You’re driving west from Cape Town, following the wine route to Stellenbosch. What’s that up ahead? Why, it’s a man leading a flock of ostriches along the side of the road, and he’s…yes, he’s waving to you. Very jolly people, these South Africans, you think, as you merrily wave back and drive on. Not so fast. That ostrich wrangler was motioning for you to stop and let his flock cross the road. And that flashing light in your rearview mirror? It’s a cop eager to give you a ticket.
Yielding to animal herders is just one example of how traffic laws abroad easily get lost in translation. In many places around the globe, you’ll find incomprehensible road signs and arcane traffic rules that even the locals don’t know about—as well as the occasional cop on the make who demands on-the-spot fines. Makes you wonder why anyone drives on vacation anymore.
Of course, some laws translate very clearly—like speeding. If you’re thinking of putting the pedal to the metal in England, for example, think again. Britain has become the speed-camera capital of Europe. The number of traffic cams there has tripled to more than 4,700 in the past nine years.
But what confounds drivers the most is citations for infractions that don’t exist in the United States, like driving on superhighways without a permit or lacking stickers to drive in city centers. What’s worse are the sneaky tickets, like those handed out to drivers in Wales who fail to notice a speed camera hidden inside an otherwise nondescript horse trailer parked by the roadside.
Of course, the key is not getting caught. Penalties can be a large and unwelcome addition to your vacation tab. Driving in Italy’s historic zones without the right permission can cost you $75–$120 for each infraction. While one ticket isn’t so bad, be careful in Florence, where numerous ZTLs connect with one another, and a single wrong turn can result in multiple fines. And not stopping for that South African animal herder? It could cost you more than $500.
If you get a ticket that you think is unfair, don’t imagine you’ll have the opportunity to argue the case before a judge. The U.S. State Department points out that in many countries a driver, including an American, who violates a traffic law may have to pay a fine directly to the police officer issuing the ticket. Failure to do so could result in having your car impounded, even if it’s a rental car. And if you’re caught by a traffic cam, you might not even receive the ticket until it’s mailed to your home—up to a year later.
There’s no excuse for dangerous driving. And as a driver, you’re responsible for knowing the rules of the road, wherever you may be. Traffic laws that encourage safe driving are laudable, whether they’re in Berlin, NH, or Berlin, Germany. But if you want to avoid a ticket, it pays to be aware of the arcane restrictions and other road hazards waiting for you on your next overseas drive.