SCENIC ROUTES

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GREAT EURO­PEAN DRIVES

Most Euro­pean driv­ers obey the sim­ple rules of pass­ing, writes Mark Hinch­liffe. CRUISE con­trol is set at 160km/h and I’m driv­ing in the slow lane of a three-lane high­way when a tiny Ford Ka rock­ets past in the mid­dle lane, nudg­ing my ve­hi­cle slightly side­ways with its wind blast. Wel­come to driv­ing on the au­to­bahns or au­tostradas of main­land Europe.

Yet on those same roads you can be in two nar­row lanes of bumper-to-bumper traf­fic mov­ing slowly through road­works with con­crete bar­ri­ers per­ilously close on one side and a wide truck too close on the other.

Many trav­ellers to Europe re­turn home speak­ing in rev­er­ent tones about the au­to­bahns/ au­tostradas of Europe and won­der why we can’t have them here.

We do. Many of our high­ways are just as good as these revered high­ways with just as many lanes and smooth sur­faces and just as many road­works.

What makes them work in Europe while our roads turn into bot­tle­neck dis­as­ters is that Euro­pean driv­ers obey the sim­ple rules of pass­ing only on the left, mov­ing to the right lane af­ter pass­ing, and trucks and other slow-mov­ing ve­hi­cles re­main­ing in the right lane and only pass­ing when al­lowed.

It is a sim­ple sys­tem that works 99 per cent of the time.

S o me Euro­peans obey the rules more strin­gently than oth­ers and some Euro­pean high­ways are bet­ter qual­ity than oth­ers.

The Ger­man/Swiss/Aus­trian au­to­bahns range from two and six-lane mas­ter­pieces with banked curves and speed lim­its rang­ing from 100km/h to un­lim­ited, but mainly 130km/h.

Ger­mans also tend to be more strict in obey­ing the rules, slow­ing down to the posted speeds through road­works, but util­is­ing their priv­i­lege to drive fast in the fast lane, zoom­ing up be­hind those who haven’t yet moved right and flash­ing their lights to get the slow driv­ers out of the way.

In coun­tries such as Italy, the driv­ers are more ag­gres­sive and reg­u­larly flout the rules. If you slow to 80km/h through road­works, you could get shunted from be­hind.

If you speak the lo­cal lan­guage and are driv­ing a late-model hire car, turn on your ra­dio as traf­fic in­for­ma­tion will in­ter­rupt the broad­cast in many coun­tries to ad­vise of ap­proach­ing road­works is­sues, even of­fer­ing de­tours.

Most sat­nav sys­tems will also pro­vide this in­for­ma­tion. Aus­tralia is yet to de­velop a sim­i­lar ex­ten­sive net­work, but some sup­pli­ers are grad­u­ally in­tro­duc­ing this fea­ture.

The high­ways in many Euro­pean coun­tries are just as good as Ger­many’s au­to­bahns.

In the for­mer East­ern Bloc coun­tries, they can be sparsely pop­u­lated and it is not un­com­mon to be the only car on a three-lane high­way in Croa­tia.

How­ever, the high­way could end at any minute in con­struc­tion works and in­com­plete bridges, di­vert­ing the traf­fic through sin­gle-lane back­roads and vil­lages. Per­haps it is be­cause these roads are so new and cost money to drive on that the lo­cals don’t use them.

Once off these su­per-high­ways, there is a very tangled, nar­row and in­fu­ri­at­ing roads sys­tem in al­most ev­ery coun­try.

The high­ways may be great for get­ting places fast, but you of­ten don’t see much of the sights. How­ever, some Ger­man au­to­bahns were par­tic­u­larly de­signed so you can glance at the spec­tac­u­lar views, even if it is at 160km/h.

Con­versely, you can be too busy squeez­ing your car be­tween a ho­tel wall and a jug­ger­naut in a nar­row, cob­ble­stoned vil­lage road to have any chance of tak­ing in the mag­nif­i­cent scenery.

Tourists must be pre­pared to pay for the priv­i­lege of driv­ing on many of these ma­jor high­way net­works.

Hitler may have been a co­caine-ad­dled ma­niac, but at least he fore­saw the need for a strong road in­fra­struc­ture and Ger­man au­to­bahns re­main free, ex­cept to trucks.

How­ever, most other Euro­pean coun­tries are still catch­ing up to Ger­many’s high­way net­work and charg­ing a toll to pay for their con­struc­tion and main­te­nance.

While Italy’s high­ways are of a sim­i­lar age – and in quite tatty con­di­tion - you have to pay a toll. And what an ar­chaic chore that is. You must queue at a toll booth to get a ticket when en­ter­ing the high­way and queue again to pay when leav­ing. The same goes for coun­tries such as Croa­tia where the high­ways are at least more mod­ern and bet­ter main­tained.

Most coun­tries use a more so­phis­ti­cated sys­tem in which a vi­gnette is stuck to the wind­screen and in­spected by road­side cam­eras or roam­ing pa­trols and po­lice.

These vi­gnettes can be bought at the first ser­vice sta­tion or even the first shop or res­tau­rant just over the border.

Be aware that not all au­to­bahns/au­tostradas al­low un­lim­ited speeds. A sign with a cir­cle and three di­ag­o­nal slashes through it means un­lim­ited speed, but even then you can be pulled over by the po­lice if you are driv­ing sub­stan­tially faster than the sur­round­ing traf­fic.

How­ever, there is lit­tle po­lice pres­ence and most of them are ei­ther look­ing for missing stick­ers, driv­ers hog­ging the fast lane or trucks/

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