Driving in Europe - true bliss

09:13, Jul 30 2012

After spending three weeks driving around eastern Europe recently, it was a shock to reacquaint myself with kamikaze Kiwi driving. Guess the calm and courtesy overseas stems from the fact that there are so many other vehicles on the road. Many Kiwis seemingly drive as if there's no one else around. Indicating seems to be a forgotten art. Staying close to the centre line when waiting to turn right? I don't think so; everyone else can wait as well. Undertaking on the inside lane and then carving a hole back into the traffic where there isn't one? Sure, why not if it gets you there a few seconds sooner? Where does this race-'em-beat-'em attitude come from?

Driving in Europe seems a bit less stressful, despite the traffic volumes. They're so courteous. Perhaps it's also because they're forever dealing with confused tourists. Much of the anxiety of driving for foreigners is relieved nowadays thanks to the advent of sat nav, which not only tells you exactly when to turn off, virtually to the metre, but also directs you away from traffic snarlups to quieter roads when appropriate. How good is that? And the system is invariably right. It's hard to imagine how much of a nightmare it must have been before sat nav was invented. Even if you make a mistake the system quickly recalculates and redirects you back on track.  

Most of the main thoroughfares in Europe are dual carriageway, i.e. at least two lanes for each direction, separated physically by either barriers or green belts. That means the slow lane is inhabited by trucks which may only travel at 80kmh, while the outside lane is reserved essentially for passing. Most adhere to this rule because average speeds are considerably higher than here. Vast tracts of Europe are flat as a salt pan, so main arterial routes don't need that many corners. That's why the speed limit on these roads is generally 130kmh. Everything travels at that pace, even superminis. Most cars are doing 140kmh and we often encountered cars cruising at 160kmh-plus. Many of these highways in Eastern Europe are pay roads, but when it's possible to do upwards of 1000km per day without undue hardship, you willingly pay for the privilege of using them.

Especially because such road surfaces have NO. COARSE. CHIP. What a joy, travelling long distance by car with almost zero road noise. Law enforcement? Once we saw two Policia cars dealing to a minor traffic collision. Patrol cars out trying to catch speeding motorists? I don't think so. They have speed cameras for that, and they seem to be a rarity where we went. At least I hope they were.

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Another sensible thing we could emulate. In European cities, the amber light illuminates for a second or two before the green light, giving motorists a heads up to be ready to rumble. It's another small but meaningful way to keep traffic flowing optimally. Pedestrians are also warned how long before their green crosslight turns red, with a timer counting down the seconds. Jaywalking is rare.

Another fantastic aspect of driving in Europe is that cyclists are, for the most part, isolated from motorists. They have their own cycleways, not only in rural areas but in the major cities as well. And if not, they share widened footpaths with pedestrians. Strolling around, you soon learn not to wander into their section of the footpath.

However, if it seems Europe is some sort of motoring Utopia, it's not. Even the more interesting driving roads are generally snarled with traffic. We encountered one such thoroughfare, not unlike many here, and were held up for about 20 minutes by a truck that refused to pull over. Sound familiar? Everyone following was being patient enough. At least I thought so until some muppet in a ute figured he'd have a crack, overtaking on an unsighted uphill section of road. We hung right back figuring there'd be a calamity, but by some miracle he and his family got away with it.

Back in Auckland, the lousy weather is the most obvious difference from a sweltering Europe, but the selfish driving attitude is in marked contrast to how most Europeans conduct themselves. I will miss the fast flowing pace and quiet surfaces of their main highways. And even more their general adherence to the rules, and their patience and courtesy that are so often absent here.

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