, but not Greece):
These are the countries which will often check at the border whether your car has all the correct items, so if you’re travelling to or through any of the former USSR countries, you need to tick all the boxes because they still have a culture of bureaucracy at border checkpoints.
Spare wheel (this must be the same size as the wheels fitted to the vehicle),
First Aid Kit,
Tow rope and tow bar (or loop e.g. on the Citroen Xsara Picasso),
Warning triangle (two if towing something),
Winter Tyres between November and April (with a minimum tread of 4mm, or 6mm in Ukraine),
Additionally, in all of the former Soviet Bloc countries, you must get the border control officer to certify in writing any damage to your car (dents and scrapes etc) before you enter the country, otherwise you may have serious problems when you try to leave. This is to prevent people from having accidents in these countries then fleeing without prosecution.
It is NOT compulsory to adjust your headlights from a left hand drive to right hand drive country (or vice versa) the laws all state that you must not DAZZLE oncoming traffic. Often this means a headlight adjustment but the law is clear it’s the dazzling that’s the problem, so dip your headlights enough and you will actually probably do a better job at not dazzling traffic than those people who incorrectly use the headlight adjustment stickers.
Tolls and Taxes:
Most freeway type roads (autostrada, autoroute etc) charge a toll. The exceptions are Germany’s autobahns, which are currently free, and the countries which require you to pay road tax or a vignette. Tolls in Italy are generally fairly reasonable (usually under E5 every 50-100 miles-ish) and tolls in France are utterly arbitrary (we paid E16 to drive 25 miles at one point and E3 to drive another 40 miles). This is where buying a roadmap comes in handy – the one I had detailed which roads were toll and which were not, along with the location of the toll booths, so we knew which roads to avoid in France after getting robbed by a toll booth. The map doesn’t tell you how much the tolls are, but most toll motorways have a non-toll smaller road running next to it which will take you longer, but won’t cost as much in tolls (whether this increases your fuel consumption is another matter).
On trying to enter Eastern European countries, I’ve heard of some drivers being charged a car washing fine for an official to throw a bucket of water over their car because it was too dirty to continue. This was apparently in Slovenia, although it is definitely illegal to drive an unwashed car in Romania so budget for a car wash every so often. Then you won’t get charged a E150 fee to enter any of these countries.
Car Tax or Vignettes:
The countries which charge longer term for you to use their roads are:
Austria (the road from Italy to Innsbruck still costs E9 on top of the vignette) which requires a relatively cheap vignette (pronounced vin-yet) which you can buy at petrol stations approaching the Austrian border (say: “eine vignette fur Osterreich bitte” to the clerk then how long you want it for. “Funfzig tage” is fifteen days and “dreizig tage” gets you thirty days, sorry about my spelling for any native speakers).
Switzerland requires a vignette that in 2016 costs 40CHF (one Swiss Franc is usually worth roughly the same as the Canadian dollar on the exchange rate) and runs from 1st January to 31st December. If you are travelling during January or December you might get ripped off. They don’t do smaller units of tax in Switzerland. According to the Swiss government website, non-EU citizens can buy Swiss road tax online here although I’d get it when approaching the Swiss border to be sure it arrives (and because that exchange rate on that website is very badly messed up).
The UK has a very complicated vehicle taxation and roadworthiness system that I’m not going to go into, because if you’re only there for less than 28 days you can ignore it completely and if you’re there for longer you can consult the British DVLA.
Speed limits are signposted very clearly everywhere in Europe, it’s really easy to follow the speed limit and we found there was a way to change the mileometer on the Picasso so it showed the speed in kph. Germany has very clear speed limits except on the Autobahn, where there is no upper speed limit, only a suggested speed limit in adverse weather conditions. This teaches you to look at the state of the road, the congestion, the road surface (e.g. is it icy, wet or dry) and use your own judgement. If you lack this judgement, or if you’re a new driver, stick to 70-80 miles per hour and you’ll generally not be out of place amongst the traffic. Remember, it’s illegal to take a slow moving vehicle on a motorway or freeway in most European countries so you MUST make an effort to keep up with the slowest moving flow of traffic on the road.
Carrying hazardous/dangerous items such as weapons in your vehicle:
Check the individual country’s requirement as it ranges from 100% legal to hold it whilst driving (swords in Poland) to 99.9% illegal to have it in the car (guns in Britain). Each country has it’s own definition of what is hazardous or dangerous, just to complicate matters even more.
You may also want to check out these other articles I’ve written to help you drive in Europe and beyond:
Buying petrol in Europe
International Window Tinting Laws Around the World
Travel Money Guide a helpful article explaining how to access your money and what sort of money to take when travelling in Europe, including answering questions about working in Europe, using credit cards and ATM machines. Essential reading if you’re planning a European road trip or driving in Europe.
Coming soon: Driving with your pets in Europe, and pet-transport laws.