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~ ~ These days many package holidays to the Continent or the States often include car hire in the deal, or at a fairly small add-on cost. A car can give you more freedom to explore the country you are visiting, but for many the prospect of driving on the right (or in our case, the WRONG) side of the road can be a very daunting prospect. In reality, we are one of the few countries in the world who still insist on driving on the left-hand side of the road. Recently, there has even been talk here in Ireland of changing over to driving on the right. (We change over totally to kilometres instead of miles on all our speedometers and road signs in January 2004)
~ ~ But driving on the right neednít be as frightening as you might think, if you take some precautions, and prepare properly. I can well remember the first time I drove in Europe. It was the mid-80ís in France, and I was driving my own BMW 525. Obviously, the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car, and this combined with the unfamiliar road signs (which I didnít even understand very clearly) and general confusion I was feeling made life very uncomfortable indeed. So unless you are a experienced driver, and used to driving on the right, my first piece of advice would be to make sure you are driving a left-hand drive car. With a UK (or Irish) car you take your life in your hands every time you pull out to overtake a slower moving vehicle, as you literally cannot see what is coming towards you until you are already well out on the wrong side of the road.
~ ~ Another good idea is to rent a car with an automatic gearbox. The first time I drove a left-hand drive vehicle, I kept banging my left hand off the driverís door, as I instinctively reached for the gear lever. With an automatic, you have one less thing to think and worry about, which leaves your mind free to concentrate fully on the road itself.
~ ~ And concentrate you must, for even a momentary lapse of attention can leave you counting the cost both in monetary terms and in personal injury (or worse) to both yourself and your passengers. Be very careful when you are approaching a roundabout. Obviously, your natural instinct and driving Ďmemoryí tells you to go around it in a clockwise direction, when in fact you have to do exactly the reverse! Get it wrong and you suddenly find yourself faced with cars coming directly towards you, often at a rapid rate of knots, and youíll be lucky to avoid a nasty accident. This is the very LAST thing you want to have to deal with when you are away on holiday, never mind the distress and pain if someone is badly injured.
~ ~ Take great care when you are turning onto a minor road from a main road. Again, your driving Ďmemoryí and instinct tries to make you go onto the wrong (the left) side of the road. Itís not so bad when youíre turning right, as youíre already on the right hand side of the road. But it can be hard to control your natural inclinations when youíre making a left hand turn across on-coming traffic. Think well ahead, and always keep alert, especially at road junctions like these, as your attention tends to be directed more towards what the other traffic is doing rather than what you are doing yourself. Itís VERY easy to suddenly find yourself on the wrong side of the road in a situation like this, and in serious difficulty.
~ ~ Foreign motorways can be another major hassle and nightmare. Motorway traffic on the Continent (speed limits notwithstanding!) tends to be very fast and furious. Itís certainly far faster than the average motorway or dual carriageway here in Ireland or the UK. When I returned from holiday in Italy this year, and got into my own car at the airport for the drive home, I literally felt like I was standing still at the legal limit of 70mph, so used had I become to the faster pace of driving over in Italy, even after only a couple of weeks visit. When youíre driving on a Continental motorway, try to always remember that what you are used to being the ďslowĒ lane here at home, is in fact the fast (VERY fast!!) lane over in Europe. Try to use your rear view mirrors more than usual, and never pull out unless you are 100% sure that itís safe to do so. Italian drivers in particular tend to be very aggressive, and wonít give you an inch of leeway in any circumstances. Having given you all the dire warnings, once you actually get used to the faster pace of driving the Continental motorways can be great fun. A couple of years back I had an Alfa 156 (2-litre) out on hire, which is a SERIOUSLY fast motor car, and I had the time of my life giving it some serious welly on the Italian Autostradas.
~ ~ Do be careful of speeding. I was over in Austria last year, and one day I made a 1,000 kilometre round trip to visit a Ciao pal of mine in Vienna. (herb here at Ciao) for a game of golf. (OK. OK. I know Iím a nutter!) I rang him from the hotel the following morning, and was relating to him how quickly I had made the return journey. He was astounded that I had managed to get away with driving at the speeds I had, as the cops very aggressively police the posted speed limits, with large on-the-spot fines dished out to offenders. (Not so different to here, now I come to think of it!) Herb even offered me a drive of his beautiful BMW 745i during my visit, but tempted as I was to take him up on the offer, I really didnít want to take the chance of driving someone elseís (expensive, and very fast!) motor car in a strange city, and on the ďwrongĒ side of the road. But thanks anyways mate. With the speedometer in kilometres, it can be incredibly easy to forget yourself. And when youíre not used to the road signage, and sometimes not even able to make head nor tail out of it, it can be very easy to inadvertently break the rules or speed limits.
~ ~ Parking can be another nightmare! OK. I know that itís a nightmare here in the UK and Ireland as well, but at least here you are (usually) used to the restrictions, and can avoid getting yourself clamped or fined. But when you are on the Continent the safest bet is to park only in official car parks, or else get somebody who speaks good English to explain to you if there are any restrictions. Iíve had more than one parking ticket in Europe (never clamped though, thank God!) that I picked up simply because I didnít take enough time to find out whether I was legally parked or not, or what restrictions were in force. You wont get away with the parking fines either, as the car hire companies will aggressively pursue you for payment.
~ ~ Driving a left hand drive car isnít so very different to what we are used to at home. The single biggest difference is obviously the gear lever, and the fact that you have to use your right hand instead of your left to change gears. It can be a wee bit awkward to start with, as you feel like the gears are in the ďwrongĒ position, but you get used to it after a while. As I suggested earlier, the easiest way around this wee problem is simply to hire an automatic car. Oh, and be sure to get in the proper door! I donít know how many times Iíve found myself in the passenger seat searching vainly for the steering wheel, only to then realise itís on the opposite side of the car. (heh, heh)
~ ~ Drive carefully when abroad, take a wee bit extra care and stay alert, and all will be well.
PS Ignore the boxes. They don't apply, but you have to fill them in to post the opinion.
Copyright KenJ November 2003
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I found (on my one occasion driving on the Continent) that I was fine in traffic, but when the roads were deserted I was more likely to make a mistake.
Buenosdias 22.11.2003 02:13
Good op, my car is a left hand drive Jeep Chrokee and I love it, I only seem to have problems getting into a right hand drive car ! My right arm always hits the window as I search to find the transmission (which is on the other side - DOH !) Being a high vehicle, overtaking is no problem as I can usually see over the vehicle in front. Most of the time the Jeep is in built up areas or on the motorway, so far so good ;-) Happy motoring cabbie
m.lyon 21.11.2003 18:51
I'm not even qualified to drive on the left!!! Great op though for those who can. marc