Taking the right road

Taking the right road

Driving in a foreign land poses a plethora of risks for the international traveller. Roger St Pierre assesses the hazards and how to face them

First published in ITIJ 93, October 2008

Driving in a foreign land poses a plethora of risks for the international traveller. Roger St Pierre assesses the hazards and how to face them

Despite rapidly increasing fuel costs, motoring holidays remain a popular vacation option in most regions of the world. However, as motoring organisations across Europe are quick to point out, too many drivers still take to the roads of foreign lands without adequate preparation or insurance cover, with the vast majority not taking out any form of international breakdown coverage. It doesn’t end there. Commonsense and, in many European countries, legislation, means equipping yourself with more than just a Sat Nav and a Michelin guide.

Come prepared

In France and Spain, for instance, cars must carry spare bulbs, a first-aid kit, a fluorescent jacket per person and a warning triangle (two in Spain). Right-hand-drive cars must be fitted with headlamp diffusers. For Greece, add a fire extinguisher; while a fully charged cellphone, though not required by law, is a should-have accessory.

Like speed limits and drink/drive regulations, such requirements make sense. Research shows that someone wearing a fluorescent jacket in the dark will be seen by an approaching driver some three seconds sooner than someone who isn’t. That’s a massive 42 metres at 30 mph. Laws requiring dipped headlights at times of poor daytime visibility and seat belts for all occupants at all times have had a big impact in reducing accident levels and while nowhere approaching the money spent on airport security, making driving safer is receiving ever greater attention from vehicle designers, road planners and other government and private agencies.

As well as the above, it’s also sensible to carry some basic spares, along with a decent tool kit. A worrying feature of many modern designs is that spacesavers, or no spare wheel at all, are fitted to many cars. Yes, a skinny spacesaver will get you home – at a restricted 50 mph – but that’s not much use if you are at the start of a two-week touring holiday and nobody locally stocks the right size of replacement tyre.

by far the majority of drivers venturing outside their own countries still do so without proper cover.

In most countries, drivers must carry their licence and their insurance documents too; while, in many countries, an International Driving Permit (IDP) – obtainable from the driver’s own national motoring organisation or such assistance companies as Green Flag – is also required. IDPs are valid for just one year. Take your own car to many parts of the world and you will also need a customs carnet.

Fail to produce the right kind of licence in Japan and you face a massive fine, arrest and possible deportation. If you are there for any length of time then an IDP will not suffice, you will have to apply for a Japanese licence. Nor will an IDP be accepted in Nigeria, where a local licence is mandatory. That’s a country where the advice is not to travel after dark as streets are poorly lit, many vehicles have no lights and bandits and police roadblocks are ever-present hazards.

Wherever you drive, breakdown cover is essential and there is today a network of assistance companies ready to offer their services, even in some of the world’s less developed nations, but, amazingly, by far the majority of drivers venturing outside their own countries still do so without proper cover.

Moreover, the basic levels of insurance cover offered in most hire car transactions is rudimentary and, especially in the US, adding on such items as collision damage waver and personal injury cover can end up costing almost as much as the hire itself, yet should be regarded as essential.

Rules of the road

Drivers hiring an unfamiliar make and model of car need to take time to properly learn the controls. And then there’s the problem of left-hand or right-hand drive, and driving on the left or right side of the road. I have in front of me a well-thumbed copy of the Royal Automobile Club’s 1913 International Drivers Handbook. It reveals that in that pioneering era, the rules of the road were that you drove on the left-hand side of the road in some of Austria’s cantons and on the right in others! Things were even more confusing in Italy, where traffic kept right in the city centres and out in the countryside, but switched to the left-hand side of the road in the suburbs – which might explain why some modern Italian motorists seem to spend a lot of their time driving down the middle!

Today, it is a common perception in some countries that it is just the Brits who are out of step by driving on the left. The truth is, though, that while the balance is shifting now that so many Chinese are getting motorised, up until recently there was close on a 50/50 split.

Sweden changed overnight from left to right back in September 1967. However, the traffic in 74 other nations still keeps to the left – as it did almost everywhere, pre-Napoleon – against 166 ‘righties’. Besides the UK and Ireland, ‘lefties’ include Australia, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, New Zealand, Pakistan, most of the Caribbean and much of Africa, including South Africa, Kenya and Malawi.

There’s plenty more in countries around the world to confuse visiting drivers. Rules can vary from state to state or even from town to town, creating problems not just for visitors but for their insurance companies, who experience substantially elevated claim levels – though these are mitigated to a degree by visitors tending to take more care than locals. Too often, though, confusion reigns. In some parts of America, you can turn right against a red light, in others you can’t, while some states allow overtaking on the inside and others don’t.

There have been numerous moves to standardise such things as general rules of road usage and road signage but even in this age of a global economy and an ever more affluent and mobile world population, it’s difficult to standardise things when so many different languages, cultures and traditions are involved and when some nations measure in miles and others in kilometres.

A global guesstimate is that close on two million unfortunates will die on the world’s roads this year, nearly half of them in the rapidly modernising Asia Pacific region.

The French have, for instance, adopted the use of ‘Stop’ signs, but in French Canada they’ve stuck to the old French word ‘Arret’. And in most parts of the world, traffic lights are placed before the junction, while in the US – where, incidentally, they drive on the parkway and park on the driveway – the stoplights are located on the far side.

Motoring madness

Wherever one takes to the roads it can be a hazardous process. According to UN statistics, around 3,000 people die on the world’s roads each day – that’s a 9/11-scale tragedy yesterday, today, tomorrow and the day after. It’s a sobering thought, but it’s said that, in little over a century the car has killed more people than all the wars in our sorry human history.

The problem is of a monumental scale. The World Health Organisation’s comprehensive 1999 study ‘World Health Report – Making a Difference’ revealed that in 1990 road accidents as a cause of death or disability stood in ninth place out of a total of more than 100 separately identified causes. Current forecasts are that road accidents as a cause of death will be up to sixth place by 2020, and will also by then be in second position in terms of years of life lost.

Such is the measure of international concern at a global level that the World Bank, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies and various other organisations recently set up the Global Road Safety Partnership to monitor the problem and seek solutions. Problematically, the most recent statistics they are presently able to call on are some eight years out of date – eight years during which there has been a massive growth in car usage. These figures are currently in the process of being updated – a mammoth task, as different standards and criteria have till now been used across the world and even within each territory.

Taiwan’s Department of Health, for instance, reported 130 per cent more deaths than did the nation’s police figures, while a recent study in Pakistan revealed that more than half of all road accident deaths went unreported by the police. Under reporting is also prevalent in China, where the Beijing Traffic Engineering Research Institute estimated that in1994 some 111,000 Chinese road users died in traffic accidents, a figure 40 per cent higher than that recorded by the police.

A global guesstimate is that close on two million unfortunates will die on the world’s roads this year, nearly half of them in the rapidly modernising Asia Pacific region. In addition, somewhere between 25 and 35 million people will be injured.

Zero drink/drive tolerance policies, speed cameras, tighter policing, on-the-spot fines and other measures have made an impact, but figures can waver. Japan, for instance, experienced a massive 80 per cent growth in road fatalities through the ‘Sixties, reduced it again by 50 per cent in the following decade through massive road safety investment, then saw figures rise again substantially during the ‘Eighties at a time of greatly increased car ownership and lower levels of investment in safety measures.

Asia and Africa remain the global accident black spots, with Ethiopia experiencing a tragic 190 deaths per year for each 10,000 licensed vehicles – compared to just 10 in Japan. Malaysia, Tanzania and Korea also have continuing bad records while Latvia is far and away the worst place for road fatalities in Europe. Measured in terms of road deaths per 100,000 population, China – most of whose population is still pedestrian – comes out better than the UK and far better than the US but, again, that’s because car ownership is at a far lower level.

In human terms, the cost of all the carnage is huge, in monetary terms it’s colossal, totalling around US$600-billion annually. That equates to as much as two per cent of GNP in highly motorised countries.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. While road deaths have continued to rise in the Africa, Latin America and Asia Pacific regions – which is not surprising given greatly increased vehicle ownership – they have actually fallen by around 10 per cent in North America and Western Europe over the past decade.

Tips from the top

The world’s most popular tourist haunts are also among the most dangerous places for visiting motorists. It’s bad enough having local drivers to cope with but when you mix together the different driving standards and attitudes of a multitude of nationalities then the mix can be, well, crash, bang, wallop. Mopeds and small motorbikes are available for rental in most popular holiday destinations but crash helmets are not always available. They might not be a legal requirement but failure to wear one will invalidate any personal injury claim on most travel insurance policies.

Needless to say, driving standards and road habits vary enormously from country to country. Watch out for older drivers in Ireland, for instance: those over a certain age have never had to take a driving test! And beware of places like the French Riviera and the crowded roads of Los Angeles, as well as the dirt roads of the Andes and North Africa, and watch out for the foot to the floor pace of Paris and of the throng of cyclists in Amsterdam – have an accident with one of them and you will automatically be deemed to be at fault.

An interesting chat entry on Frommer’s Guides’ popular Travel Talk Web link reads: “Argentinean drivers are aggressive, rude and have poor skills. Driving out in the country wasn’t too bad but I don’t recommend driving after dark as people and livestock roam the roads and many drivers don’t use their headlights. It’s nerve wracking to say the least.”

Besides adapting to the rules of the country or even the county they are visiting, and at the same time adhering to the rules of their travel insurance policy, those travelling abroad need to be mindful of the equipment they use. There used to be two kinds of car: bad and worst. Nowadays they are good and better. However, breakdowns are still a fact of motoring life and the sales pitch for taking out adequate assistance coverage is a strong one.

Latvia is far and away the worst place for road fatalities in Europe.

Some national services, like the UK’s National Breakdown automatically include 90 days international European cover within their breakdown policies. Others offer full Continental recovery as a separate product. “International breakdown and recovery policies are becoming more popular all the time. People who used to cross their fingers and take a chance on all being well are now seeking peace of mind before they set off on their international motoring forays,” says Martin Vial, CEO of the Europ Assistance Group, who recently announced that his company’s turnover cracked the €1 billion barrier last year, with a healthy 18 per cent growth in profits. “The contribution in those figures of the travel assistance sector rose from 28.2 per cent to 29.1 per cent. It is obvious that there is massive room for growth in international breakdown coverage and we are constantly developing new and improved products.”

Travel insurance products and their related international breakdown and recovery policies have adapted in recent years to the changing pace and risk associated with life on the open road, but there will surely be more work to do as different regions of the world are shown to be safer or more dangerous in terms of road usage. With car hire such a commonplace element of holidays taken all over the world, the issue of road safety when drafting and underwriting a travel insurance policy is one that is here to stay and one that will become more prevalent as vehicle usage increases around the world, and international road standards are drafted.