European Road Signs and Rules

Not a question, but many Americans renting a car in Europe should become familiar with the road signs of the countries they intend to visit. European signs make use of symbols, rather than written instructions. Most symbols are self explanatory, but others are not so intuitive. Refer to the following for a brief summary of Euro signs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_European_road_signs Note that at the bottom of the same Wikipedia article there are links to more detailed articles for several individual countries. Whatever you do, two important rules to always remember: 1- In Europe, unlike the US, you cannot turn right on a red light. Red means stop, always. 2- On European freeways the left lane is for passing only (not cruising lane). Also you must pass cars from their left side (using the passing lane). You cannot go around them on their right. That is the reason why, if you cruise on the passing lane, cars will start flashing, honking and aggressively tailgating you. Because you must move to the right lanes so that faster cars behind you can pass you.

Posted by Lee
Lakewood, Colorado
11276 posts

The passing and no passing signs are quite similar and could lead to confusion. I was once on a bus in Germany, and we came to a tee intersection with a sign with a rather lengthy explanation in German. You should 1) ignore it. You're American. They should give the explanations in English, 2) stop and run the translation software on your iPad, while cars back up behind you and honk 3) run back through the line asking if someone speaks English and what should you do? Ignoring this sign in Italy can be very costly.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8757 posts

One of the tricky things is knowing what the speed limit is. In most countries in many places only the "National Speed Limit" sign will be displayed and it is up to the driver to know what that means in the various circumstances. For example, in the UK, the same sign would indicate 70mph on a motorway or dual carriageway, 60mph on a single carriageway in the country, 30mph where there are streetlights or close houses; different numbers for different classes of traffic. The numbers are different in each country and it is important to know the national speed limits are in the countries to be driven through or in. Its also important to recognize that the town or village name sign indicates a slow speed limit, often accompanied by a traffic camera issuing tickets by mail to offenders, until the end of town name sign. That one trips up many.

Posted by Andre L.
Tilburg, Netherlands
2176 posts

I'd get familiar with basic traffic sign, especially those that do not exist in North America, such as the entrance restricted/prohibited (empty white circle with red borders, the ones displayed on infamous ZTLs) and, especially, as Nigel pointed, the effects of a city sign (beginning and end) on blank speed limits. I figured out GPS navigators' speed limit databases have improved quite a lot over last 3 years, particularly TomTom and Navigon/Garmin. It always help to have a navigator unit/app remind you of the blank speed limit.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

"In Europe, unlike the US, you cannot turn right on a red light. Red means stop, always" For completeness sake, there is at least one exception. In Germany, if the traffic light has a green arrow sign on top of it, right turns on red are allowed. These are fairly rare, however. On roads I regularly drive, I can only think of two off the top of my head. "On European freeways the left lane is for passing only (not cruising lane). Also you must pass cars from their left side (using the passing lane)." Officially yes, and in light traffic conditions, definately. In reality, though, because traffic is always heavy in certain areas, many people use the left lane for cruising, particularly on 4 lanes stretches of the Autobahn network. You have a choice of being stuck behind a line of tractor trailers traveling well barely 80 km/hr (about 48 m/hr) in the right lane, or going much faster in the left lane. Guess which option most drivers take? "That is the reason why, if you cruise on the passing lane, cars will start flashing, honking and aggressively tailgating you. Because you must move to the right lanes so that faster cars behind you can pass you." Contrary to popular belief among German drivers, flashing and honking does NOT give them priority. It's common courtesy to let faster drivers move ahead, but it is not a requirement. You often see a situation during peak driving times where the left lane moves only slightly faster than the right, but some speed demon will aggressively flash you from behind, even though you are just following the cars ahead of you. Out of spite sometimes, I'll let this guy pass, then when I'm behind him and he's moving no faster than I was, return the favor by flashing him just as aggressively as he did to me. Probably not the most mature response, but sometimes I can't help it...

Posted by Andre L.
Tilburg, Netherlands
2176 posts

Tailgaiting and flashing can get you fined in Germany. Enforcement is spotty, but it does happen and, in such occasions, fines can be a bitter pill.

Posted by Roberto
Fremont, CA, USA
3344 posts

Flashing and aggressively tailgating if you don't move out of the way quickly is very common, regardless whether you get fined or not. And yes, when they are totally unreasonable (like there are cars in front and I can't go any faster or I'm in the process of completing my overtaking myself) I also get pissed off and don't move to the right out of spite.

Posted by Roger
Monein, Pyrenees, France
425 posts

Another point regarding Germany ... especially on the autobahn from Hannover to Berlin, the speeds along that section can be astonishing. I have been passed while doing 80-90 mph as if I was standing still. Sitting out in the left lane can be VERY dangerous.

Posted by Andre L.
Tilburg, Netherlands
2176 posts

The Germans have the third lowest fatality rates on highways after Netherlands and Sweden in the EU, so something must be right about the way they drive. I myself usually drive between 90-100mph between Hannover and Berlin when the road is lightly trafficked. It's a speed that feels comfortable on my car without using that much fuel (just 25-30% more than if I drove at 70mph) The secret is to enter the left lane with confidence when you are overtaking. Cars brake fast from very high speed due to wind effects, so once you are aware of traffic you can overtake.

Posted by Rik
Vicenza, Italy
702 posts

Whenever my friends in the US ask me about the autobahn I tell them it's largely a myth. Between contruction, speed limits and slow poke drivers, there aren't very many stretches where you can really fly for an extended period of time anymore. The worst are the two lane stretches; the right lanes are clogged with trucks going 80km per hour and the left lanes are clogged with stubborn German drivers passing them at 90km per hour. And they have to pass every...damned...truck before they will move over and let you by. It's very frustrating.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8757 posts

All this discussion about Autobahn driving brings out my observations -=- If you intend to try driving fast you must work on concentrating. The faster you go the narrower your field of vision becomes and you must look long distances both in front and in back of your car. In back, because people can come up on you very quickly and especially if they have blue lights going to the scene of an accident. In front because very fast moving traffic often comes to a grinding screeching halt, often with no notice. When the red lights come on, don't hesitate. Learn the meaning of Stau.

Posted by Michael
Des Moines, IA
2155 posts

Yes, there are many German Autobahns with really heavy traffic and construction, but there are also some stretches where you can easily get your speed way up to 110 mph or more with no problem. That's about as fast as I've driven, and I have also had other drivers fly by me like I wasn't even moving...no idea how fast they would have been going, but it was flippin' fast. A couple of great things about the Autobahn IMHO: road surfaces are amazing and trucks don't get into the passing lane (maybe that's a law...I really don't know). There are stretches where the right lane is nothing but trucks, literally bumper to bumper one right after another for miles, and miles, and miles. The only other place I've been where the roads seem to be as good as in Germany is in Ontario. The Austrian Autobahns aren't nearly as good as the ones in Germany...rougher roads more similar to what we have here as I recall.

Posted by Nicholas
Seattle, Washington, United States
282 posts

Roberto: On European freeways the left lane is for passing only (not cruising lane). Also you must pass cars from their left side (using the passing lane). "Keep right except to pass" is US law too... The left lane may be used as a defacto "cruising lane", but legally the outer lane in the US is a passing lane and should only be used to pass (just like on the autobahn). You should not obstruct traffic in the left lane and should be actively passing when driving in the lane. The Europeans just actually enforce the rules. One big thing that I would like to add to this is a word about roundabouts. We don't have too many in the US (although we will see more of them in the future), but if you are headed to Europe read up on how to use these. Yield to traffic inside the roundabout, signal your intent to leave the round about when appropriate (not too early), and if at all possible do not stop when entering (There is no stop sign).

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7976 posts

.....'and if at all possible do not stop when entering (There is no stop sign).' Lots of the suckers have stop signs, lots more have stop lights.

Posted by Roberto
Fremont, CA, USA
3344 posts

Nicholas, there are many many more roundabouts in Europe than there used to be when I was growing up there. In Florence, what're I grew up, there actually used to be lots of street lights. Now, every year there are fewer and fewer to the point they have gone almost extinct. It turns out that the European Union has being giving member States a lot of money incentives for local governments to convert intersections into roundabouts, primarily because studies show that roundabouts tend to improve traffic flow while decreasing fatal and injury accidents at intersections. Money strapped Local governments of course immediately jumped on the opportunity to cash in and I've seen roundabouts in the most ridiculous intersections lately (they obviously ran out of intersections to convert). In Florence the joke is that the reason why the Mayor of the town of Sesto, where the airport is located, is opposing plans to build a new longer runway for the airport, is because they won't let him build a roundabout in the middle of it. The city of Sesto has nearly replaced all street lights with roundabouts. But, as Ed said, the most ridiculous roundabout I saw is in my city of Fremont, CA. It's probably the only one in town. It used to be a 4 way stop. They built the roundabout in place of it but they left the 4 stop signs (instead of replacing them with triangular yield signs). What the hell did they build the roundabout for if they left the stop signs? Totally inept!

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

" trucks don't get into the passing lane (maybe that's a law...I really don't know)." They do sometimes venture into the left lane, and this causes the situation Nigel wrote about where you need to immediately hit the breaks.

Posted by Nicholas
Seattle, Washington, United States
282 posts

Ed: Lots of the suckers have stop signs, lots more have stop lights. You're right that there are signalized roundabouts, but they are pretty rare and are not the types of roundabouts that I was talking about. I would hope that people would obey a red light over anything that they read here. ;) But proper roundabouts with stop signs? That kind of defeats the whole point of a roundabout. If your intersection has a traffic volume low enough to justify stop signs, then there is no way to justify the cost of building a roundabout. If you can justify the roundabout, then leaving the stop signs after you build the roundabout does nothing but limit the capacity of the intersection. If you see a roundabout with stop signs, the people who built it... well.. maybe they were interns?

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7976 posts

Actually it's European/British roundabouts with which I've been familiar for several decades. Maybe it's because of increased traffic density and the danger of unprojected stops or something, but new stop signs have been erected at all of the entrances - - and some even have traffic signals. If I've noticed a pattern, it would be where an 'A' road that parallels a freeway has roundabouts to serve the lesser, crossing, roads. Anyway, there's a slew of them and they're becoming more prevalent. Seems odd, beats me.

Posted by Bob
Bristol, UK
279 posts

While there are many British roundabouts which have traffic signals as well, I have yet to see one with a stop sign at the entrance. If there is no traffic signal control, there is usually a "Give way" (= U.S. "Yield") sign and the general rule is to give way to traffic already on the roundabout. That doesn't mean waiting until there is no traffic in sight; you have to judge if you have time to join the traffic without forcing someone else to stop or slow down.

Posted by Marco
Oxford, United Kingdom
780 posts

One of the important points of a roundabout is that you don't have to come to a complete stop if there is no traffic in the roundabout. Putting stop signs on the entry rather than Give Way / Yield is nonsensical and defeating this object. It wasn't until the mid 1960s that priority on the roundabout became the rule in the UK. Before that there was no set priority. Until the 1920s traffic went both way round as well.

Posted by Nicholas
Seattle, Washington, United States
282 posts

Ed: Maybe it's because of increased traffic density and the danger of unprojected stops or something, but new stop signs have been erected at all of the entrances - - and some even have traffic signals. Could you give me an example (or a couple) of where this is happening so I can check them out on Google Maps? Traffic signals at the heaviest roundabouts are fine (such as Sergels Torg in Stockholm), but stop signs? If you use stop signs, then there is little reason to have a roundabout. It would be like building a high speed rail system and then imposing a speed limit of 80km/h. In the situation that you describe (a high volume and low volume road merging together), the low volume drivers may (likely) have to stop by virtue of having to give way to traffic from the higher volume road, but a stop sign is superfluous in that scenario. I can't think of a situation where a stop sign is appropriate at a roundabout, so I'll be curious to see where they are doing this.