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Driving in a Foreign Country: What You Need to Know

Women on the Road
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Rather than worrying about infectious diseases or rickety airplanes, the bigger danger when you travel is road safety abroad: driving in a foreign country can be tricky and challenging.

According to the US State Department, fully a third of all American deaths overseas are due to road accidents so it's no wonder the United Nations decided to call 2011 to 2020 the Decade of Action for Road Safety. Bus fatalities are especially perverse, since this is often the preferred form of transportation for budget travelers or those of us who choose to travel locally.

Road Safety Abroad - crowded streetRoad conditions and transports aren't the same in all parts of the world

That's not very helpful though - if we don't want to fly or if there's no train line, how on earth are we supposed to get from A to B if we don't travel by road?

The dangers of driving overseas

There are plenty of reasons why all these deaths and injuries occur:

  • Foreigners might not be familiar with local rules and habits. (Of course this only applies in countries that have rules. In others, you're on your own.) I mean, Italians and Turks can turn a two-lane road into a four-lane free-for-all so even where there are rules they're not exactly being followed.
  • Drivers might be tired and disoriented. Renting a car just off a transatlantic flight isn't exactly wise.
  • Confusion about which side of the road to drive on. Not everyone drives on the same side of the road as you do. Most of the Western Hemisphere drives on the right, with a few exceptions - especially former British Caribbean colonies. Most of Europe is also on the right, except the UK, and Africa and Asia have a bit of both, usually depending on their history. Beware - sides may change when you cross a border, which can be extremely confusing, like getting off the ferry from France to the UK, for example.
  • New arrivals might want to try driving like the locals do - however badly - but they've had years of experience.
  • Getting lost in places you don't know doesn't help either.
  • The weather. Long-distance travel could take you through hail and rain and fog and snow, all in a day.
  • In poorer countries roads might be awful, full of potholes (as when I visited Nigeria) large enough to swallow entire cars, or mud or sand or unlit or unmarked.
  • Signs could be unfamiliar. Not everyone knows what a silver diamond with a yellow border and a black diagonal slash means.
  • Other drivers might be careless or ignorant or plain bad.
  • The equipment might be lousy - brakes failing on a high mountain road can plunge dozens to their deaths.
  • And you haven't lived until you've passed a cyclist passing a pedestrian passing a goat on the road - all on a blind uphill curve.

If there's one rule I would observe, it's this: whenever possible, stay off the roads at night

Some countries don't believe in headlights - or they believe that keeping your headlights on drains the battery and causes your car to stall. I recall a harrowing night drive across southern Nigeria from Lagos to Ibadan and beyond - at night - with no lights. There were several accidents, and I saw a man die crossing the road. Driving in Nigeria in daylight is courting fate - driving at night is marrying it. Nigeria of course is just one example - there are unfortunately many others.  

So... what? Stay off ALL foreign roads?

Not likely, especially if you're in places road transport is all you've got. There are a few ways you can stay sane and improve your safety chances.

If you're a pedestrian look both ways, especially if driving is on the other side of what you're used to. Haven't you ever been pulled out of the way of an oncoming bus as you crossed the street? And don't jaywalk. In Switzerland people almost get killed daily because traffic is so regulated that single lanes looping behind you get the green light so cars arrive from invisible directions just as you're convinced the street is utterly empty.

Planning on driving something on two wheels? Fine, if you know what you're doing, but don't use your trip as an opportunity to learn. If helmets aren't compulsory for everyone else, they should be for you. So should be something reflective or very bright on your clothing (in case of bad weather - because you won't be driving at night, will you...).

What are local attitudes towards women drivers? Whether the norm is to try to drive you off the road or give you a wide berth, it's information you should have.

tips for driving in a foreign country

A healthy dose of good luck helps, but so does common sense. If you're doing the driving, you'll research whatever rules exist before you leave home, and learn local signage and rules. You'll often find these on the national tourist board or other tourism sites. Or ask when you get your international driver's license. Posting on expat forums is another good way of getting good driving pointers before you go.

  • Signs and rules often differ from country to country - in much of Europe you have to yield to someone coming from the right, even if you're on what you think is the main road. In many Central European countries, the car climbing a hill has priority over the vehicle heading down. You won't be amused if you have to reverse on ice because you thought you would get through.
  • Make sure you rent a car from a reputable company (try to aim for a sturdy model). It's easy to find out about reputations online these days, and the same goes for bus companies. Some simply have more accidents, so they're the ones you'll avoid.
  • Find out where you're going. Organize your route before you leave. A map is good, a GPS and a map is even better. I say both because I've often been misled by GPS. If you're driving alone, the last thing you want is to have to stop and ask for directions at night because you're lost.Learn to drive a stick shift. Many Americans drive only automatics - yet these are virtually impossible to hire in most countries and where they are available, they are much more expensive - they're considered luxury cars.
  • Learn basic maintenance. In many parts of the world garages will be too far to be of use and you'll have no way of alerting someone if you run into trouble. The best defence is being forewarned and forearmed - with tools and knowledge. Knowing how to change a radiator belt can save your life.
  • Take a course in defensive driving. Knowing how to escape a tight situation is good, but what this will really do for you is boost your confidence. If you've ever tried to cross a crowded bridge in Istanbul at rush hour or battle Rome traffic, you'll know that a bit of additional self-confidence will be more than welcome.
  • Always lock your door and windows. Whether in a poor country or rich, our civilization is unfortunately too unequal and a vehicle driven by a lone woman is a tasty target. From the simple grab and snatch to the violent carjacking, a locked door may be dissuasive enough to encourage a criminal to move on.
  • Don't use your cellphone while driving. This may be legal where you come from but in an increasing number of countries, it is downright illegal to use it at the wheel - even with a hands-free. Phone calls can be traced, so don't try it.
  • Park in a safe place. Ask around. In Italy, even a guarded garage may be unsafe (my insurer declined to renew my contract after my third radio was stolen in Italy - in a guarded parking lot). In many developing countries, you can pay people to watch your car while you're away from it. In East Africa, this strategy guaranteed I'd find my four tyres intact - rather than my vehicle sitting on a bunch of old stones (that's happened too).
  • Gas and petrol stations may not be as plentiful as back home. If you're used to letting your gauge drop to below half, you'd better learn new habits. In some countries where there is a fuel shortage, stations are closed or there may not even be any. You'll have to stock up or carry your fuel with you.
  • Animals on the road can be a major hazard. Kangaroos in Australia, wild boar in France, monkeys and other primates in southern Africa... you never know what's going to jump out at you. When roads aren't that well-traveled, animals don't fear them as much.
  • If you're from the US or Canada you may be accustomed to turning right when the light is red. Don't! In most countries, red means red.

Not all cars are made alike.

In wealthy countries, you can count on a late model rental car. In developing countries, your rental car may leave something to be desired. It may be an old model, with no airbags, or much much worse. Most countries won't rent you a car if you're under 21 - and in some countries it's 25, even if you have an international driver's licence. Just make sure you rent from a reputable company.

DO YOU NEED AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT to drive abroad?

Oh yes, and make sure you check if you need an international drivers' license - you don't want to have to part with a fine each time you're stopped.

Driving abroad doesn't always require getting an international driver's license - but in many cases it helps, especially in countries where English may not be understood well.

Formally called an international driving permit, or IDP, this passport-size card confirms to police and car rental agencies that you passed a driving test in your country and are therefore allowed to drive. The IDP has your photo and a translation of your driver’s license into ten languages.

You should apply for an international driver’s license in your home country, not at your destination. The cost varies, but it’s not hugely expensive when compared to an international travel visa, and it’s valid for a year after issue

There are no classes or exams involved, but you must already have your own driving license or permit.

Coping with a road accident overseas

Here's hoping this never happens because getting into trouble in a foreign land is not good news.

This is where knowing local usage comes in very handy. In Algeria years ago I was warned never to stop if I ever hit someone while driving (fortunately I never had to test this particular piece of advice). The family would try to punish the driver, I was told, and punishment could go as far as lynching. Imagine not knowing that.

In some countries you'll have to call a special number, in others just ask someone to fetch a police officer. Either way you need to know what to do.

In any case make sure you get in touch with your embassy if you're involved in an accident or confronted with police, because if you're in serious trouble they'll be the only ones willing to help you. You certainly won't be able to rely on local authorities.

That said...

Sometimes you really can't help it. Your only choice from one city to the next may be a disreputable company and unless you want to backtrack, you'll take your chances, and most times you'll be fine - and a bit more aware.

Some particularly dangerous roads

  • Bolivia's unpaved 'Road of Death', a series of hairpin curves along 1000-meter cliffs
  • Similarly named and for similar reasons, BR-116 in Brazil between Curitiba and Sao Paolo
  • The Costa Rican segment of the Pan American Highway
  • The Dalmatian Coast of Croatia
  • In Ecuador, the road from Quito to Cotopaxi Volcan park, especially if it floods
  • In Egypt, Luxor to Hurghada: no lights, and possible bandits or terrorists
  • Barton Highway, Australia, between Canberra and Melbourne
  • Skippers Road in New Zealand - no guardrails, huge drop-offs, no turnarounds
  • Halsema Highway in the Philippines (I've been on this one and still shake at the memory of its height and plunging unguarded edges)

And then there are those Alpine passes wide enough only for one vehicle, the newly-tarmacked surfaces of Sumatra, the tiny streets of historic Italy... Each time I prepare to ride a dodgy vehicle or climb a hair-raising road, I am petrified. While that doesn't stop me, I do take the train or fly whenever I can.

Please don't forget your travel insurance if you plan to be driving abroad! I used World Nomads for years but they only cover you until you're 66 (70 in some countries). If that birthday has come and gone, click here for travel insurance recommendations that cover you at any age.

international driving resources

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