Focus On: Cars and driving in Europe

Electric Car Paris

mariordo59/Via Flickr

Millions of high-school-age Americans have gotten their driver’s license this summer. Given that more than a few of them are likely to travel to Europe with EF Educational Tours in 2010, I thought it appropriate to give a quick primer on the differences in car and driving culture between the United States and Europe.

I feel particularly well-suited for the task: I’ve successfully passed driving tests in both the U.S. and Europe. It’s a somewhat different ball game over there (and I’m leaving out Britain and Ireland, where they drive on the left,  because that’s really a different ball game). Here’s the scoop on the fellow right-side drivers of Europe:

Driver’s Ed: Study (very) hard and have your wallet open.  Like the U.S., Europe requires that a candidate pass a written test and a road test. But differences are quickly apparent. First, the written test is a doozie. There are way more traffic signs to learn; while we’re used to helpful hints right there on the sign—e.g., the yield and do-not-enter signs actually having the words YIELD and DO NOT ENTER written on them—the polyglot Europeans depend on a European Union-wide system of signs that is all symbols and colors, and no helpful words. Check out some European signs and their meanings here (scroll down to see the actual signs). Some may seem familiar to anyone who played with Legos as a child—Legos are Danish, and the Danish modeled Lego road signs after real European ones.

Difference #2: Driver’s ed will cost you quite a bit more than it does in the United States. For instance, I spend some 2,000 euros (more than $2,800) getting my driver’s license in Spain, and that was considered average. I attribute some of this difference to the fact that driving is practically a commodity in the U.S., while in Europe—where viable public transportation options always abound—driving is more of an “extra.”  I attribute the rest of the difference to the fact that failing the driver’s test — the written test and/or the road test — is so common that one almost expects to have to do one test or the other at least twice.  I passed the written test by a hair on the first try, but didn’t pass the road text until the third try.  Multiple attempts cost money.

Safety first, taken very seriously: All European drivers are required to have a reflective orange vest and a specially-made road sign (no words, of course) in the car at all times, in the event of a breakdown. The driver must put on the reflective vest before getting out of the car, and then place the small sign 50 meters (150 feet) away from the car to alert oncoming cars to the presence of the stopped vehicle.

Small cars, standard transmission. Automatic cars are very hard to come by in Europe (I had to special-order mine), and you’re not allowed to take your road test with one. I had never driven stick and had to learn as part of my driver’s ed. With my license, I was free to drive my automatic to my heart’s content, but I was not spared the ridicule of European friends who noted (correctly) that I used more gas and surely had less fun (automatics are “grandma” cars in Europe).

And as anyone who’s seen a Smart car knows, automobiles are quite a bit smaller in Europe. So much so that my little Ford Focus was considered something of a bruiser on the European road. That said, larger American-sized cars are ever-more prevalent in Europe; you might see some big SUVs, but probably not any pickups.

Gas is very expensive. And there are two types. Gas in Europe costs the equivalent of $5 or $6 a gallon in many European countries. And depending on your car, you either fill up with gasoline (like here in the U.S.) or diesel. In the EU, diesel isn’t just for trucks—small cars use it, too. When I bought my Ford Focus in Spain, I could choose between one that ran on gasoline (cheaper fuel, but the car burns it more quickly) or one that ran on diesel (more expensive fuel, but the car burns it more slowly; has the edge over gasoline if you’re going to be driving many kilometers per year). I chose gasoline, mostly out of an America-forged mental block about putting diesel in my gas tank.

Parallel parking is a necessary skill. In the United States, you can get by without being very good at parallel parking; you can almost always find a Wal-Mart-style parking lot or a completely unoccupied curb to plunk your vehicle. Not so in Europe, where small openings in a line of cars along a curb are generally all you can hope for. And it is culturally acceptable to use your bumpers: As you back into your parallel-parking target, you know to stop when you bump bumpers with the parked car behind you.

Cars are generally cleaner inside. This is a very non-scientific observation, but after eight years living in Europe, I’d forgotten how, well, “unkempt” some car interiors are here in the United States. I figure there’s two reasons: First, we just use our cars a lot more here (i.e., every day, all day, versus perhaps a few times a week in Europe) and that gives us more opportunities to make a mess; and, second, fast-food drive-thrus: Europe doesn’t have these, and, if car cleanliness is important to the Europeans, they’d best not build any.

Stop lights are located on YOUR side of the intersection, not the other side. In the United States, stop lights are at the other side of the intersection to make it easier for those stopped at the light to see when the light changes. In Europe, the stop light is at the same side of the intersection, i.e., it’s hanging right over the stop line. The driver in the first car would have to twist his head quite unnaturally to see the light and know when to go again—or so I thought (and did) for my first few weeks on the European road. Then I realized that Europeans have helpfully put a small red/green-light indicator at the stop line about 4 feet off the ground, so that this first stopped driver can see it easily out of his side window.

Stop signs are red, octagonal, and have the word “STOP” written in white. Wait! Here’s something that’s not only not different at all from the U.S., but is peculiarly exactly the same. Even in countries where English is not the local language, the stop signs have the English word “STOP” written on them. STOP has become universal for stopping.

So on that note, I’ll stop here and wish you safe travels on whatever roads you find yourselves driving on.

Photo: mattdesmond via Flickr (CC license)

Topics: Culture

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