driving abroad - know the law

foreign motoring - laying down the laws

driving abroad - know the law

Thinking of driving abroad? Check out a few of the local regulations first. Steve Walker is your guide

If you're planning a holiday or business trip outside of the UK, there's a good chance you're also planning on driving a car while you're away. The temptation is to go right ahead and do it but remember, whether in your own car or one you've hired, you'll need to obey the laws of the land you're in at the time. Actually establishing what those laws are can be tricky, so here's your handy guide to the relevant motoring law in some of the most commonly visited countries.

Thousands of UK citizens travel to France, Spain, Germany, Italy or the USA every year and many of us just assume that their way of doing things is basically the same as ours. In some respects it is, but there are important differences that could see motorists falling foul of the law and don't assume that because you're familiar with driving abroad in one country, you can handle them all. The rules differ in small but potentially crucial ways, so it always makes sense to check them out.

The legal driving age

In the UK we can drive cars at 17 but for France, Spain, Germany, Italy and many other countries across Europe, you need to be 18. In the USA most states allow drivers behind the wheel at 16 but the minimum limit is 18 in others.

More of a minefield presents itself if you're planning on hiring a car. In Spain, Germany and Italy there's the same 18 minimum age but in France you have to be either 20 or 21 depending on the type of car you're trying to hire. You'll also need to have held a full licence for a year.

In America, there's more potential hire hazards for the young and old. Many agencies won't entertain anyone under 25. Some will allow under 25s at a premium and some will not rent a car to anyone over 71.

The right documents

Taking the correct documentation when driving abroad is a must and can save all kinds of headaches should something go wrong. The general message across our European countries is to always carry your driving licence and if it's an old-style licence without a photograph, your passport for verification. If you're driving your own car, you'll also need the V5 registration document and your insurance certificate.

You'll probably need an International Driving Permit to drive in the US as it's required by some states and car rental agencies. Carry your full UK driving licence as well - that's the photocard and the paper section if it's one of the new licences.

Drinking and Driving

Drinking and driving is illegal and harshly punishable across Europe and in the USA, so don't drink and drive full stop. There are, however, local variations in the law that might be worth knowing. In all the European countries we're looking at, a driver's blood alcohol level must not exceed 0.05mg/ml. Exceed that and you'll be fined, banned or in prison, probably a combination of all three.

In Spain and Germany, though, there's also a second lower limit. Drivers in Spain with less than 2 years experience must not exceed a blood alcohol limit of 0.03% while in Germany, there's a 0% level for anyone under 21 years of age or with less than two years experience. The American limit is 0.08%.

Belt up

Go to the France, Spain, Germany or Italy and seatbelts are compulsory for front and rear seat occupants. In America, nearly all the states have laws requiring front seat occupants to wear belts but the laws for those in the rear vary from state to state. The best bet to be safe is to belt up.

With regards to child seats, things get a whole lot more complicated. In France, children under 10 are not allowed in the front seat and any child in the back weighing between 9 and 15kg must have a child seat. In Spain, the under 12s can't travel in the front without a suitably adapted restraint system and the same goes for rear seat passengers under 153cm tall.

German law requires anyone under 12 and less than 150cm tall to be in an approved child seat. It's illegal to transport a child under three years old without a suitable child seat or restraint. The Italians go for a 150cm height limit under which children must have a UNECE approved child restraint.

If you breakdown

The breakdown abroad can be a nightmare scenario for any motorist but knowing a little about the local laws can help make the best of a bad situation. In all five countries covered, drivers are required to place reflective warning triangles in front and behind the vehicle. France, Italy and Spain also require a reflective jacket to be carried in the vehicle and worn if you breakdown. Fines can result if you don't have one.

As of 1st July 2012 it became illegal to drive in France without a NF-approved (Norme Francaise) breathalyser in your car. Drivers who fail to comply with the law risk having to pay on the spot fines of 11 euros (£9).

All the European countries have emergency telephones situated at intervals along the side of their main roads through which you can gain assistance. It's also important to get the registration number of any other cars that are involved in any accident. In the USA, rental cars have an emergency contact number on the dash.

Local customs

There are plenty of rules that are specific to a few countries that might well be handy to know before you drive.

Headlamp convertors are compulsory for all right hand drive cars in Europe and so is a GB sticker if your car doesn't have Europlates with a GB symbol on them.

Horns are a bone of contention in Europe with the Italians using theirs constantly to warn other vehicles of their approach and the French and Spanish banning their use in built up areas unless it's an emergency.

In the USA, you can turn right at a red light if the road is clear and there's no sign saying you can't.

The German police can fine you for making derogatory hand gestures, using bad language or running out of petrol on the motorway.