Why We Miss Driving In The US

We are lucky to have a car and be able to drive here.  Nevertheless, it is a lot more stressful than driving in the US. The rules, the road signs, the cars, the roads and the other customs are all different.  Because they aren’t yet second nature and we learned in a different environment, driving takes a lot more effort.  We don’t think of Sunday drives here as relaxing.  Here’s why we miss driving in the US.

The signs are different.

  • Speed limit signs are round with a number indicating the speed limit (in k.p.h.).  Unfortunately, we haven’t seen many of them.  More often, we see circular signs with a slash through them.  They indicate that the listed speed limit has just ended.  We would find it much more helpful if the new speed were posted.  These signs mean that the limit reverts to the standard speed limit posted at the borders.

Speed Limit

  • We find this especially difficult because we live mere miles from the French border.  The limits differ in France.  I get the default speeds confused.
  • Due to Europe’s multi-linguality, many road signs have symbols instead of words.  Modifiers (such as, only farm vehicle are permitted) are always given in the local language, which we probably won’t understand.
  • Traffic lights are rarely above the road.  Instead, they are mounted on posts on either side of the road.  I have found myself in the left lane watching the stoplight on the right side (I missed the light for my left turn).  The lights change from red to yellow (before becoming green), giving everyone a change to get a great start off the line.
  • Street names frequently change, at irregular intervals and without warning.  It is even more problematic because there aren’t signposts at intersections.  Street signs are posted on the corner of buildings, just above the ground floor.  This makes them harder to see from the car.  Sometimes they are missing.  Other times, they are in a different language than what is listed in the guidebook.

The rules of the road differ from the US.

  • There is no right turn on red.  Given the may complex intersections, it is understandable (but still slightly frustrating when you are sitting in traffic).
  • The speed limit drops when the road is wet.  What qualifies as wet?  A drop? A rainstorm?
  • Here, yellow diamonds indicate priority.  In the US, priority is generally standard given your location.  Roads here tend to intersect at bizarre angles and turn randomly.  As such, they need a different way to show priority.  They use yellow diamonds (intersecting roads have yield markings).  In the absence of signs, it isn’t the first vehicle on the spot, but the vehicle coming from the right that has the right of way.  Approaching intersections, I constantly worry about whether I have missed a sign…

Customs are different here.

 

  • Standard transmissions are standard.  Although it doesn’t bother us (unless we are stuck in traffic) a lot of our friends miss having an automatic transmission, particularly on hills.

 

  • Radar detectors are epidemic. Rather than seeing a police car roadside or lurking in a median, inconspicuous radar/camera/strobe lights cameras are everywhere.   We live in constant fear of receiving a giant ticket in the mail.  Why a giant one?  Look below at the section on speed limit signs.

 

  • We were astounded the other week when on our trip through the south of France, people didn’t immediately pull over for an ambulance.  Apparently this is common here.   Even so, it was foreign to us.  In the US, drivers are required by law to pull to the right and stop for all emergency vehicles with siren and lights.  By the way, emergency vehicles here sound just like they do in the Bourne Identity movies.

The roads aren’t the broad, straight avenues that we grew up on in the US.

  • Shoulders?  What are those?
  • Good luck finding a straight road.  The roads are narrow, winding and often steep.
  • The German Autobahn doesn’t always have speed limits.  Fun, but not exactly relaxing.  We didn’t get to take full advantage of it because we spent most of our time on the world’s narrowest lanes in construction.
  • Parking spaces are Texas tight.
  • Car-free pedestrian zones all over.  Usually, there is usually a barrier preventing you from driving  in these areas, not that you would want to.  They usually have crazy streets.  You can’t get into them, but getting around them can take a while.

Oh well, at least the scenery is good.  No Entry

  • More problematic is when there is merely no entry sign with words underneath.  These are easy to miss.  Often, they have words underneath describing which cars are permitted to enter…in another language.  They may allow certain vehicles, like taxis or local residents and business owners, to enter.
  • One way streets.  It isn’t just that you have to make sure that you are going the correct way.  The problem is also that if you miss your turn, you can’t change your route easily.  It can take an extra 20 minutes to get back.
  • Roundabouts (aka traffic circles).  Worse with driving in the UK and you have to go them the other way around.
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Road Signs In South Africa

While we were in South Africa, we saw a number of road signs that we’d never seen before.  Cow. Impalas. Horse. Crocodile.  Enjoy.
We won’t be swimming in that river.
If only I could have gotten out of the car to take a picture in front of the sign…
In areas without signs, street vendors were everywhere.  I’ve never seen so many people roadside.  There were even pedestrians on the sides of highways.
The sign below warns you of flooding.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get one of the sign warning you of no fences.  We were too busy looking at the cow in the road!


 

Driving in Switzerland

We now have our permanent car (isn’t she a beauty) here.  When I am driving in Switzerland, I’m not worried about getting in an accident or even parking in a teeny tiny space.  I’m worried about following all of the rules. Here are some:
  • Seat belts are compulsory for all occupants (expected).
Wearing his seatbelt
  • Children under 12 are not allowed to sit in the front seat without an appropriate child restraint (also expected).
  • No right turn on red.  I can deal with this.
  • Pedestrians always have the right-of-way in pedestrian crosswalks.  I can deal with this.  Unfortunately, the drivers with French plates who consistently try to run me over have difficulty doing so.
  • Hazard lights may only be used to warn of danger.   This is a bit different from driving in the US, where I use them when stopped in front of someone’s house.
  • No honking is allowed after dark.  How else am I supposed to show my road rage? This merits a definitely different.
  • Noise from car or occupants that could disturb people is prohibited.   Does this mean I can’t blast my bass?
  • The minimum driving age is 18.  FYI, the drinking age for wine and beer is 16.
  • Mobile phones may only be used with a hands-free system (similar to the US).
  • Headlights must be used in tunnels.   Logical, but this is not really an issue in Michigan.  On Sunday, I think we went through at least 8 tunnels on our way to Geneva.  By the way, not only do you have to use your headlights in tunnels, the speed limit drops and they use radar to fine you if you are following too closely.  You’ll get a nice little note from the Swiss government in the mail about a week later.
  • Headlights should be on and dipped during daylight hours, especially on major routes.  We can do this.
  • Each car must carry a red warning triangle (reflective vests are not obligatory).  Thank goodness our rental came with it, because I’m not sure where to buy a red warning triangle.  Hmmm… I’d better check to make sure our new car has one.
  • Snow chains are required in some winter conditions.    Who doesn’t love this? Okay, he doesn’t love this. To quote him, “what happened to all season tires?” Mom said, “maybe they don’t have them over here.”  He said, “Michelin? Pirelli?”  We have ours and have paid to store our normal tires for the winter.  You can breathe easy, we are in compliance.
  • It is illegal to drive if the windshield is partly or completely obscured by frost; it is illegal to let the car idle to aid clearing the windshield.   Curses, that was my go to move. I am ashamed to say that I would sit in the front seat drinking coffee and let my car warming up do the work for me. I try to be pretty green, but that was one instance where I didn’t worry about my greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Helmets are compulsory for driver and passenger on all scooters, motorbikes, quad bikes and trikes.  The motorcycles and scooters are so aggressive here and we have already seen several accidents. I can see why they have this rule.
  • Speed limits are enforced with cameras.  If you do not obey this one, you will receive an appropriately Swiss (expensive) speeding ticket in the mail.  The amount is determined by taking a percentage of your income?!?  Expect more on this in future posts.
  • Radar detectors are illegal. Okay.  The dreaded ticket in the mail becomes much more likely without one of these.  Oh yeah,the speed limit is only really posted when it is an exception to the above rules (posted at the border).
  • When driving in a city, town or village, the right of way at an intersection is automatically given to the vehicle on the right – priorité à droite – unless otherwise indicated by stop or yield/give way signs. This applies even in the case of a small side road entering a major main road. The vehicle traveling on the main road must give way to the vehicle entering on the right.   I have just been waiving everyone on ahead and hope that when I am not doing this properly, people appreciate my being nice.  We are working on it.
  • At a traffic circle, the vehicle already on the circle has the right of way over vehicles joining from the right. No problems so far here, but as a nation, the US has great difficulty with the traffic circle.
  • On hill roads, the car travelling uphill has priority over the one coming down.  You should see the narrowness of some of these roads. This makes perfect sense.
  • If a car is not registered in the driver’s name, the driver should carry a letter from the registered owner authorising the use. Very, very different.

 

Les Incompetents Vol. 4 – Five Hours of Grocery Shopping!

When I returned from Belgium, we had no food.  I had to go grocery shopping and stock up.  What does this mean for normal Swiss?  A trip to France. What did it mean for me? Five hours of driving around traffic circles lost and searching for a specific grocery store. D’Oh.

“Hey look kids, there’s Big Ben and there’s parliament!” I didn’t take photos as I was driving, so enjoy Clark Griswold. Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAgX6qlJEMc