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/