If you’re traveling abroad and plan to drive on unfamilar roads, keep in mind that the rules and requirements for driving in a foreign country may be much different than what you’re used to. It’s not enough to know they drive “on the ‘wrong’ side of the road” where you’re going — in order to stay safe and secure on the road, it pays to know how international driving standards differ.
Have the Permits
One of the first steps you should take before traveling is to apply for an International Driving Permit. These can be obtained from either the American Automobile Association or the National Auto Club. You must be at least eighteen and have a valid US license to get an IDP. Getting an IDP costs less than twenty dollars and acts as handy as a form of identification even if you’re not planning to drive while on vacation. The IDP is valid in over 150 countries. But plan ahead — it may take up to six months to get a valid IDP.
Know the Rules
To keep safe and avoid complications while driving abroad, find a copy of the rules of the road for the countries you’ll be visiting. Information is usually available at either foreign embassies Stateside, or tourism offices abroad. You might also check with your travel agency or the car rental company, if you’re renting a vehicle. Don’t assume the rules are the same as, or even similar to, what you’re used to at home.
For example, alcohol laws in Europe and the United Kingdom are much more restrictive than in the United States — penalties are harsher, and the legal blood alcohol levels are often lower. Many Europeans will take public transportation and not drive at all if they’re planning to have even one drink during the evening. And if you’ve been convicted of drunk driving in the United States, you may not be able to drive in Canada at all.
Even the most basic rules of the road might be different. In Germany, the right-of-way belongs to vehicles on the right — and passing on the right is generally illegal. German Vorfahrtstraßen (priority road) signs give some roads right-of-way over others, and many of their street schematic signs are different from those in the U.S.
The legal driving age may also be different in some countries. Some countries require separate permits to use divided highways. Seatbelt laws may also be more severe than they are Stateside, so be safe and buckle up. Even little differences, like whether you can turn right on red or use a cell phone at all while driving, can differ wildly from one area to another — so stay informed.
Of course, should you have an accident or run into local authorities, it will be helpful to be able to communicate meaningfully, so if possible, brush up on your foreign language of choice before traveling.
Know Your Coverage
Don’t assume that because your car insurance company covers you at home, that it will cover you abroad as well. Check and find out what your insurance can do for you overseas, especially when it comes to medical assistance in case of an accident. In some countries, a “green card” is proof of minimum insurance, so ask your insurance company if they can provide you with one. Most of all, just be aware of what is and isn’t covered by your insurance, so you can plan accordingly.
Safety is another important concern when traveling abroad. Foreign countries not only have different laws and enforcement levels, but may have different safety regulations. For instance, the yellow-hooded “Co-Co” taxis in Cuba are not recommended to tourists, as they have no safety belts or safety features at all. The Bureau of Consular Affairs advises caution in Havana at night, as many secondary roads are not well-maintained and road signs are confusing and sometimes missing altogether.
As always, staying informed is your best safeguard against trouble on the road, both overseas and at home. Take some time to learn the rules and regulations, and keep your vacation memorable — for the right reasons!
Leslie Collins is a long time writer for www.PimsleurApproach.com. She has learned to speak Spanish through the program and enjoys traveling, coffee, discovering new cultures, and hikes with her golden retriever.