Tuesday 28 January 2020

Wrong way round

With new research finding 80pc of us don't understand foreign road signs or regulations, Frank Coughlan advises on just how to conquer driving abroad

Road trip: The Griswolds found driving in foreign countries a challenge in National Lampoon’s European Vacation
Road trip: The Griswolds found driving in foreign countries a challenge in National Lampoon’s European Vacation
Frank Coughlan

Frank Coughlan

Let's begin with a cautionary tale from sunny Majorca. We hired a little runaround at the airport in Palma to deliver us to the north of the Balearic island, not far from lovely Alcudia where we had rented a villa for the week.

It was a short run. Fool-proof. In my mind's eye we'd land in sunny Spain, collect our motor, whizz off the airport roundabout and join the motorway for Port de Pollenca.

Preparation, map, routes? All in my head. I was Marco Polo in a Micra. Everyone relax.

Except we landed into a thunderstorm as dusk fell and the car I had pre-booked barely accommodated the five of us and our baggage.

So we drove out of the airport into the darkest night imaginable, the wipers flapping wildly and failing to cope with the torrents. We were a mere 50km, or 45 minutes, from our idyllic destination but it might as well have been a thousand.

An hour later I found myself back at the junction we had started from, nerves frayed and all that remained of my boundless confidence was the thinnest veneer.

Adjusting to a rental car can be tricky
Adjusting to a rental car can be tricky

A sequence of expletives may have been uttered. That was the accusation anyway.

"Dad, are we lost?" the youngest, six or so at the time, asked as she stared into the wet, black abyss outside.

"No," Mummy helpfully replied, "Daddy just wants to show us the sights."

A low blow. It still rankles.

Road blocked by accident (France
Road blocked by accident (France

Eventually, in the early hours, we reached our villa. It was up a winding dirt track which was off a by-road and a few kilometres beyond nowhere. At one point I drove into a soggy ditch, the left back wheel losing traction for a few moments. Pandemonium from the back seats. I joined in too.

The next day the sun shone generously on our lovely villa and pool, the memory of the night before melted away. Or was at least, if you pardon the pun, parked.

But there was a consequence. Though nothing was said at the time, my role as the family driver was, over time, quietly withdrawn.

I had lost their respect and loyalty and, by extension, my authority. From now on Marco Polo would sit in the front passenger seat and navigate nothing more important than the radio dial.

Emergency lane with gravel pit (Switzerland)
Emergency lane with gravel pit (Switzerland)

There's a lesson there for all of you. If you are thinking of buckling yourself in behind the wheel or a car and driving abroad this summer, be prepared. Most people don't bother or never think and the consequences can range from the simply embarrassing and humiliating to the costly or, horror of horrors, the catastrophic and tragic.

A study by Europcar and easyJet just out in Britain shows that 80pc of people don't understand foreign road signs or regulations and as many as 87pc don't do any research before booking that drive through France, Spain or Italy.

But it's even more basic than that. Motoring on the right, for instance, takes a bit of getting used to on that first nervy day. If you take your own car to Europe on the ferry you have the added disadvantage of negotiating traffic while driving a car designed for driving on the left and having to cope with hindered visibility of oncoming traffic and, crucially, needing to rubberneck to read certain road signs. With car hire you don't have that problem, but there is the adjustment of getting used to a different model car and instrumentation that is in the reverse order to what you are used to.

That trickle down your back? That's stress sweat, the worse kind. These are situations that, out of necessity, you have to deal with there and then.

But there are other factors that deserve your time and attention long before you've even packed your bags.

It means doing your homework. I hadn't for Majorca and the scars are still sore to the touch.

We didn't have satnav back in 2001 - though I'm not sure I'd have used it anyway - but mapping your route, knowing your daily destination and the number of hours you want to be behind the wheel any given day (four tops, unless you're a martyr to the cause) are all boxes that need to be ticked well in advance.

You should know the speed limits and how they apply across the various national routes and while lane etiquette tends to be reasonably standard across Europe, you'll find that some nationalities are less tolerant than others of indecisive procrastinators.

In fact, dawdlers would be well advised to stay off motorways, stick to secondary roads or remain at home and do the Ring of Kerry. Again. As a broad rule of thumb, the Irish are iffy motorway drivers and that's because we built our highways a generation or more after our more sussed European neighbours.

We tend to lane-hog and, worse, drift on and off slip roads instead of hitting them at reasonable speed. Indulge in either of these hobbies and expect rude gestures at the very least from your hosts.

While there is a certain consistency in motorway signage, every country has its own, which it adapts to its particular needs and peculiarities. An hour Googling will demystify some of it but be prepared to be confused, if not bewildered, no matter how well you cram in advance.

Laws too vary from state to state. You might be enthused to learn that driving naked is legal in Germany, or surprised to hear that filling your tank with the car radio on in Spain could earn you a fine of up to €91.

France is certainly the obvious country to first test out your skills and temperament. It's also easiest to access because of regular ferry services.

The roads are generally excellent, the motorway signs logical and consistent and, up north at least, temperatures more tolerable than in the baking Mediterranean south.

Italy, at the other end of the scale, will jangle your nerves most. Excitable and irritable, the Italian driver seems to see the autostrade as an arena for daily gladiatorial contests on rubber.

A roundabout, for instance, is not merely a conduit of traffic but some sort of vortex that sucks in traffic and spits it out the other end. Not for the faint-hearted, or for my inner Marco Polo for that matter.

Be adventurous. Be prepared. Be safe.

Irish Independent

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