It was the first night of our holiday in Brittany. Tired, hungry and not concentrating, I drove away from the holiday home we just reached on the wrong side of the road.
I realised my mistake within a few hundred metres. There was nobody about, the road was empty and I was able to keep my embarrassment to myself.
Nobody is suggesting we should ever switch to driving on the right in the UK, so we British, taking cars abroad, will always have to make that rapid adjustment when we drive off the ferry in a continental port.
It’s a fairly easy mental process, although new research suggests that 30% of British drivers still have a problem with driving on the “wrong” side of the road. It’s in a study commissioned by breakdown provider Green Flag.
Another survey confirms that aversion to driving on the right. A separate survey conducted on behalf of Holiday Extras found that 26% of us struggle with switching sides.
I find that driving is easier if we hire a car abroad. When the steering wheel is on the left of the car, my brain goes into in some kind of mirror mode, automatically reversing the driving “operating system” from the left to the right. That still doesn’t stop people fretting about it, though. When it happened to me, another factor might have been a completely empty road, with nothing on it as a point of reference to remind me where I was.
It is not only that switch that we find difficult. Low confidence, lack of awareness and poor language skills make driving on the continent a trial for British drivers on holiday – and probably their European hosts too. So says Holiday Extras.
it was the same in the Green Flag survey. 30% of respondents told the questioners that they struggle with understanding the language when they were driving. Their difficulty was greatest in Germany, while in Italy the road signs were the problem. According to Holiday Extras, 36% of us see navigating and understanding road signs as a challenge.
There is big concern about getting lost, it appears. 67%, in the Holiday Extras survey, thought it would be a good idea for road signs to be in English in tourist hotspots such as airports, ports and tourist destinations. Out of the people who wanted this, over a third said that all road signs on the continent should be in English.
When asked if they felt knowledgeable enough to drive confidently and safely when abroad, 60% (Holiday Extras) said they did not. A fifth of drivers said they would be unlikely to pass a foreign driving test, 12% constantly worry about driving and 15% admitted to being amazed that there aren’t more rules for foreign drivers.
I find these holiday surveys illuminating. Their purpose, understandably, is to publicise the companies that commission them. Green Flag wants us to know that its European service offers drivers full cover, and that its contact centre staff “are English speaking to avoid any added stress and ensure you get where you need to be”; while Holiday Extras has just launched a car hire service in conjunction with Flexible Autos). But the research is properly independent. In both cases 2,000 people were questioned on their experiences driving abroad.
There were some other interesting snippets. 37% of those in the Green Flag survey named the Germans as Europe’s best drivers, citing that characteristic Teutonic obedience in obeying the rules of the road.
Even more (44%) said Germans were Europe’s fastest drivers, perhaps due to the practice they acquire when driving on the high-speed Autobahns. At the other end of the driving skills scale are the Italians. 37% named them as the worst drivers.
France is seen as the most popular destination for a driving holiday. It would be the first choice for 46% of Britons. Belgium is the least popular, with only one in twenty wanting a driving holiday there.
And yet it’s sad that so few British drivers actually enjoy driving on the continent, just 11% according to the Holiday Extras survey. I was recently on holiday in the Le Loir area of N. France where the roads were quieter than I thought possible in a bust European country. For once driving was a pleasure.