Ahhh, the compelling lure of the open road … and the romantic ideal of driving through Italy or Greece with the top down on your rented convertible, or traversing the mountains of Switzerland and Austria in a road-tough four-by-four.
Sounds great, right? The experience can be exactly that — provided you’re adequately prepared. What many road warriors fail to take into consideration when mapping out their routes and loading up their Google Maps are the more subtle aspects of an upcoming expedition, which can make all the difference in their own safety and that of their family. These oft-overlooked details include basics such as the differences in road signs from country to country, traffic regulations, what the driving culture is like in real time, what types of road challenges are likely to be faced along the way, and what to do in the unfortunate situation of a crash.
For starters, don’t rely on your GPS. If you find yourself in a satellite-challenged area, you’ll be glad you have those old-school paper maps with you — and have adequately familiarized yourself with the road networks leading to your destination.
Next, remember that if you need a rental car with an automatic transmission, this has to be arranged well in advance of travel in many countries, including most of Europe.
Be familiar with local traffic regulations, road conditions and the road culture in the places you’ll be driving. For instance:
Despite prohibitive laws, driver use of handheld devices is common in Portugal. On-the-spot fines are legal, and many police cars are equipped with portable ATM machines.
In New Zealand, it’s commonplace for drivers to run red lights.
In both Honduras and Colombia, there are many unmarked minefields, and straying off main roads can be dangerous.
Also in Honduras, many drivers have had no training, and vehicles used as taxis are often poorly maintained and devoid of standard safety features including seat belts, brakes, windshield wipers, turn signals and safe tires.
In Nepal, it’s typical for passengers to ride on the roofs of buses, in truck beds, or seated in the edges of open windows with their arms and legs exposed to traffic. In many areas of Nepal, cattle are regarded as sacred, and should you injure or kill one while driving, you’ll face high penalties that may include immediate imprisonment.
In Colombia, pedestrians and motorcyclists account for more than 75 percent of road crash victims. If you’re involved in a crash, leaving the scene or moving your vehicle can be legally interpreted as an admission of guilt under Colombian laws.
Along with these examples, it’s important to never assume responders to emergencies will speak English, or be trained to Western medical standards. Heading to a country where left-hand driving is the norm? Be prepared: Driving on the wrong side of the road is a leading cause of crashes of drivers from right-driving countries, and a major factor in pedestrian fatalities. And if your route takes you to a mountainous region, be aware altitude sickness can cause rapid-onset dizziness and disorientation — never a good thing when your children are counting on you to keep them safe.
An excellent resource for pre-trip planning is the Association for Safe International Road Travel, which offers two- to four-page downloadable Road Safety Reviews for countries all around the globe, each providing valuable information on all the points mentioned above, along with visuals such as road signs and a country map, links to disaster preparedness sites and speed limits.