By Richard Guy Martin, August 19, 2014
You’ve rented a car in Europe, you’re headed out on the open
road—life looks good. But before you rev up that massively sexy
convertible and blast down to the Cote d’Azur, might I have a word?
Conservatively speaking, I do about 30,000 miles across Europe by car
per year and there are a few things you should know before taking the
They’re Tracking Your Every Move. Italy is probably
the most fun country to drive through, period. With its winding roads
through rolling hills, it’s no wonder Italians make famously good
Formula 1 drivers. Tiring of this racing style on the public roads,
however, the Italian government has installed the ominously named “Tutor
System” of speed monitoring, even on two-lane country roads. First,
you’ll see velocità controllata warning signs; then come the
eye-level radar “kiosks” that also read and record your license plate.
If your plate’s registered as arriving “too soon” by successive radar
stations, the software marks you as too fast. The longer you keep this
up, the heftier the fine gets. The hurt can run into the thousands.
The workaround: Pull over for a tasty espresso between radar kiosks. Or, you know, just obey the speed limit.
A Sport. Tailgating at high velocity
is a beloved sport across Europe, but nowhere does it attain such razor
sharp aggressiveness than in Germany where stretches of the Autobahn
still have no speed limits. My best guess about the gleaming black
Mercedes E-class that squealed its tires, braking to within six feet of
my rear bumper outside Munich last week, was that it was going 150 mph. I
was doing a perfectly legit 105 mph myself, passing a group of
lumbering 16-wheelers. He could have killed us all.
The workaround:. Your rear view mirror is your best
friend. When one of these madmen runs up blinking his brights at 120
mph, calmly roll your window down, stick your arm out, palm down, and
pat the air softly until you can safely move right. It’s the
international "slow down, you bastard" hand signal.
Sundays Are Your Best Days. Depending on the type of
truck, European truckers are forced to travel under, or at, the
equivalent of 60 mph. This means heavy clogging of the right lane, where
the trucks run, and thus of the left lane, where you run. On the
weekends, however, especially on Sundays, the trucker population tends
to park and live at the gas stations. Let's call it The 90/10 Rule—90
percent of the truckers are off the road in Central and Western Europe,
10 percent are on the road (though the percentages may be slightly
different in Eastern Europe). In general, though, on the "day of rest"
you will have fewer trucks—and kamikaze tailgaters in the left lane—to
The workaround: If you have the time to do it, save your long hops for Sundays.
Read The Fine Print When Parking In Town. You are
beloved by your host country in many ways, but as a foreigner you are a
third-class citizen, automotive-ly speaking. Tourists could have their
car towed for the slightest parking infraction because arcane rules
apply (and are usually only displayed in the local language). Traffic
authorities in Berlin, for example, have only recently begun to presume
English as a "parking language" worthy of printing on their almost
universal ticket machines. If you ignore the paid hours in the
tourist-heavy neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, you risk a fine of
$10–$40, depending on the length of the offense. It gets worse if you
park in a “fire access entrance,” which translates as Feuerwehrzufahrt,
meaning an entrance to a playground or an industrial area (and they’re
not always clearly marked). Let these fines add up and you may just get
booted off the road entirely in that country.
The workaround: Learn some French, German, and/or Italian parking-sign legalese.
Skip That Glass of Wine. In Berlin, a driver is
allowed the blood-alcohol-content equivalent of a glass of wine with
dinner—which is interesting because in the far heavier drinking Prague,
just four hours south, you're allowed zero alcohol in the blood and
Breathalyzer ambushes are common. Remember that you’re a third-class
citizen so as a “drunk” foreigner in a car, let’s just say this can
involve handcuffs and long hours in rooms with very bright lights.
The workaround: Hard as this is to follow under convivial circumstances, leave the car behind if you plan to drink.
EZ Pass = Vignette. In France and Italy, highway
tolls are collected based on distance traveled, much like in
Pennsylvania or New York. Germany has no tolls for cars. Austria and the
Czech Republic, however, work on flat-rate, time-based vignettes, or
stickers that you must actually pull over and buy at the border. You can
get a sticker for one week, 10 days, one month, or one year. There are
some digital vignette-reader gateways over the autobahns, but you might
be forgiven for thinking that they really don’t care. A small example,
however: If you are caught on an Austrian autobahn without a vignette,
it will run you €400–€4,000, or, roughly speaking, $530–$5,300. If
you’re a foreigner, of course, they’ll just take your car until you
figure out where that five grand is coming from.
The workaround: Pull over and get the vignettes (about $10), available at most roadside gas stations.