Yeah, hi there.

First things first: I'm a yankee, a denizen of the USA. During a recent trip to Europe, I rented a car, and subsequently did quite a bit of driving. I wish someone could have given me some practical advice beforehand, and in fact, even lamented that there was no node to that effect.

If you know of a country which varies from what is posted here, please post a writeup below. I'm trying to be as accurate as possible but I didn't visit every country in the EU. :) Thanks to everyone who has provided feedback.

Who this is for

Residents of the US and Canada, primarily, but really, anyone who isn't from Europe will find useful information here.

  • On the Road

    1. Unless you are in the British Isles, drive on the right.
      Because I am lazy, I will refer to the Isles as the UK. (Actually, Ireland isn't part of the UK, but the same rules apply.) One drives on the left side of the road in the UK. See countries that drive on the left for an exhaustive list of the 1/3 of the world that drives on the other side of the road.
    2. Europe is not big on stoplights, and what stoplights there are, are usually either weirdly or just plain badly executed.
      In the USA, you are probably used to pulling up to a red light and seeing the light well-elevated and across the intersection. In Europe, stoplights are usually on the closer-to-you side of the intersection. Practice craning your head. Some civil engineers even go so far as to mount a second, smaller stoplight below the larger one, so that you don't have to crane your neck and somehow figure out how to look around the rearview mirror to see it. Get used to the notion of looking slantwise at the stoplight rather than straight across the intersection. Some stoplights are in weird configurations - i.e. two next to each other with directional arrows. The arrows mean the same things they mean in the US. Follow what the stoplight says, not the position of the individual light that's on. I cannot stress this enough - DON'T expect to interpret the light by the position of the currently-lit lamp alone! For example, you may see a green light, but look closer: there are two banks of traffic lights on the pole, and the green one is just for people turning left. The up arrow (meaning straight-through traffic) may still be red.

      In the UK, the stoplight you should be watching is on the left. This is important at complex intersections, especially where you've got multiple roads merging in from close angles. The green light you see on the right is for the guy on the road coming in just to the right of yours, not for you. (Thanks, Mike1024.) The stoplight you should watch is on the right everywhere else.

    3. Stoplights do not light in exactly the same manner.
      You expect it to go Green, Yellow, Red, Green. What it will actually do is Green, Green+Yellow, Red, Red+Yellow, Green. Sort of like ping pong. It is common for drivers to start when it turns from Red to Red+Yellow, particularly if there isn't any cross traffic draining out of the intersection.
    4. You usually can't turn right on a red light.
      Sorry. Even if there's no cross traffic, you have to wait for it to turn green. (PeterPan tells me there are exceptions to this in Germany.) Obviously, if the light to go straight is red but you have a green right or left arrow, then you can go in the indicated direction, just like here in the States.
    5. Europe has lots of roundabouts.
      Also called rotaries. These are employed in certain older locales in the USA, and amount to a circular drive with roads leading away like spokes from a hub. Here's how it works: Traffic flows counterclockwise in most places, except for the UK, where it flows clockwise. (That should be obvious, since they drive on the opposite side of the road.) You will see a sign placed well ahead of the rotary. It will tell you which way all the roads leading away from the rotary head. As you approach the rotary, watch for traffic coming from your left(or right in the UK). They have the right of way. If the coast is clear, DO NOT STOP at the entrance to the rotary. Just roll through.

      I found that as a US driver, I had a tendency to enter a rotary and then stop for the person waiting to get in from the next road entering the rotary. Duh. A rotary is not a stop sign. Once you get in, you have absolute right of way. The guy behind you will generally honk a lot and think you are from another planet if you do this, so don't get rear-ended.

      Once you are in, just drive to the road you want to exit at, and then turn right onto it. You have the right of way. Just be sure to watch out for walkways, stoplights, stalled vehicles, pedestrians, etc. On rare occasions, you may enter a rotary and then have to yield to a road coming in. Again, this is rare; I only saw a couple like that and they were in large rotaries in big cities. Some rotaries in big cities are two-laned. Be very careful while changing lanes - the thing's round, for fuck's sake!

      Rotaries are cool, and one of the main things I missed for a week after returning stateside. (Then I got over the shits, had an animal-style cheeseburger at In-N-Out, and promptly forgot about the whole thing.)

    6. Right of Way at crossings
      In Europe, they usually call it priority instead of right-of-way. Anyway...

      In certain countries, like France, it is common to see bright red octagonal STOP signs identical to those in the US. They work exactly the same, too. "Stopless" intersections (i.e. no stop sign, signal, or rotary) take a little getting used to. Depending on what country you are in, you may pull up to an intersection where you don't have the right of way. Pretty much like in the US, right of way goes to the "bigger" road, or the road that goes straight through if it's a T-intersection.

    7. Yield markings
      If you pull up to an intersection and there is a line across your road, you don't have the right of way. It's a lot like the line next to a STOP sign in the US, except that it may either be a line of triangles pointing in your direction, or a broken line:
      ---------------     - - - ----------------------
                     |    |    |
                     |    |    |
          north=up   |    |    |
                     |    |    |
                     |    |    |
                     |    |    |
                     |    |    |
      In this illustration, the guy coming up from the south should pull up, see if there is any traffic coming from the left, and roll through (not stop) if there isn't. (Obviously you have to stop if there is cross traffic.)

      The triangle things look like this:

                /    \/\/\/
               /    /    /
              /    /    / 
             /    /    /
            /    /    /
      Same deal as before, just in a different country.

      Then there's this business:

      -----------     /    ---------------------------
                /    /    /
               /    /    /
              /    /    / 
             /    /    /
            /    /    /
      (That's supposed to be a curved line. Sorry for the crude ASCII art.) This means that you have the right of way coming from the south, even though you are not in the straight-through road.

  • On the Freeway

    1. Road rules and courtesy are the opposite of what you are used to at home.

      1. It isn't the fast lane, it's the passing lane.
        Freeways generally have two lanes, occasionally three. The leftmost lane is for passing, not normal driving. Consider this scenario: You are cruising at 140KPH in left lane. Some guy comes up behind you and tailgates you for a couple kilometers. You think s/he/it is being rude. Wrong. In this situation, YOU are the one who is being rude. It is highly impolite to hold up traffic in the passing lane. The norm is to drive in the right lane, using the left lane ONLY for passing - i.e. you duck in and out of it as necessary. Obviously at rush hour both lanes are used for driving.
      2. Road rage isn't the same there.
        By now you should be able to realize that if some guy tailgates you in the left lane and then follows you into the right lane, it is probably not a gesture of aggression. Europeans are accustomed to driving in the right lane most of the time. Of course, you do something like that in Los Angeles, and you'll probably wind up scaring/annoying/enraging the person in front of you. But you aren't in Los Angeles. You're in Europe.

        Oeq1st1 writes, "The left lane is the passing lane in AMERICA. Get out of the way if someone comes up behind you." -- Well, technically, yeah. But in practice, the mentality tends to be, "Hey, fuck you, I'm driving here. You can pass me on the right if you want." In any case, in the US, the norm is to stay in your lane until you have a compelling reason to leave it (as opposed to staying in the "slow lane" all the time and only darting in and out of the fast lane to pass a vehicle or vehicles). Around here, the norm is to speed up to a point when someone presses from behind. After that, we start worrying about speeding tickets.

        stupot writes, "In Scandinavia, it's usual to actually HONK if you want to pass another car. The car should move over as far as possible, and assist the other driver to pass. (I can imagine this being seen as agressive in the US.)" -- Yeah, you're right, honking in the US when nothing bad is happening is considered annoying. Some people flash their lights when they want you to get out of the way.

    2. Get used to the idea of paying a toll.
      Toll roads are not very common in most parts of the US. They are, however, easy to find in Europe. Main highways commonly have free sections (although you need a highway sticker) and toll sections. Slow down and give the nice lady quatre-vingt Francs. Don't worry if you don't know what quatre-vingt means. The toll will be displayed numerically on a little display. Don't worry that you're paying quatre-vingt francs, either; that's only about ten bucks USD. If you are reading this and it's 2002 or later, it won't matter because the Franc will have gone the way of the horse and buggy in favor of the Euro, which is a lot closer in value to the US dollar.
    3. There is no highway patrol per se.
      The speed limit on the highways is generally 120KPH, which is about 75MPH, on long stretches. Near urban centers the speed limit is lower, and you'll do damned well to heed it. Since there are no highway cops, the governments usually place radar speed traps here and there. I know people who have paid the equivalent of about $1,000.00 USD in speeding tickets in their first months of living in Europe. On long, open-road stretches, have a blast: unless you are near a moderately large city, speed traps are rare.
    4. In Europe, highway speed limits may be variable.
      You may see one speed next to a snowflake, another next to a raindrop, and another still next to a picture of the sun. I sure wish we had that here in the US.

  • General Strategy
    • Study up on the language(s) spoken in your target country/countries.
      This should be dead obvious. You don't just go stumbling around like a schmuck saying, "Poo-vay vouss... uhh... decanter... uhh... mwah... uhh... oon tasse d' eau?... Mare-see-bow-kew!!!" ...Same thing for road signs. Learn what the local words for things like Onramp, Exit, Merge, Yield, Caution, etc. are. For example, in English, we call it an offramp. In French, they call it a sortie. In German, they call it an ausfahrt.
    • It isn't necessarily called "gas" over there.
      In the UK, it is called petrol. Look for local-language variants of gasoline, petrol, petroleum, benzine (in Poland the word is pronounced benzinnah), etc. Like Mike1024 says, asking for directions to a "gas station" may land you at a propane fill station or some other place like that where you can't fuel up. :)

      Gas (or petrol or whatever) stations are abundant next to major freeways. In fact, it is common to see an offramp that just goes to a gas station and then back onto the freeway, without any other roads leading away from it. Sometimes you'll have a picnic area, etc.

    • Regular or unleaded?
      Leaded gas is common in Europe. Be sure to find out what kind of fuel your rental runs on. Mine ran on unleaded. Don't worry, the leaded gas pumps have thicker nozzles - they won't fit into the fuelling port on an unleaded-gas vehicle. As with gas, you may not see "leaded" and "unleaded". In French, it's "sans plomb."
    • Get used to the idea of parking on the sidewalk.
      Yes, they do it all the time. It's freaky at first, but eventually you will have to do it as well. Just be careful to mind the distance between the curb and your car's undercarriage. A good rule of thumb is that if you park just far enough that the tires on one side of your car are a couple inches in from the edge, you'll be OK. Lots of curbs are low (only a couple inches high) because people have to park on the sidewalk.
    • Parking tends to suck in the city.
      One of the reasons why people drive those hilariously dorky Smart Cars is that parking is horrible in metropolitan centers. Huge multilevel parking structures are not as common as they are here.
    • Unless you will be travelling exclusively in the UK, learn what the fuck a "kilometre" is.
         35MPH ~= 60KPH
         65MPH ~= 110KPH
         80MPH ~= 140KPH
        100MPH ~= 160KPH
      These are somewhat inaccurate, of course, but they should give you an idea of what you are working with. In the USA, it is common for speed gauges to have MPH in big numbers and KPH in small numbers below MPH. Don't expect your car in Europe to have this. (Unless, again, you rent it in the UK.)
    • Read up on traffic signs and road markings, as well as traffic laws, in the country or countries you will or might visit.
      Better to know before you get behind the wheel. What means one thing in one country may mean the exact opposite when you cross the border. Example: Sign colors indicating whether a road leads to another road or onto a freeway.
    • Find out about your drivers' license.
      It is probably valid there, as well. The rental agency can tell you beforehand what you need. I would recommend Europe By Car. They have a reasonable selection and decent rates; you just have to pay ahead of time.
    • Find out about insurance.
      You can purchase auto insurance from the rental agency, but make sure you aren't already covered! Your regular policy may cover you abroad. Also, many credit cards include car insurance while you are abroad.
    • Gas is expensive like a bitch.
      The cheap stuff is about $3 a gallon US and is 96 octane or higher. You will find yourself surrounded by Renaults and Citroens and Pugeots, and for some reason, a slew of Focii. Many of these vehicles will run on diesel because it is considerably cheaper. You might want to consider renting a diesel vehicle. They have crap for torque but the fuel savings are nice. No one drives a SUV in Europe. I saw an average of one per week while I was over there, and you may rest assured that I saw a metric fuckload of cars.
    • Drive like you are in Tijuana.
      Id est, very carefully. Drive like you are expecting the most unusual, bizarre, unlikely, implausible thing to happen, i.e. someone doing 100KPH on the wrong side of a country road in the winding hills of southern France right as you are coming *VERY* cautiously around a blind corner or cresting a blind hill. They will probably be doing this in a Citroen 2CV or some similar rattletrap car.
    • Pedestrians are just as dumb as you're used to. Maybe even dumber.
      They may step out into a street without looking. If they are crossing a crosswalk, you have to stop for them, regardless of whether or not there is a traffic light, stop sign, or anything else. They know this. They may cross even though you are coming up at 80KPH.
    • Keep your passport in your pocket AT ALL TIMES.
      You will need it to exchange currency at the borders. You may also be stopped at the borders and asked to present it. You'd better have it with you if a cop pulls you over. If it gets lost or stolen, contact your embassy immediately. While travelling in Europe, it is by far your most prized posession, for without it you are royally screwed. You can't board an international flight without it, and even if you could, US customs won't let you enter the country anyway.

  • Well, that's the nut. Be careful, practice very defensive driving, and have fun.