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Driving in Europe in Summer 2012

If you plan to be one of the estimated 2.5 million UK motorists driving in mainland Europe this summer, you need to be aware of the ever lengthening list of things you must take with you and of rules and regulations abroad.

If you plan to be one of the estimated 2.5 million UK motorists driving in mainland Europe this summer, you need to be aware of the ever lengthening list of things you must take with you and of rules and regulations that will apply in order to make your driving a pleasant experience.

According to research recently carried out by nearly two thirds of British drivers experience some form of mishap when travelling abroad. This is a very significant figure, and the research also reveals that something like 25% of British motorists do not check that they have adequate insurance.

The cost of inadequate planning can be very high. Rescue services estimate that 25,000 UK motorists will break down while travelling in Europe and that only a small proportion will have purchased breakdown insurance. On top of that the cost of regulation is rising and the penalties for getting it wrong can be severe. You need to be aware of some old and some very new laws that will apply to you, to make your journey safe and enjoyable. Some European police can be very zealous.

All EU countries have a way of accessing driver details from DVLA and are using UK based companies to collect fines.

In all EU countries the police will issue penalty tickets and spot fines to be paid there and then. You will need cash. If you refuse to pay the penalties can ramp up very quickly.

Here are some general tips to help:

1/ Insurance: Check your insurance policy covers you to drive abroad, and include substitute drivers.  It may be a statement of the obvious, but two aspects in particular need looking at. The first is the extension of the policy to cover you in the event that you have an accident that is your fault and the second is cover for car contents in the event your car is broken into.

British insurance policies are obliged to provide third party cover in EU countries but unless arrangements have been specifically made you may well not have fully comprehensive cover, making repatriation of your car for example a very expensive exercise. If you have an accident abroad and if you write off your car without having extended your cover to fully comprehensive, the expense will be substantial. So the rule is check before departure, and make a written record of anything your insurance company tells you and who you spoke with; better still send a confirmatory e mail. Most insurers now serve customers and provide information through call centres so it’s important to have some record of what you were told should something go wrong. Even if you know your policy will be extended automatically, make sure it will extend to the full period of your holiday.

It is a fact that cars bearing UK number plates are a target because there is a fair chance they contain something worth stealing, and insurers regard some parts of Europe as theft hotspots. So again check with your insurer and be aware that travel insurance may not cover items stolen from cars. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office warns of particular threats and crime trends that target foreign drivers and are worth being aware of.

2/ Breakdown Insurance: Think about European breakdown cover and obtain it if needs be. There is no legal obligation to take out such cover, but a UK based provider will pay dividends if you breakdown somewhere rural and you can’t speak the language well enough. So look at a policy that provides roadside assistance as well as multilingual help.

3/ Documents: The UK is a little more relaxed about the requirement to carry documents with you, but in Europe you may well be asked for documents. You will need to have available a full UK drivers licence not provisional, your original registration document to prove ownership and a copy of your insurance certificate. In fact in France it’s compulsory to have the originals with you and so wise to take copies as well.

4/ Seat Belts: In most countries it’s compulsory to wear a seat belt front and rear, and it’s copulsary for all children up to 10 years to travel in the back seat of a car and wear a seat belt or be strapped into a proper child seat.

5/ Age Restrictions: In the UK drivers are able to use any roads from 17 years, as soon as they pass their tests. Not so in France where motorway drivers must be aged 18 and over.

6/ Mobile Phones: It is common for “hands free” systems to be compulsory for mobile telephones use while driving. It’s the same rules as in the UK but in some countries “hands free” systems with earpieces cannot be used.

7/ Satnavs: Satnavs capable of warning of the presence of speed cameras are illegal in some countries and this function must be disabled. If it can’t be disabled then the satnav must not be carried inside the car.

8/ Compulsory Equipment: Headlight beam deflectors are required just about everywhere but most countries have requirements for you to carry additional specified equipment in the car unfortunately the exact equipment required differs by country. You should always check the requirements for the country you will be visiting. The table below gives a summary based on my research but sources do differ on their interpretation of of the individual requirements of each country. To be completely sure I recommend carrying all the equipment stated. It isn’t terribly expensive, adds to safety, and will keep you out of legal trouble. Typical equipment includes:

  • fluorescent safety vest (one per passenger). More specifically, the safety vests must be carried inside the car and not in the boot.
  • Warning triangles for use if you breakdown. be aware that the distance at which you place your triangle behind your vehicle varies by country and some countries require 2 triangles.
  • Spare bulbs and the tools to fit them.
  • First aid kits.
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Spare spectacles if you need them to drive.

9/ Drinking and Driving: Don’t do it. Most of Europe has stricter drink drive laws than the UK. The level is 50 micrograms rather than 80, and so two modest glasses of wine can put you over. The penalties can be severe too. In France for example they can range from a modest fine of 135 Euros for a reading of between 50 and 80 micrograms to two years in prison and 4,500 Euros in fines for readings above. If you have an accident whilst over the limit the fines go up to 30,000 Euros, and even higher up to 150,000 euros in the event of injury or death. The reason is that France has historically had a huge death toll from drinking and driving and it now comes down very hard indeed on those who ignore the rules. Best just to avoid alcohol altogether.

10/ Breathalysers: From 1 July 2012 it has been compulsory to carry self testing breathalyser kits in the car while driving in France. Two are advised in case one is used and a fine of 15 Euros will be issued after 1 November 2012.

11/ Speed: Be aware of the speed limits and the fact that police officers abroad can and will impose on the spot fines. The speed limits vary by country and even within a country they may vary in different conditions such as in wet weather or poor visibility. General speed limits can also be varied by local signage so keep your wits about you as you drive.

Speed limits are generally lower if you are towing, and may be lower if you have held a licence for less than 2 years.

Driving in much more open roads abroad can be a real joy, and a little thought and planning will make sure it stays that way.

Summary of the Key requirements:


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