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Driving in Europe
Back Alley to Blazing Autobahn

Expressways, streets, signs/route numbers, do not enter, priority, yield, speed limits, pedestrians.

Chapter 18 Part 2

HOW TO EUROPE: The Complete Travelers Handbook


John Bermont


A page of enjoy-europe.com by photographer and author John Bermont, with help from my daughter Stephanie.
Click here for the Table of Contents of How To Europe.
Updated 8-December-2014.

Carpe diem. Vivere bene! Gratia Deo.


Confused drivers in Cambridge, England.

What is going on here? These drivers did not see or chose to ignore the 'Do Not Enter' sign (center, background). They were immediately confronted by bollards, those two pipes sticking up in the street, preventing entry to the city center of Cambridge, England. Only buses and bicycles are allowed. The four drivers are making some sort of U-turn to get out of there. In the background is an open-top hop-on hop-off, 'HOHO,' tour bus. One of the stops in Cambridge is the American Cemetery and Memorial. This is dedicated to American soldiers and airmen who lost their lives in World War II, including the great band leader Glenn Miller who was over there entertaining the troops and disappeared while on a flight to France. I recommend a visit to the RAF Eagle Bar to view the ceiling in the back room.


Drive it or park it.

This Internet edition of chapter 18 is divided into four parts because it is so big. The four parts are:

  1. European Auto Rental: Details and Documentation .
  2. Driving in Europe: Back Alley to Blazing Autobahn.
  3. Laws and Habits: Speed Limits and Tailgaters.
  4. Parking, Gasoline, Safety: Adjuncts to Driving.

STREETS AND ROADS

Flying Low

Probably the best road in the world is an hour stretch of the E19 through Belgium. It is a straight, flat, wide freeway and completely lighted at night. For real excitement try keeping up with the Fiats on the winding A7 tollway through the mountains of Northern Italy. Sweaty palms, even in my Porsche!!

Expressways

The variety of roads in Europe is greater than in America. There is a superhighway system throughout Europe that is equivalent to our Interstate Highway System. Parts of it, particularly in France, Greece, Spain, and Italy, are tolled. Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia, and some other countries charge an annual fee to use the expressways. You will be required to buy a sticker for your car as you drive into the country. In all other countries it is generally freeway.

Expressway near Belfast, Northern Ireland.

This view shows a motorway passing through the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Notice that all of the cars are going the wrong way! Traffic travels on the left in Britain and Ireland. At one time this was the rule in Sweden also, but they got smart.


On the open road in France.

Here is the open road in eastern France on an early spring day. Most French expressways are tolled, thus there is very little traffic except when school lets out for the summer and every French family heads south for 6 weeks.


A summer Sunday on the A3 Autobahn southeast of Frankfurt am Main.

There are no speed limits on most German Autobahnen but that doesn't mean that you will get there faster. This is a stand up traffic jam on the westbound A3 on a sunny summer Sunday just southeast of Frankfurt am Main. We lived nearby in Aschaffenburg for two years.

Secondary Roads

Off the superhighways, road quality drops suddenly to winding, two-lane asphalt paving. There is usually little or no shoulder and the road sometimes narrows to one and a half or even one lane. You might find yourself driving under a haystack in rural areas. Since most of Europe is agricultural, be prepared for livestock and produce wagons moving at a slow clip. In eastern Europe, horse drawn wagons are common on the highways. Sunday afternoon is walking day in rural areas throughout Europe. You may run across (not literally, I hope!) whole families walking abreast on the road.

City Streets

In the cities and towns, anything is possible. Surfaces can be concrete, asphalt, brick, dirt, or tooth rattling cobblestone. There are very few cities with wide boulevards, and not many with a one mile stretch of straight street. Besides having narrow, winding, brick streets, names sometimes change at irregular intervals. A good example is a major ring road in Düsseldorf, Germany. The name changes eight times within one mile.

Good maps are essential. Because of the narrow medieval streets, there are many which are one-way. If you miss a turn, it is difficult to double back. Gothenburg, Sweden reminds me of a whirlpool. Once I get in the center of town, I find it almost impossible to get out.

Some streets are posted to allow entry only for busses, taxis, or local merchants. It's easy to miss these because the sign may be in the local language. They usually have hydraulically operated pipe barriers which rise and lower when an authorized person inserts a special magnetic card in the control mechanism. German cities are almost always in reconstruction with detours galore. These can be extremely frustrating.

The problems of the streets should be added to the problem of parking and then added to the crime problem. Then you come to the conclusion that driving in the cities of Europe is not a good idea. Leave your rental car at the city gates.

ROAD MARKINGS

Route Numbers

There is a definite lack of route signs on the roads. Those roads which are numbered on maps seldom have the numbers posted along the roads. Compass directions, e.g. north and south, are not posted at intersections or expressway exits. To get to where you are going, you often need to know the name of every village or Dorf in between. It's not difficult to get lost.

An expressway sign in Italy.

This sign on an expressway near Milan, Italy shows that small engine mopeds and scooters are prohibited, along with pedestrians and horse drawn wagons. The left side showing the bridge is a standard sign indicating a limited access highway. Stopping is not allowed so make sure you have enough gas to get to the next exit.



Street Signs

In the cities street names are seldom seen on signposts at intersections. The usual practice is to have the street name posted on the corner of a building just above the ground floor. New buildings and redecorated buildings often have no street names posted. Again, it is not difficult to get lost, especially on a rainy night.

Do Not Enter

European road signs are mainly symbolic due to the large number of languages and the great amount of international traffic. These signs are virtually unknown in America, though they are coming into use in some areas and it's easy to learn the most important ones. However, modifiers to the posted regulation, e.g. "Sunday only," are always given in the local language.

Do not enter sign.

The most important street sign throughout Europe is the one for DO NOT ENTER — WRONG WAY. It's about 18 inches in diameter with a horizontal white band on a red background. Here is one in Italy with an exception written in Italian. Unless you are driving an ambulance just don't go into this street.



One Way

One way signs in Europe are usually blue or black with a large white arrow on a horizontal rectangular plate. Inside the arrow is usually the local word(s) for one way, e.g., senso unico in Italy and Einbahnstraße in Germany. One-way signs in Ireland are white round boards with a red border and an arrow pointing up. The ones I saw in England were round blue boards with a white arrow and a sign underneath saying "One Way."

One way street sign in Copenhagen, Denmark.

This one way street in Copenhagen, Denmark allows exceptions for bicycles. Keep your eyes open for approaching bikes.



Stop

Although STOP signs are rare in Europe, they pop up in some unusual places. French speaking locales seem to have the most and they are popping up in eastern Europe. They are also used in Ireland.

Stop and No Standing in Riga, Latvia.

Here is one of those rare stop signs, in Riga, Latvia. The sign underneath indicates no standing. In other words, don't stop your car here for more than a moment even if you are in it.


A yield sign in London, England.



A yield sign in London, England with accompanying translation, in English. You must turn left at this intersection.


Stop signs in Kiev, Ukraine, in English and Cryllic.

At an intersection in Kiev, Ukraine, I saw the red octagon hanging right up there next to a nondescript sign with the word 'stop' in Cyrillic. If you learn the alphabet it is amazing how many words jump right out at you. You'll notice that in Greece, also.

A stop sign in Turkey with the octagon and word Turkish Dur.

In driving across northwestern Turkey from Istanbul to Blugaria we saw this traditional American octagon with the Turkish word DUR in the center. I guess we know what that means.


Priority and Yield

Another common sign is the yellow diamond, indicating PRIORITY over the intersecting road. The intersecting road will have an inverted triangle sign, white with a red border, meaning YIELD. If neither road has a sign, the vehicle coming from the right has the right of way.

Unposted intersections are rare in the countryside but common in the cities. Watch out. Europeans, especially taxi drivers, who are making a right turn do not even look for oncoming traffic since they have the right of way at unposted intersections. If they are going straight through, they only look to the right. If they see that a pump on the accelerator will get them into the intersection before another vehicle gets there, they do it. Sometimes it gets interesting. In Amsterdam I heard the standard "whoomp" of an accident and looked over to see one of the cars skidding on its roof.

Speed Limits

Speed limit signs are round. These signs have only a number indicating the speed limit, in kilometers per hour on the Continent. In Britain the number is miles per hour. In Ireland the number has km/h under it. Speed limits within cities are generally 50 kph (30 mph). Speed limits between cities are normally 90 to 110 km per hour (approximately 65 mph) on the major roads. Speed limits on most expressways in Europe are 130 kph (80 mph). In some countries citizens obey absolutely and in others they sing and laugh as they put the pedal to the floor.

Speed limit signs on the Autobahnen (expressways) in Germany are for the most part merely advisory, as you will learn soon after getting on an Autobahn. The legal limit is no limit. My daily drive to work in Germany in a 1.9 liter Opel was normally at 105 mph (170 kph). I was passed often. Sometimes I had that inconspicuous sedan up to 120 mph (190 kph +) but even then the Beamers would blow my doors off before I knew they were anywhere near me. In the frequent construction zones speeds are severely regulated. Speed limit signs in Germany with the added words bei Näse indicate that the limit applies only when the road is wet.

A 20 km/hr speed limit sign in Paris, France.

On this small street in Paris the speed limit is 20 kilometers per hour. That is about 12 MPH. Helping to enforce it is a sign warning of speed bumps ahead, in French of course. This is also a one way street except that bicycles are allowed in both directions. [Photo by Stephanie.]

A no entry to big trucks and a parking sign in Dresden Germany.

Trucks longer than 10 meters (about 33 feet) are prohibited on this dead end street in Dresden, Germany. Parking is allowed with a parking voucher, 'mit Parkschein.' Look for a nearby Parkschien automat and buy a voucher for at least as long as you plan to park. Leave it on your dash board with the date and time legible from the outside.


NO

Also round are signs indicating that ENTRY IS PROHIBITED for certain types of vehicles. A silhouette of a car, motorcycle, or truck in the white circle is specific for that type of vehicle.

A round sign with two cars, the one on the left being red, means NO PASSING.

A round plaque with no image means NO VEHICLES of any kind may enter. This is enforced by cameras which are everywhere. You will pay dearly.

A round blue sign with the silhouette of people walking, typically an adult holding the hand of a child, means that the road or path may be used by PEDESTRIANS ONLY.

Diagonal Line

Any road sign with a diagonal line across it means that the action illustrated is prohibited, or that this is the end of the condition. You see this most often on signs with a direction arrow. A sign with the diagonal band means NO LEFT TURN or NO RIGHT TURN depending on which way the arrow is pointing. If there is no diagonal band on the sign it means that the turn is required.

Hazard

Triangles pointing up warn of SPECIAL ROAD CONDITIONS. They usually show a silhouette of the hazard such as curves, skidding auto, running children, crosswalk, overhead clearance, or just a large exclamation mark! Be alert.

A sign warning of running children near a school in Paris.

This sign warns of running children near a school in Paris. Ecole is the French word for school. After stopping, the speed limit is 40 kph, about 25 mph.


Signals

Traffic signals are the same as in America, green for go and red for stop. Signals are normally turned off at 11 PM, or changed to blinking yellows or blinking reds.

In Germany, traffic lights change from red to yellow before going green. As soon as the yellow comes on, everybody shifts into first gear and revs up. When the green comes on, they pop the clutch and move out. Austria has a similar system.

Between stop lights in many German cities, a small lighted number will be seen on a post by the curb. This indicates what maximum speed (in kilometers per hour) you can drive in order to avoid stopping at the next light.

In Holland some traffic lights are synchronized for the maximum speed allowed. This will be posted as Groen Golf (green wave) on a green sign of course. Don't speed and you don't have to stop. I read recently that some American cities have just inaugurated this decades-old traffic system. We're catching up to those clever Dutchies.

Right on Red

Making a right turn on a red signal is forbidden in every country I've visited in Europe. It is particularly dangerous to violate this law in Holland because there are so many bicycle roads running parallel with the streets and roads. The bicycle roads have their own traffic signals. People from 3 to 103 ride bikes in The Netherlands.

Pedestrians

Most intersections with traffic signals also have a pedestrian walk-stop signal. This is normally controlled by a person wishing to cross. The pedestrian pushes a button and waits for the walk signal. Many do not wait. Jaywalking is almost universal in Europe, except in Germany. People obey the law in Deutschland. In other countries it is common to see a brigade of jaywalkers jumping out into the street. The ones at the rear are at risk because drivers are more inclined to honk than slow down.

Pedestrians in some cities are treated to audio versions of walk and don't walk. This is to assist blind persons.

City Center Prohibitions

Many streets in city centers are reserved for local business people, residents, city buses, or pedestrians. To enforce this the entry to the street is always marked as such, in the local language and with standard signs, and is often blocked by a couple of 8" diameter steel posts rising up from the road. Those with permits have a swipe card which lowers the posts momentarily so they can drive through. If you try to sneak through right after someone goes in you might hear a sort of crunching sound as the posts come up under your car. This will be an embarrassing moment.

The dreaded Italian ZTL sign in Pisa.

Ignorance or disregard of the ZTL sign has cost thousands of drivers zillions of euros in Italy. This one is in Pisa. Similar zones exist in Florence, Milan, and other popular tourist cities. As you can see, Z.T.L. stands for zona traffico limitato, restricted traffic zone. You can NOT drive past this sign. If you break the law a hidden traffic camera will photograph you. The picture is then sent to the car rental agency which tags your credit card for $50 or so for administrative work in providing the municipality with your name and home address. Things move slowly in Italy so it will probably be about six months before you get the official ticket and are ordered to pay a few hundred euros.

Cities are doing this to control traffic in the city center, and to fill the city coffers. If your hotel is in the center of the city it is likely that it is in a ZTL. Contact your hotel to get a temporary pass if possible. Otherwise you may end up paying dearly just to get to your room.

The empty red circle ALWAYS means 'do not drive on this street' no matter what. The red circle with the number 30 means that the speed limit, IF you are allowed to drive here, is 30 kph, about 18.6 mph. In most countries the typical 10% American slack is not an option. Stay under the limit. [Photo by Stephanie.]


DRIVE ON

As noted above, this Internet edition of chapter 18 is divided into four parts because it is so big. The four parts are:

  1. European Auto Rental: Details and Documentation .
  2. Driving in Europe: Back Alley to Blazing Autobahn.
  3. Laws and Habits: Police, Speed Limits, Tailgaters.
  4. Parking, Gasoline, Safety: Adjuncts to Driving.

NOTE TO READERS

I welcome questions and comments. If you have any concerns about your trip to Europe that have not been covered well enough in this section please do not hesitate to write and ask. When you write please include relevant details.

I do not open attachments. Please include all of your data in the body of your email. I will reply in a day or two.

My email address is johnbermont@enjoy-europe.com.

Do not forget to smell the hyacinths. Scroll through the Table of Contents of How To Europe: The Complete Travelers Handbook and read all 30 chapters, FREE on line. Good deal!

For a check-off punchlist of everything go to The Finale, Last Call: Travel Prep and Pack Lists for Europe.


Have a good trip!


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If your gizmos charge through a USB port this can keep you going. European cars have the same 12 volt electrical system as American cars. Scosche Dual USB Car Charger Scosche Dual USB
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Rolling luggage sure beats lugging a pack on your back. Travelpro Luggage Maxlite 2 20 inch Expandable Spinner Travelpro Luggage Maxlite 2 20" Expandable Spinner
A shoulder bag for your daily walk-about. Travelpro Luggage Maxlite3 Soft Tote Travelpro Luggage Maxlite3 Soft Tote
Keep your stuff organized. There are more than a dozen colors and patterns to choose from. eBags Medium Packing Cubes - 3pc Set
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The two gallon size is excellent for packing your clothes, but it is hard to find in Europe. Two gallon plastic ZipLoc bags Two gallon plastic bags
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Inconspicuously lock your zippered luggage with a black wire tie. Cables to Go 43036 Cable Ties - 100 Pack (Black) Cables to Go 43036 Cable Ties - 100 Pack (Black)
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Inflatable clothes hangars help with drip dry clothes washed in your room. Inflatable Travel Laundry Hangers Drip Dry Clothes Set Of 4 (04500) by Whitney Design Inflatable Travel & Laundry Hangers Set Of 4 by Whitney Design
Absolutely the best battery for digital cameras which use AA batteries. Energizer - AA Lithium Batteries - 4 Pack Energizer
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Plug adapters are needed throughout Euorpe. There are five models in use.

This adapter is for the standard grounded plug in France, Germany, and northern Europe. It does not fit in many outlets of Italy and Switzerland. SIMRAN PLUG ADAPTER - CONVERTS GROUNDED USA PLUGS TO EUROPE PLUG-GERMAN SHUCKO PLUG (VP 11W) Adapter with two plug-in ports and surge protection.
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This is a universal plug adapter for the UK and Ireland. AC Adapter Plug for use in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland AC Adapter Plug for use in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland
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Here is the grounded Italian model. CVID BA-12 Grounded Universal 110-240 Volts Italian Travel Plug Adapter (Type L) Italy CVID BA-12 Grounded Universal 110-240 Volts Italian Travel Plug Adapter (Type L) Italy
This 110-250 volt power surge strip has three universal outlets and an American grounded plug so it needs plug adapter. Make sure your gizmos are rated for 110-240 volts. SM-60 Universal 3 Outlet Power Strip / Surge Protector for Worldwide Travel. 110V-250V with Overload Protection. SM-60 Universal 3 Outlet Power Strip Surge Protector for Worldwide Travel. 110V-250V with Overload Protection.
One of my favorite books. Ernest Hemingway in Paris. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway


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