For many of us, driving comes as second nature. You might drive a car for an hour or more every single day of your life – maybe you could even do it blindfolded! (Please don’t try.) But when it comes to driving in a foreign country, you might not be able to rely entirely on your background knowledge and automatic reflexes. Follow the tips below to make sure that any driving you do on your travels is as safe and easy as possible.
International Driver’s Permit
Every country will have its own laws and rules of the road, as well as varying standards for who is allowed to drive. This might cause something of a concern when it comes to allowing foreigners (that’s us, by the way) to drive without sitting the local driver’s tests. However, the United Nations handily solved this problem in 1949 with a little something called the International Driver’s Permit (IDP). This is not a license, and will only be valid when presented along with your current driving license from your home country. You may not need one in the country you visit (a quick google can determine that). Your insurance company might require you to have one, however. In addition to this (as the IDP website states) the IDP can serve as a useful passport replacement while out and about, allowing you to keep your passport stored away safely.
The Rules of the Road
Many traffic laws will no doubt be the same everywhere. Don’t drive with your eyes closed, don’t keep driving when the person in front of you has stopped, keep the car on the road and not on the sidewalk, etc. Other laws, however, will need to be revised. Do some research about the main differences between the traffic laws in your home country and those at your destination. These should include road markings, signs, typical speed limits, overtaking laws, and many others. No-one wants to get pulled over while on vacation, after all.
Let’s assume you now know all of the local traffic laws. There is a good chance that the locals themselves don’t follow them to the letter. Depending on your destination, you might discover that the locals have an aversion to keeping to the speed limit, allowing others to overtake, indicating before turning a corner or changing lanes, or stopping at traffic lights. There might also be some matters of expected courtesy. For example, in certain countries, if you attempt to overtake when there is another vehicle coming in the opposite direction, both vehicles will move aside. I am not suggesting that you try to take advantage of this, as it can in fact cause accidents. However, other drivers might expect you to move to the side yourself by someone trying to overtake. If in doubt, read blogs written by people who have traveled or emigrated to the country. They will have noticed all the differences in a way that someone who was born in the country might never have thought about.
Learn the Lingo
“Parking area”, “diversion”, “keep left”, “collision ahead”. These, and many others, are phrases that you might be expected to read and understand while driving. Many road signs are easy to understand without language, and rely on symbols and numbers. For those that don’t, however, I would recommend a brief revision session before leaving home. Try making a little language cheat-sheet to keep in the glove compartment. (But don’t try to read it while you’re driving.)
Learn About the Area
Are there any restricted areas where you will be going, that either forbid traffic or require a fee to enter or park? This is the case for many cities, and it can catch you off guard. Tolls can also be a nasty surprise (“toll”: another word to translate for your cheat-sheet). Make sure you know how to avoid unnecessary fees. Also, while you’re at it, try to find out what the roads themselves will be like. As useful as a GPS is, it won’t be able to tell you that the shortcut you elected to take turns into scree and gravel halfway along.
Pick the Right Car
Try to keep your car choice as sensible as possible. This should be the case even if you have allowed yourself a generous budget. The dreams of zipping about a European city in a streamlined sports car, or going cross country in the most powerful SUV you can find, are not as important as your safety. Choose something suited to the terrain, of course, if you are going somewhere a little rugged. Otherwise, it is best to stick with something you are comfortable in and will find easy to control. Perhaps something similar to what you drive at home, erring on the side of smallness. Consider getting an automatic car, even if you are used to driving stick shift; an automatic transmission will be one less thing to worry about. This is particularly the case if you are driving on a different side of the road than usual.
It will be well worth the money to get car with a built-in GPS. The last thing you want to be doing on foreign roads in a foreign car while obeying foreign rules is faffing around with your phone’s satellite roaming charges, or trying to read a big flapping map you picked up at the airport.
Take Your Time
This adage goes for any and all of your driving while on your travels. You should be able to adapt to your new task well enough if you remain calm. If you like, you can think about how you might advise someone young when they are first learning to drive. “Take it slow, give yourself extra time – and don’t pay any attention to any rude hooting.”
Try to give yourself time to get used the car itself as well as the roads. Maybe try driving around the airport a few times before venturing out onto the highway. Having patience with yourself and other drivers will make all of your journeys that much safer.