Thinking of competing abroad - what can possibly go wrong? You might ask. I have a good vehicle, I’m a safe driver, it’ll all be fine. Well it might well be - and I hope it is - but there are reasons to be rather more cautious and better prepared. Continental terrain is much more varied than here, you could encounter freezing conditions and stifling heat-waves within days of each other, climb thousands of metres up demanding alpine passes, drive thousands of kilometres instead of hundreds and do all this on the wrong side of the road where both driving regulations and local driving customs differ from our own! Good preparation is the key to enjoying what is to come. The preparation and planning needs to include not just the vehicle but also the driver and passengers, the vehicle documentation and some protection against disaster. OK disaster is only an outside chance but do you really want to get stuck with a hospital or vehicle recovery bill amounting to thousands of pounds?
So what are the tips? Let’s start with the vehicle. Do any servicing and safety checks a few weeks in advance so that any ensuing little problems can be found and sorted before you set off. Some people find having a recent vehicle plating both more efficient and cheaper than asking a garage to ‘check it over’ but this only looks at the mechanicals, it doesn’t look for problems in cooling, ignition and fuel, some of the most common causes of breakdowns. Tyres are usually under a lot of stress on long trips - so check that there aren’t any cuts or bulges or crazing anywhere and that they will still be within the 2mm European limits after the trip. Also find out about the tyre pressures needed for running fully loaded so that you can inflate them properly before you start piling in the horses and equipment. It might pay to carry a pressure gauge as well since many foreign gauges only show ‘bar’ not p.s.i. Make sure your anti-freeze is up to strength - yes radiators can freeze in alpine regions even in Summer! Test your cooling fan is working properly, you might not need it in Britain but if you get stuck in a jam in Continental heat or have to labour up a mountain pass fully loaded you’re going to need it in earnest.
Stock up early with the legal requirements - GB sticker, beam benders, first aid kit, bulb kit, extinguisher and warning triangle - two triangles for some countries and Bright hazard jacket. Make sure you’ve got a supply of British headlamp bulbs, they’re nearly impossible to get outside the UK and absolutely essential for any night driving and in tunnels too! The days of carrying umpteen spare parts are pretty much over but do always carry a universal alternator belt, a pair of heavy duty jump leads, some basic tools and spare fuses. Don’t carry spare fuel, it’s now prohibited in many countries and will cause you more headaches than it's worth. Finally make sure that all passengers, especially children, have enough to occupy them and make them comfortable throughout the trip, there’s nothing worse than driving hundreds of kilometres on foreign soil with a fractious and bad tempered bunch in the back and we are not referring to the horses!! Lastly, get yourself some Euros for the few tolls and service stations that don’t take plastic and that’ll be another little crisis avoided.
Next the documents and insurance - boring stuff but vital just the same. Unlike here, you must carry your driving licence - the new British pink ones are fine but the old green ones aren’t and while the new photo cards are best you must remember to carry the paper portion as well while abroad. You also need to carry your insurance certificate showing that Continental use is allowed a letter from your garage on headed paper saying the vehicle has been checked and is fine for a journey of up to 3000km. You will need your plating certificate and the V5 registration document and a letter of authority if your name and address aren’t on the V5! These things do catch people out and you may be asked to show them. It pays to have a duplicate photocopied set kept separately to the originals - we include copies of our passports and tickets too. Green cards aren’t needed in many places anymore but you should ensure that your insurance certificate does show that you are covered. Some certificates have the European cover set out in several languages on the reverse, your insurance company should be able to do the same and do remember that you must tell them you’re going to be sure you’re fully covered. Do not travel through Europe without breakdown cover. An astonishing one in eight horseboxes need assistance of some kind while abroad. If you don’t have adequate European cover it can be very difficult, very time consuming, and very expensive to get yourself sorted after an accident or breakdown.
So, just what are the problems and what are the essentials for a successful trip? The basic problem is unfamiliarity and the essential tip is to behave like a local. You will find all the essential rules and regulations for each country in many different pamphlets and books such as the “Driving Abroad” from Haynes manual, but the real trick is to fit in with local driving customs. Let me give you some examples. German drivers have exceptional lane discipline on two and three lane autobahns, moving out for just long enough to overtake then straight back in again to the nearside, so any tendency to linger out there on your part will be met with full beam headlamps in your mirrors. French town & city drivers make good use of the European ‘give way to the right’ rule, they barely pause at junctions, filtering straight out into the traffic flow - so you need to give way to them when they do, and also to make sure you don’t stop when they’re not expecting you to. Look around you, give yourself time and space to see what the majority are doing and go with that.
The unfamiliar can cause problems too. All driving pushes enormous amounts of information at you at a tremendous pace but at home we know what to ignore and what to concentrate on. Abroad we all have much more difficulty sorting out the priorities, especially at busy town and city junctions. Even on the motorway unfamiliar names, numbers and other signs all make for a less relaxed drive. To some extent that good preparation we talked about earlier will help you here - a good route plan taking into account both national and European ‘E’ route numbers; a good guide book telling you about the dreaded ‘give way to the right’ rule, about the yellow diamond sign meaning it doesn’t apply on this road and that French ‘vous n’avez pas la priorité’ sign approaching a roundabout meaning the British system applies - priority on the roundabout. One thing to keep firmly in your mind in all countries is the three different kinds of red road signs, they’re the same in any European language - the prOhibition circle, the wArning triangle and the inforMative square. This really helps when there are lots of signs, at least you can work out which are the most important!
Talking of multiple signs, do be prepared for multiple speed limits - different for cars and horseboxes and different in the dry and in the rain too. If weight limits apply you'll see the usual speed repeater signs with the weight limit displayed immediately underneath - often 7.5t but sometimes 3.5t so in some places quite a few horseboxes are speed limited. Note also that speed limits are often applied much more strictly than here. Many German exit roads have cameras and those that don’t are sometimes so tight that cameras are not needed! The French and Italians have another trick up their sleeves, they monitor average speeds between tolls using your recorded check in times so make sure that your speed limiter is up correctly calibrated. There are also some new limiter laws that apply to Europe and not the UK - see our Speed Limiters Page for more details! Town centre speed cameras are commonplace throughout developed Europe and may have very little tolerance compared with the British equivalent. Another quick caution on the legal side, most EU countries have tighter drink-driving limits than Britain so be very careful about alcohol consumption.
The most obvious problem is driving on the opposite side of the road. On modern busy roads this isn’t too bad, make sure you’ve got to get used to checking your road position and using the left mirror for following traffic but generally it’s not too difficult. Quiet roads and roundabouts are another thing altogether! Even worse is a small quiet road that you join first thing in the morning or after a stop for lunch or even just after filling with petrol - that’s when the vital clues are missing and you make that momentary mistake that can cost you dear! Quiet roads without white lines are the worst of all. A co-driver can help here since it’s well worth repeating to each other every time you’re about to make a manoeuvre “think right - look left”. Have this message stuck to your steering wheel too. As long as you both agree to this routine at the outset it’s not a problem repeating it endlessly and it prevents the dangerous confusion that can be generated by sudden late warnings. A disciplined co-driver who makes small well defined contributions but doesn’t become over-excited is worth their weight in gold! This co-operation is needed for overtaking too. Do remember that your passenger can help but can never make the final decision for you and also that the following traffic needs to know your intention while all this is going on!
There’s more, of course, but we simply can’t cover everything here, We hope we have got you thinking about how to approach driving in Europe and how to plan for a successful trip. Lets hope the competitions go just as well.
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