Driving Etiquette - Europe

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'French driving etiquette' is something of an oxymoron. On the surface, the French have some good ideas. For instance, you can go through a red light if the way is clear, which stops a lot of frustration from sitting at an empty junction for no reason. However, most French drivers tend to amend this law in their heads to 'you can go through red lights whenever you like, including when pedestrians are crossing the road having been beckoned by a little green man'.

Also, on the Autoroutes in France the speed limits are sensibly set at two different speeds for wet and dry conditions. Top speed is 130km/h (about 85 mph). Again, drivers refuse to accept that it is ever raining, even when it is, and stick to the maximum limit at all times. Drivers rarely (read: never) indicate as they swap lanes, and aggressively cut back in when they have overtaken.

Thank-yous, via flashing headlights or waving, are rare. Save them for visually alerting other drivers how annoyed you are with them. Add vigour.


On motorways in Germany there is no general speed limit for cars. For lorries and any other vehicles exceeding a weight of 3.5 tons, there is. This creates a problem in that it 'forces' every driver to leave the right lane for the use of trucks only - disregarding the simple fact that the law requires you to drive on the right lane when you're not overtaking.

The left lane, on the other hand, is strictly reserved for two kinds of people:

  1. Drivers of Mercedes, BMWs (preferably dark coloured). When you're driving a really fast car which happens to be another brand you can just about get away with using this lane if it's dark blue. If it's white, forget it.
  2. Nice, balanced, well meaning drivers who want to introduce a speed limit (of about 100-120 km/h) or simply detest speeding. They usually indicate right when they see somebody approaching fast in the rear view mirror - and switch the indicator off when the other car is nearly on their trunk (without changing lanes, naturally). Of course, this is done purely as an educational measure. Incidentally, they never dare 'educating' when the approaching car is a dark Mercedes or BMW.

The real trouble starts when there are only two lanes, which usually leads to frenetic honking, repeated headlight-flashing and indicating on the left lane, while the right lane lies deserted apart from the odd lonely lorry every now and then.

When you try to overtake somebody on the right lane, be careful not to exceed their speed by more than 5 mph. When in a traffic jam, always change to the lane which goes fastest. Every inch counts, and it's not your fault that everybody tries to do the same. When there's no movement on any lane, use the hard shoulder, that's what it's there for (apart from undertaking).

Graphic supplied by Community Artist SEF


It would appear that overtaking is a manoeuvre to be attempted at every opportunity: on a bend, on a hill, when the car you're overtaking is overtaking another car, into oncoming traffic, and along narrow one-way streets. It would also appear that it is compulsory to drive as fast as possible whilst attempting these, or any other manoeuvres. Unfortunately, many of the roads are not only narrow but badly surfaced, and full of drivers that never took a test. This was due to a massive waiting list in the late 1970s causing the government to issue a full licence to anyone that asked for one.

It seems the only really important thing to remember when driving around Ireland is the subtle form of greeting that is also common in rural areas of the UK (particularly in the Midlands). When one comes across a farmer travelling in the other direction on foot they will, out of politeness, raise their index finger by way of greeting. The driver should respond by raising the index finger of their right hand whilst keeping the entire hand on the steering wheel.

It is common for regular drivers who know many people in certain local areas to save time, and drive with their index finger permanently pressed to the windscreen in a continuous greeting mode.


Italians are the most skilful drivers in the world, but in accordance with classic theories about risk-assessment, they become overconfident as a result. This is why all Italians, even those with large families, drive very small Fiats. It also explains why they are all covered in dents (the cars, that is, rather than the Italians). Italy has two basic driving styles: one for the towns and one for the mountains.

In towns, when you come to a junction you point your car at the exit you want. Four seconds before the lights go green, you press the accelerator to the floor, then weave between any cars which get in your way until you emerge.

In the mountains, use the middle of the road at all times (even when someone's coming the other way), with one important exception: when you hear a deep horn from round a hairpin bend, brake. It is probably a marble lorry coming, and they just don't get out of the way. They don't have to.


The Norwegian driver likes to think they are a skilled driver. This is far from the truth. Broadly, there are only two kinds of Norwegian drivers: those who are making a mobile phone call and those who are waiting for one.

While driving in Norway, you'll see a lot of road works. Nothing is being repaired, more than likely the Norwegians are constructing two of their favourite things - holes and tunnels. In more densely populated areas like Oslo, the road works never stop. This is of course common in all cities, but Oslo is unique in the fact the holes in the ground are passed on from genration to generation. This spoils most of the inner city of Oslo and it's advisable to upgrade your suspension before attempting to drive through the city.

Not all of Norway's motor mayhem is man-made. Mother Nature has placed a few spanners in the works. For example, do not attempt to drive on the day of the first snow, it's carnage.

Sheep and reindeer are omnipresent. You can always find them where the hot air exits from the mouth of the, largely unfinished, tunnels. They're in the shadows, waiting for ususpecting foreign drivers. Try not to run them over, they cost an awful lot of money and you'll be scraping wool from your bumper for weeks. While you're at it, try not to drive into any elks, they're awfully big and they'll cost you your life.


Be afraid, be very afraid. And paranoid. It's the only way to drive and survive in Portugal. The umpteenth time you are unceremoniously dumped onto the hard shoulder by an oncoming articulated lorry in your lane you will probably think that they're out to get you. You're probably right. It seems that the whole country are engaged in some huge demented game of "chicken" which unsuspecting tourists have the misfortune of being periodically caught up in. The only way to retain any sanity is to stand your ground ... and hope for the best.


Wear dark glasses and if you're going to be indecisive, be determinedly so and do it with style - with Spanish driving, the scent of uncool tourist is like the scent of fear and decay to ravenous hyenas. Barcelona is actually not too bad at all out of rush hour with its straight, wide boulevards. Everywhere else in Spain is.


It's easy to make a real mess of driving up and down mountains in Switzerland. First, give way to anything going up. Second, always give way to a PostBus - whether it's going up or down. Third, if you meet a train on the road, follow it (if it's going the same way as you) or go round it (if it's coming towards you on your side of the road). Speeding fines necessitate taking out a second mortgage so be good.

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