Self-drive in Central Europe/ Alps – III ( Driving on the wrong side)

Table of contents for Self-drive in Central Europe

  1. Self-drive in Central Europe/ Alps – I (Intro)
  2. Self-drive in Central Europe/ Alps – II (Itinerary & Car rental)
  3. Self-drive in Central Europe/ Alps – III ( Driving on the wrong side)

Our second day of driving presents the first occasion for filling up the car’s tank. Leaving this picturesque German village in Bavarian forests, we drive into a petrol station. I park the car next to the dispenser but do not find anyone approaching. Actually there is no one to be seen here. I walk into the store and come across an aged, smiling owner. I ask him about filling up the tank, only to realise that he does not understand English. In between our sign language exchanges, some more customers enter the shop and the owner gets busy, intermittently trying to decipher my speech. Then a grandma type of lady comes in, observes my unsuccessful efforts with the owner and smiles amiably. After her turn at the counter, she says something to me that I do not understand, nods and walks out. Soon thereafter, a teen girl comes in, approaches me and starts asking in English about my predicaments. Turns out that the English-speaking girl is the granddaughter, sent by her grandma to help me out. She explains in detail about how to self-use the petrol dispenser, make payments et al and helps me buy three vests (mentioned later in this part). She is in no hurry, her grandma by now having ensconced in her car, and wants to talk about India and how come we land up in their village. She is eager to meet Sharmi. After exhausting all the topics worth discussing among the three of us, she starts to say good bye and safe journey.

Holding forth with my belief that we humans, across the planet are intrinsically wired to be friendly, caring and empathetic…Ghumakkari teaches it time and again. Distortions are created by extraneous elements, like for example, politicians, etc…. :-)

Driving on the European roads – that is what we were most thrilled (and apprehensive) about. We knew that it was going be different, perhaps difficult and certainly exciting.

It turned out to be all that and more. While returning the Skoda at Prague after 18 days, 7 countries and 2500 kms; it was a feeling of achievement and exultation. Achievement, since we had not paid any fine/ticket and not honked even once (in effect, we do not know the sound of the car’s horn). Driving was almost an overwhelming experience, especially for us, who are irreconcilably consigned to the Great Indian driving conditions.

Just about everything that is there about driving, is mistaken in the European sense. They drive on the wrong (that is, right) side of the road. The cars have steering wheel where one would expect the co-passenger to sit. They overtake on the left and turn right upon entering a roundabout, moving anti-clockwise. Slow lane is the rightmost and turn to the right (usually) is free.

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Is everything there in reverse order then? Certainly no. Left foot presses the clutch and the right hits the gas all right; gear-shift moves lower on the left, higher on the right. But, then, it is your right hand that gets to hold the stick.

Getting a hang of it? There’s more. Right hand gets the wiper and left, the turn indicator. Therefore, on many occasions, wipers in our car were moving stupidly while negotiating turns. Similarly, I was consistently banging my left hand on the door trying to change the gears. And expectedly, I would look to the right, before entering a roundabout.

An uninitiated drive on the European roads – it was certainly a mortifying idea, at least till it began. Things could go wrong at any turn (or even on a straight road). We had been trawling through the rules, regulations, videos, street maps and general gyan available on the net. We also gave ourselves full 4 days in Prague, before picking up the car. While there, we hired a chauffeured car to Dresden (Germany) to get a first-hand idea about driving on the highways. This may sound funny but I was even changing gears in my car using the right hand, days prior leaving India (it can be done – the hand goes under the steering to the left, torso slumped forward involving a bit of callisthenics of both mind and the body. Do make sure that the act is performed when there is no observer on the road, specially a cop).

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Booking.com

OK, other ‘wrongs’ there, from our sense of driving, include disciplined driving, no honking, sticking to ones lanes, earnestly marked traffic signboards, etc. Then there are rules, lots of them; and they are quite sincere about them as well! It will certainly help acquainting oneself with them, before taking the ride.

General grain of the rules is somewhat common across the countries. There may, however, be many peculiarities specific to each country, viz. variation in speed limits, items to be carried in the car, acceptable alcohol level, use of day-driving lights, use of winter tires/gears (which was not relevant in for us driving in May-June), toll charges, fines payable etc. It would be preferable to have an overview of the traffic rules in the countries being visited. Let me recall some of them.

Czech Republic mandates that all vehicles should have low-beamed headlights on at all hours of the day – now this rule is not applicable in Germany (where only the motor cycles are required to follow this). This led us to wonder, what if we forgetfully switch off the headlights while driving? Well, Czech cars, having factored-in that possibility, have their headlights directly linked to car’s ignition – so the lights compulsorily turn on with the ignition.

German rules require that cars must have the safety vests, numbering not less than that of the occupants. Further; it is no good storing them in the boot – they should be held in the seating area so that it can be worn before getting out of the car (say, in an emergency on the highways)!!! Now, we forgot about this while taking over the car at Prague (ideally, such issues should be sorted out while renting the car and renters usually oblige in providing such accessories which are required by law). We noticed the need for these vests while going through our check-list at the hotel on German-Czech border. On enquiring from the hosts, they also advised that we must have those vests. So we had to buy them and we cursed Bob, our renter, for the extra expense of some 15 Euros. It was only later, when the trip was nearing its end, did we discover two vests neatly tucked under our seats by the thoughtful renter. OK, so the ones we bought in Germany have been brought home as trophies. Sad that Sharmi does not think them worthy of display in the drawing room beside other mementoes from our foreign jaunts, so they get tucked inside my bookshelf.

Speed limits may vary slightly from one country to another. Usually, at an entry point into a country, there are boards to indicate the limits. Like this board, at the entrance to Germany, indicates the following :-

D – Deutschland (Germany)
Speed in urban areas – 50 kmph
Speed, non-urban areas – 100 kmph
Speed, Autobahns – 130 kmph

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Autobahn
A few quick words on the mighty and the famous German Autobahns, the ‘mother-of-all-expressways’. The autobahn is famous primarily for two reasons – they are one of the first express-ways in the world and there is no speed limit on the Autobahn (both the beliefs, however, are only partly correct). Autobahn is the Mecca for aspiring drivers across the world. Despite not being a racing enthusiast, nor having any profound mechanistic streak; we still looked forward to a drive on the Autobahns and factored this while planning the itinerary.
About there being no speed limit on Autobahns, the fact is that there are many stretches on Autobahn where speed limit is not defined. In that sense, some stretches of Autobahn may be thought of being speed-limit-less. However, on such stretches, advised limit is 130 kmph.

Driving on the Autobahns was awssum! The feeling, when you are driving at a modest 150 kmph keeping to the slowest (right) lane, and find cars zooming past you at a relative speed of more than a hundred kmph; well, it is an spiritual revelation. Some interesting facts about Autobahn are – 60 kmph is the lowest speed limit (vehicles unable to achieve that speed are not permitted to ply here); it is illegal to stop on autobahns except in unforeseen emergencies (and this does not include a car running out of fuel, since that is not deemed to be ‘unforeseen’). Find more facts about autobahn here –

http://www.gettingaroundgermany.info/autobahn.shtml

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Tolls
Another thing to keep in mind, while driving in Europe is toll tax, payable if you are driving on toll roads. Toll charges and rules vary across the countries. It is usually paid through purchase of stickers called ‘vignettes’, which is stuck on the windscreen. Vignettes can be bought in petrol stations and other designated point, usually nearer to an international border. Before entering, say, Austria from Switzerland, Swiss petrol stations near the border would sell Austrian vignettes. Italy, however, has a system of distance based toll.

The vignettes come in various denominations (of days), viz. 10/30 days and more. Rental cars usually come with its vignette valid for the country of origin. For instance, our car, rented from Prague had the sticker which allowed us drive across Czech Republic. However, we needed to buy vignettes for driving through other countries. A 10-days vignette in Austria costs approx 10 Euro. Other countries have similar pricing for similar time frame (10 days minimum). Now the worst case scenario is Switzerland, which sells vignettes only for a year. So, even if you plan to drive on Swiss highways for a day, you will need to buy the ticket which is valid for a year and costs a whooping 32 Swiss Francs. Best case scenario, well, that is Germany. German roads are free to drive on, including Autobahns! Best things in the world, sometimes, do come free.

Find more about EU tolls here – http://www.tolltickets.com/country/europe/europe.aspx?lang=en-GB&mnu=c

GPS
OK, we do have reservation about using GPS while on a tour trip. This has been elaborated upon in our Thailand article Part 3. But we opted for GPS this time primarily to cut down on foreseeable uncertainties. And yes, GPS did help us save on valuable time and heartburns. For those driving for the first time on European roads, we would certainly recommend one. We also made some unconventional use of the GPS – we could get off the highways to take uncharted/ unintended minor roads and drive on for a while, secure in our minds that the GPS would keep guiding us to the right path anyway. Such ventures on unintended paths, straying into villages/towns have been an incredible experience.

One more related issue is the presence/implication of traffic cameras. These cameras are installed across highways to monitor excess speed/other transgressions. An over speeding vehicle is photographed with its numberplate and the  challan (along with photographic evidence) is subsequently delivered to the owner .  The cameras may be hidden or advertised, depending on rules of a particular country. Then there are GPSs’  which have an option of  pinpointing such cameras in advance. But remember that this function of GPS (which indicates presence of speed cams) is banned across the countries. It implies that if traffic police homes on to you and finds this function ‘on’ in your GPS, well – one goes for an extra jump. Ideally, make sure before renting that either your GPS does not have this function or it is switched off.

Fuel
The fuel cost is about INR 90/- to 120/- per litre, depending  upon the country, location (ones nearer the airport are costlier than others), etc. Most of the petrol stations are self service types – you park the car, fill up the tank and then go to the counter to make the payment.

Now, some other issues about driving. Honking is uncivilised, so it’s best avoided, except in emergencies. Similarly, it is illegal to flash/ beam headlight either frontally or from behind, onto another car. German rule considers flashing of headlight on other vehicle a coercive act. Driving on the right lane, keeping the left ones free for overtaking, is followed as a rule. After overtaking, the car promptly shifts rightwards. Overtaking from the wrong side, irrespective of how many empty lanes are there, is a strict no-no.

Overtaking – there are defined portions on the road, where this act can be performed. For starters, the continuous yellow/ white line dividing a two-way road is not be crossed over randomly.

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Turning – When turning to the left (across the oncoming traffic), there usually is a box-like mark on the centre of road, where one places oneself and thereafter wait for the opportune time.
Entering roundabout/ main flow of traffic – The rule says that the ones who are already in the roundabout, have a right of way (most of the countries follow this but there are exceptions as well). Accordingly, the car entering the roundabout should come to a stop at a marked point before entering it, and thereafter proceed, only if there is no other vehicle approaching from left in the roundabout.

Right of way sign – We are conversant with the ‘give-way’ sign (an inverted triangle, which are put on approaches to a main road; do not mind if we do not understand or follow them), which indicates that the vehicle seeing the sign gives way. To avoid any confusion, they use an additional sign, that of ‘right of way’ placed on the main roads – it simply indicates that car on this road has the right of way, and thus need not bother about converging vehicles. The other car needs to stop and be mindful, before joining the ‘right of way’/main road.

Speed ‘unrestriction’ sign – Officially called ‘speed limit cancellation’ sign, this indicates cancellation of speed restriction previously imposed by speed limit sign. Here is one such sign on the Autobahn (indicating that the previous speed limit of 120 kmph is cancelled now).

Merging with the highway traffic – This is a tricky issue due to high speed of vehicles plying on the highways. Any mistimed entry could lead to disastrous situation for both the vehicles.

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There are, well, many of them. We tried to pick up as many of them as possible, before departure.

Resources    There are, thankfully, abundant sites offering relevant info on various aspects of driving in these countries.

1. Google street view is a good source of prior info, offering realistic images of roads you may plan to drive on. Street view, though, do not provide coverage in many countries.

2. While in the planning stage, I bought this AAA Europe Map, imported edition, from an online store for INR 1200/-. As an afterthought, there was not much need for this, since firstly, this is a bulky book and adds to the weight whereas we needed to refer to only a few pages and secondly, Google maps (some of which were downloaded in the tab) offer very precise and elaborate info.

3. Viamichalein.com. The offers valuable details on driving between two given points. There are various selectable options for roads you want to take viz, route/ vehicle/ toll (free)/ shortest/ scenic and so on. Upon feeding the requisite parameters, it offers the recommended route map, likely time and expenses (gas as well as toll). Importantly, the offerings are pretty accurate. This really helped us plan the driving trip.

4. There are many sites, youtube videos and Apps on driving rules and regulations. One may go through them to get a very clear idea about the scene out there.

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OK, it was rather enlightening – learning about those rules, regulations and revelations; a perfect concoction for Ghumakkars to explore …. that, which is out there…..

Driving on to the next part ‘Prague’,

Thanks,
Auro.

  • silentsoul

    awesome narration and pictures. reminded me of my days spent in Germany and swiss long ago

    thanks for sharing

    • AUROJIT

      Hi SS,

      Thanks for your nice words……coming across such a long way. You may not believe this – there is a large board in the Helsinki airport depicting the majestic northern lights. On seeing that we were reminded of the pics in your post (we also discussed about it there, sitting idle in the lounge)……:-)

      Thanks.

      Auro.

  • And it keeps getting better.

    Why not take a AT one, instead of worry about the stick ?. ‘Vests’ is a completely new thing to learn. I guess the ever growing safety-norms and that strong intent to not lose any life, just like that, are the reasons for ‘Vest’. We have a LOT to learn.

    You mentioned a great use of GPS, which is to take that unwanted turn and let GPS ‘recalculate’ the route. I have a GPS in my car we usually do not use it since we are mostly traveling on same-old-roads, again and again :-). But now I know that how can make use of it. Thanks.

    Agree with Sharmi on ‘Vests’ part, hope you guys were able to continue to pick a flower/shrub/plant as a souvenir. On to Prague now.

  • AUROJIT

    Hi Nandan,

    AT is a safer bet, but not being used to it and trying to restrict the number of unknowns, preferred ‘sticky’ one. AT also comes at a slight premium. Actually, if I remember correctly, depending on which country/region you are picking up the car from, it could be AT or manual by default. For eg, think Japan rentals are by default AT and Manuals are difficult to find ……

    Since you agree with Sharmi, so we naturally are in disagreement and I am not allowed to talk thereon :-)

    Bringing home the jungle – this time I could scare her about getting caught in the airport if found indulging in ‘biological smuggling’ (whatever that means) ……….

    Thanks really,

    Auro.

  • Nirdesh Singh

    Hi Auro,

    Another lovely post. The post should be made mandatory as part of exercise for obtaining a drivers license in India. We the ones who will never trouble our necks while turning when we know the blind spot will never show the car just behind on the side in either the rear or side view mirror. That is the reason people take ages to get DLs in middle east countries.

    I heard Mercedes had to replace the horns in India with more powerful ones. They never bother with the ones in Germany since they are never used. I have people tell me who have never honked in years in US.

  • Nirdesh Singh

    In one of Upanshu’s post I had shared some of my experiences on Delhi roads.

    Unable to resist posting them again here!

    1. When someone tailgates me, I brake just enough so that my brake lights come on the guy backs off
    2. Car behind me with has high beam, i let him come up, then go behind and turn my high beams on 95% of clowns on the road do not know that they have high beam on
    3. Incoming car on single road with no divider coming with high beam, i turn high beam on suddenly and drive towards the car it is fun but could turn tricky
    4. Car behind is honking for no reason, let the car come ahead and then I honk the crap out of him the guy will not use the horn again
    5. Stay clear of cars with HR plates and specifically HR26 cars they are the biggest jokers on the road. You see a car crazily weaving in and out, chances are 98% that it will be a HR26 car
    6. Look out for jokers who make left from side roads into main roads without even a glance
    7. We believe in looking at mirrors when turning you need to turn your neck. That is why Indians take years to get driving licenses abroad i know of several hilarious episodes encountered by friends abroad when getting tested
    8. I love to harass call centre cabs I am in middle lane and see a rampaging cab coming from behind weaving, i go to left lane, speed up to come abreast with a car in the middle lane and hold up the cab behind priceless
    8. There are few more things but will not be politically correct or Avtarji might take umbrage!
    It is our culture where the mother will sit in the front seat with the infant in her lap. You could be jailed in US and probably strip/cavity searched for doing that! Or the proud papa having the child between him and the steering wheel and driving.
    I can just go on and on my favourite topic!

  • AUROJIT

    Hi Nirdesh,

    Haha…..I really like your retaliatory measures. I will try some of them – they certainly look to be effective.

    Agree, driving there is really an out of the world experience. However, within EU they have their own prejudices/ preferences about driving habits in different countries. Like this one about Slovakian crazies –

    http://havrancottage.blogspot.in/2013_03_01_archive.html :-)

    Thanks for enjoying.

    Auro.

  • Hi Aurojit,

    Another outstanding post both in terms of the information as well as the pictures and the text.

    Completely agree with Nirdesh that this post should be mandatory reading for a DL/IDL… :-)

  • AUROJIT

    Hi Naturebuff,

    thanks for your valued appreciation.

    If just reading a post could repair the brain boxes of our DL holders………I would rather bet on flying horses :-)

    Thanks again,

    Auro.

  • Patrick Jones

    Agree with all your points, never noticed HR26 though. I hardly honk – yes, even in Delhi – but honking from behind is responded by a touch on the brake pedal. However, must say honking greatly reduced on NCR highways these days. Sane driving is catching up, hopefully. Point 8 is fun to do!

  • Patrick Jones

    Catching up on older posts did all 3 in one go. Fabulous! Alps pics are stunning. One of my female colleagues did the same covering 9 countries and she was all alone. Ashamed with my reluctance to drive in UK – for fear of my Delhi-style driving – even after spending years there intermittently, I saluted her spirit. Seems I missed a wonderful opportunity.

    • Auro M

      Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for going through the post.

      ‘Ashamed with my reluctance to drive in UK – for fear of my Delhi-style driving’ – such inhibitions are inbred in all of us using Delhi-style driving :-)

      But then, of course it can be rather should be done for the sake of experience, if nothing else……

      Thankful, Auro.