Tim likes to travel. Follow his adventures as he explores the world.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

15 Things This American Notices While Driving in Europe

I've driven all around Europe, but mostly Belgium, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, and there are some things that I've gotten used to, and some things that still just don't sit quite right with me. Most of it is not really bad or good, but just interesting and different. So, without commenting on driving in the U.K., which will take its own article, here are 15 things this American notices while driving in Europe.

1. Higher speed limits

It didn't really click until I went back to the U.S. and I was in Maryland, on a very nice 13 lane interstate highway (kidding, it was only 6 lanes), there were no potholes and the road was well maintained, but the speed limit was 88kph (55mph).  Most local highways in the EU are between 90 and 100kph (56 - 62mph) and on the major highways its 120 or 130kph (74 - 81mph). In southern Belgium, you are cruisin' at 120kph and dodging huge craters in the road. On the world famous autobahn in Germany, there are many sections where the speed limit is "as fast as your car can go", inviting the 200kph+ (124mph) crew out to play. There are few things more emasculating than a smart car flying by you on the autobahn. In most EU countries, the neighborhood speed limit is 60kph, which is almost as fast as some U.S. highway speeds.

2. Lane courtesy, everyone move to right

In the U.S. we can pass on either side. Here, people must pass on the left. It's an unwritten law, and the guy doing 190kph behind you will ride all the way up to your bumper and flash you and have his left blinker on in the left lane, encouraging you to get over to the right. However, most people know to get over before all that happens, and it actually works quite nicely. When I'm in a rush, I know I can jump in the left lane and everyone in front of me going slow will get out of my way.


3. Having one beer and driving is OK

Sobriety checkpoints are common in EU countries, yet that doesn't stop people from having one drink with their meals, when they go out. Once, I was riding with a friend, in Belgium, and we came up to a sobriety checkpoint and the police asked him if he had been drinking. He said he had a beer with dinner. The policeman said, "Yeah that's fine, but have you been drinking?" A beer with dinner is such a normal part of the culture that it's not even considered drinking! (I want to caveat that the Europeans aren't just driving around drunk, but their cultures recognize and embrace alcohol consumption as a normal habit, while still understanding and taking necessary precautions to drink responsibly).

4. Get to see all those nice cars you only see on TV in the U.S.

I see BMW's, Mercedes, Porsche's, Audi's, everyday. The cabs and buses are Mercedes. I see Maserati's, Lamborghini's, Aston Martins, almost as often. Most of the "exotic" cars are manufactured here in Europe, so it makes sense that I would see them often. And on the autobahn, it's a lovely sight to see someone take their Ferrari and go ludicrous speed.

5. Honking

Honking, in Europe, is simply a way to alert someone of something. In the U.S. it seems to be more of negative thing, like you're being mean or unruly. However, in Europe, there are times when some people are a bit to liberal with their horns. Impatient drivers, aka road-ragers, are all over the world. I find it unique to Europe that the guy like 5 or 9 cars behind is the first and only one to honk at the light, that turned green a millisecond ago. That could also just be a Belgian thing.

6. Yellow before go

Stoplights light up the yellow and then green, like in Nascar. This alleviates the guesswork of when to start gassing up so you can peel off once the light is green.





7. Yield right when not on priority road

I have no idea what the logic is on this one, but if I'm on the main road, and it's not marked as the "priority road", I have to yield at intersections, to traffic coming from the right. In some cases this is not a problem, but in most cases, it is a big problem. There are many examples of why yielding to the right is ridiculous, one being if that vehicle coming from the right is a tractor or slow moving vehicle, I still have to yield. If I'm on a road and the road from the right ends at the road I'm on and I've already been gaining momentum, why am I stopping for those who have to slow down anyway to turn? 

8. Can't turn right on red

Oh how I hate pulling up to a stop light, that is perfectly timed to turn red once my cars is pulling up, and have to sit their for 30 seconds, and not be able to just turn right, if no one is coming. It's even worse on roads that have a stoplight, but there is never any traffic running perpendicular, so you are just sitting there for no reason.

9. Roundabouts

Since you can't turn right on red, roundabouts instead of stoplights, are a great idea. But when there is traffic, roundabouts are the worst idea ever. The "zipper" that Germany does - letting one car from each lane go at a time - ensures everyone goes at some point. In the rest of the EU, you could be stuck at a roundabout forever.




10. Road construction takes forever 

So, in Germany, there is perpetual road construction. However, once the construction on that part is done, maybe in a week or two, the road is nicer and smooth and allows for good traffic flow. In Belgium, not only is the work often not well done, it takes them 6 months to 15 years to finish a single road construction project. Deviation and umleitung signs are everywhere, taking you along the most inefficient pathway to your destination, but its the only way to get there! From what I hear from my eastern european friends, it is just as bad in their countries.

11. Poor stoplight placement

If you pull up to white line at a stop light, you will not be able to see the stoplight, unless there happens to be a second one across the intersection, which isn't common. The stoplight poles are often placed to the left and right of the white "stop" line on the road, and if it is the kind that hang over the street, it's still off of a pole, that is again, placed perfectly even with that white line that you pull up to. So, it is common to see people stop 3m (10ft) behind the line so they can see the light.

In the U.S. the lights usually hang in the middle of the road or completely across the street. You can be 2m (7ft) over the line and still be able to the see the light change.

12. Parking Spaces

First, finding a parking space in Europe is like hitting the lottery. I have not been to a single country here and saw a massive parking lot for any store. Parking garages struggle to keep up with demand. Not only is parking scarce, the spaces are half the size of those in the U.S.

So if you have a Suburban or a Hummer, good luck trying to find parking in Europe.  A large vehicle in Europe is a station wagon or a large sedan. Vans and trucks are typically used as work vehicles and SUV's are non-existent here. It so easy to spot an American who has shipped their car to Europe, because it is the one taking up 3 European parking spaces. Smart cars clearly have the advantage on parking, as they can park in any direction.

13. Lane lines

First, all street lines are white. Even the ones separating a one-lane, two-way road. This is confusing for Americans who are used to yellow separating directions, and white separating lanes within the same direction. So when you see a dashed, two-lane road, the left side is both a passing lane and the primary lane for the opposite direction of traffic. Then, in certain areas, there are no lane lines on the road, and that creates a free for all, as far as who can pass who and how many cars can line up at a stoplight (Naples, Italy has the record for me, with 6 cars and 5 mopeds, on an intended two-lane road).

14. Stick shifts

I learned how to drive a manual (stick-shift) but I never owned one, so I am not really good at it. Here, an automatic is very uncommon, and my friends often comment on my automatic car when I give them rides. Hey, it gives me the freedom to eat, text, and drive at the same time!

15. Highway exit markers

U.S. highway exit sign
European highway exit sign
In many countries, and certain stretches of highway, there are no highway exit numbers, so you have to know what city you are going to in order to exit at the right time. Also, the city that is the direction you are going in, is the first city listed. The city closest to the exit you are taking is the one closest to the bottom. So, if you know what direction you are going in, you will eventually run into the city you want to go to...hopefully.

It's kind of funny when an english-speaking GPS tries to pronounce cities and streets in non-english speaking countries.

What do you think?

This list is based on my experiences and I'm curious if you agree of disagree. For the non-Europeans, what experiences you've had? For the Europeans, how do you feel about these, or the alternatives, from other cultures? Thanks for reading!

Also, check out 7 Reasons This American Loves Europe and 12 Things This American Can't Stand Living in Europe


(all images used in this post are from other sources and not my own) 



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