World's Strangest Traffic Laws
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.
Not Having Environmental Tags, Germany
In January 2010, strict new auto-emission rules went into effect, requiring window stickers to be placed on any car entering the centers of Berlin, Munich, Cologne, and three dozen other German cities. (The cost of a sticker varies from $7.50 to $30, and details on how to obtain one are available at www.visitberlin.de.) But what if you rented a car from Belgium or France or elsewhere? In the words of one German official, “All cars must have a sticker.” So don’t expect any mercy from Fraulein Parking Warden.
Penalty: If you rent a car from a neighboring country where such stickers aren’t available, and you fail to buy one for your rental after you arrive in Germany, you—not the rental company—are responsible for the $60 fine.
Splashing Pedestrians, Japan
Politeness rules the road in the Land of the Rising Sun. Even the cabbies in Tokyo wear pristine white gloves. So you can imagine what the Japanese think of drivers who splash through puddles and soak unsuspecting pedestrians. They call this infraction “muddy driving.” If you want to avoid a citation, be extra vigilant during and after rainstorms.
Penalty: If you drive through a mud puddle or otherwise splash a pedestrian, you’re liable to be hit with a fine of about $65.
Being a Female Driver, Saudi Arabia
Women aren’t permitted to drive on most public roads in Saudi Arabia. In fact, they’re not even permitted to ride bicycles. There are people who flout this law, to be sure. And a lot of women drive on private roads within residential colonies. Nonetheless, if Madame cares to take the Studebaker for a joyride along the King Fahd Road in Riyadh, she should be prepared for the consequences.
Penalty: Arrest and possible deportation.
Having Emergency Equipment, Turkey
It’s a good thing to have an emergency reflective triangle, first-aid kit, and fire extinguisher in your trunk. But honestly, when was the last time you checked your rental to see if those things were stowed there? If you’re caught driving in Turkey without them, expect a fine. You’ll find similar rules throughout Europe and elsewhere around the world.
Penalty: It’s always a good idea to check your rental car’s trunk before driving off, if only to confirm that you have a good spare tire and jack. While you’re at it, look to see if there’s an emergency kit, as local rules call for. Figure on a fine of $35 if you’re caught without one.
Driving in Historic Zones, Italy
ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitata) laws throughout Italy restrict vehicles from driving in the historic city centers without special permits. In Florence, where numerous ZTLs connect with one another, a single wrong turn can result in multiple fines. We even heard of one case in which a driver handed his keys to a hotel parking valet, and the valet illegally drove through a ZTL, although the guy who rented the car didn’t realize it until a ticket showed up in his mail. What’s worse, you may not even know you’ve been cited until you receive a ticket mailed to your home—up to a year later.
Penalty: You can get hit with fines of $75–$120 for each offense.
Yielding to Animal Herders, South Africa
Not a joke. In fact, not yielding to herders can land you a pretty steep fine. Here’s the law: “The driver of a vehicle on a public road shall stop such vehicle…at the request or on the signal of a person leading or driving any bovine animal, horse, ass, mule, sheep, goat, pig or ostrich on such road.”
Penalty: Fines range up to $535.
Having Toll Road Stickers, Switzerland
Drivers who prefer highway driving to secondary roads must buy a permit (“Autobahn Vignette”) for $35, available at gas stations and border crossings. If you’re lucky, your rental vehicle will already have a valid sticker in the windshield.
Penalty: If you’re unlucky, you could face a $135 fine, payable on the spot, for not having a sticker. A similar rule applies in Austria, where a vignette costs as little as $10, and a fine costs as much as $120.
Crazy-Quilt Parking Rules, London
Parking laws in London are enacted by 32 local councils whose rules aren’t always in sync. Parking hours, holidays, and enforcement of the most minor of infractions can vary considerably from one district to another. In one fiasco on Boxing Day 2009, drivers on one side of a road were free to park while those on the other side, in another district, received heavy fines for doing the same thing.
Penalty: Be prepared to pay a fine of $130–$195.
Having the Right License, Vietnam
Your state-issued driver’s license does you no good here. Neither does an International Driving Permit. What you need is a temporary Vietnamese driver’s license endorsed for the specific vehicle you plan to drive. So if you really want to drive along the Mekong Delta, you can get a taste of the Vietnamese version of the DMV by visiting an office of the Provincial Public Transportation Service of the Vietnamese Department of Communications and Transport.
Penalty: If you’re caught driving in Vietnam without a Vietnamese driver’s license, you can be sent to prison for up to three years. Yes, that’s correct. Prison. For up to three years. And if you cause an accident while driving without a license, you could wind up in the hoosegow for as long as 10 years.
Illegal Border Hopping, Western Europe
Swedish cars aren’t allowed into Russia or the Baltic states. Driving a Hertz rental from Europe into Africa, Asia, or the Middle East is verboten. Most Austrian rental agencies forbid drivers from taking their cars into Eastern Europe. Check the rules in your destination before you rent. If you don’t, the repercussions can be severe.
Penalty: Your rental insurance may be canceled. You’ll be personally responsible for returning the car if it is wrecked or otherwise disabled. You also may be fined—or even arrested for attempted auto theft.
Stopping for a Cop’s Back, Madagascar
The chances are slim that you’ll be traveling anytime soon to Madagascar. Slimmer still are the chances that you’ll be renting a car. After all, the State Department advises that you avoid driving outside Antananarivo, the capital, after dark for any number of reasons, including terrible roads and banditry. Nonetheless, if you do decide to drive there, remember that when a policeman at an intersection has his back to you, you must stop.
Penalty: In a nation where the average income of residents is less than $250 a year, your fine will likely be insignificant. But do you really want to tick off an underpaid traffic cop in Madagascar?