So off you go to a new country. Cars are part of life for most people, especially if you have a family when you need to get to places that are not accessible by public transport.
But once you’ve learnt to drive in one country, it’s all much of a muchness right?
The side you drive on can change which is a clear and straightforward thing to learn - you just have to get used to going to the other side of the car and reaching for your seatbelt on the opposite side - but that is relatively easy to change.
If you are American, and coming from the land where automatic cars are King, a move to Europe will require you to be able to drive a manual car or ’stick shift’, as automatic cars are still few and far between. Manuals give you more control on the narrow, windy roads that are found in Europe. Automatics are great for motorway cruising and heavy traffic jams. Or when you have kids in your car and need to pass back that tissue to clean up a mess that has just exploded on the back seat whilst driving…
New Drivers Licence
Getting a drivers licence in Legoland is one thing that most kids love to do, but applying for a drivers licence in a foreign country is not quite so fun. Initially in all countries, you can driver on your original licence for at least 6 months, often a year. As a resident after one year, you will be expected to change your foreign drivers licence for a local one. Check up on the rules and whether you qualify for an easy switch over, or if you have to take the local test. Most switch over deals are only valid within the first 12 months from the first entry to the new country. Make sure you use this easy switch period as otherwise it can get very costly with driving lessons, theory tests and eye tests to change later just because you forgot to do it in the first year.
Only about 14 of the US States makes it easy to switch out a foreign licence, and the one we landed in after Switzerland, Idaho, didn’t. This meant we had to do the theory and drivers test to get a local licence. I was very pleased that at least I spoke the language. I was amazed at how much simpler the test was than my British drivers test that I had taken way back when. They didn’t even test parallel parking in Idaho - as there is so much space most spots are always drive-in spaces - and at a diagonal. On my driving test the only thing I got pulled up for by the examiner was doing ‘California Stops’ at the endless Stop signs on every other block. A ‘California Stop’ is where you do not come to an absolute standstill, but cruise in, take a good look, pause for a millisecond then keep going. Having never heard that term before or since, I have no idea whether this was just an Idaho term or a general US term. Of course that is how all the locals drove once out of the test scenario, I had just copied what I saw on the streets… not always a good move!
Have teenagers wanting to drive? Check the ages when it becomes legal to learn to drive, this varies a lot between countries and was a frightening reality to me that at times I was sharing the road with 14 year old drivers who could just see over the steering wheel.
Watch the Red Lights!
A lot of driving regulations across the world follow a similar pattern. But you do still need to gem up on the local laws before you set off and drive, as every country seems to have some little tweak that you end up swearing about at some point in your time in that country. Across Europe 'STOP' in English is universal signage, so you will always know when to do that...
USA watchpoint: different States have different rules - so take note of those State lines! Some States allow you to turn right on a Red light. Try that in Europe and you will be fined fast.
France watchpoint: France still has a ‘Priority from the Right’ rule that seems to be slowing phasing out by the introduction of clearer signage like STOP signs or GIVE WAY at the appropriate junctions.. but in a lot of rural France especially you can be happily driving down the main road when suddenly a local pulls out from the right, right in front of you - as it was his priority. Yes this rule is for any size road going into another.
My favourite road signs of all time were seen in Australia: Across the Motorway "Don't be a Bloody Idiot - Don't Drink and Drive"... then when going down a one way street the other side states clearly "Wrong Way! Go Back!".
Yes, car manufacturers export worldwide, but no, the same build of car is not called the same thing or even have the same spec. So here is another huge area of research you will get tangled up in with intense pressure as this is normally top of the list on arrival in a new country.
When we moved to Idaho, USA from Switzerland… I had never seen such humongous beasts of cars let alone driven one! At the car dealership the salesman laughed at me when I asked to test drive the car by reversing and parking it into a space. In Switzerland a BMW X5 would not fit in a standard car parking space (and open doors to get in) as they are too wide. That is a TINY care compared to many I saw on the streets of Boise. The salesman had never left the State, let alone driven in Switzerland so had no idea where my brain was at… I had never driven one of these cars that I later found out were designed to be driven by 14 year olds (yep that young is legal in some States)… Of course it was far easier than I imagined. Automatic, power steering and parking sensors. All the mod cons..more cup holders than I have ever seen I’m my life in a car. We ended up with the Ford Explorer (main photo at top of article) and my husband took it as a challenge to get mud on the roof... he succeeded as shown in the picture taken in jackson, Wyoming while exploring the Grand Teton Nation Park.
On our return to Europe though, first thing I did was recheck the parking lot sizes and bought a nice Renault Megane that happily nips around the narrow streets but fits up to 5 and a weeks worth of shopping easily in the boot. It just so happens it is also an automatic and has GPS which in France is a good thing as far as my needs go. I’ve learnt the roads of many cities by maps and memory on all our previous moves before 2012, but I do appreciate the ease of a good GPS system. I learnt quite quickly not all GPS systems are the same. My husbands Citroen had an incredibly bad example that was incredibly unclear compared to the system in my car (TomTom). French junctions and signing are not that clear, so any extra help you can get it is a real benefit. Also the French love digging up roads so there are endless diversion signs that send you off in a general alternative direction but then there is no follow through signs, as they expect you to know the town! In the UK, roadworks happen and the signs will be at every junction telling you where to go until you are back on the other side of the roadworks you came across to continue on your merry way.
On the Road
Make sure you know your speed limits on the roads you will be driving on, as being an expat does not excuse you from the fines when caught. Driving across Europe on the motorways, in many countries you will need to pay for use of using the fast road section you have been along. The machines will generally take Visa and Mastercard credit cards, but leave behind American Express or Debit cards as they often do not work. The alternative is to have a lot of change in your car to throw into the change bucket that weighs if there is enough. No change is given on these. If you are lucky you may also find a manned booth. Switzerland operates a different system and asks you to pay a set fee for a sticker that will allow you to drive on their motorways for a complete calendar year. Expensive if you are there for just a few days!
Insurance and Safety
Winter driving produces it's own problems, if you do not change to winter tyres as required by law in some countries, then make sure you have snow chains and a shovel in your boot. This photo on the left shows the snowfall we had overnight one year in Basel, Switzerland. That took some digging out!
Sadly there are as drivers worldwide that are aggressive, just last week I had some bad experiences with some French male drivers who were completely unrepentant in their driving actions and left me seething, but luckily unharmed. Make sure you have the cover you need for car insurance, as terms will vary on claiming and also whether the contract covers 'any drivers' or just 'named on the policy'. Some countries have insurance that is by default for the owner/driver only who is insured, in others it's the car not the drivers that are insured. Warning triangles, yellow vests and even breathalyser tests can be part of the required items that by law you must keep in your car, so when you purchase a car check what needs to be done with these extras as well.
What's been your experience at driving overseas? Any memories that stand out?