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European Road Signs: What To Look For And How To Get Around

European travel is always exciting, whether you’re a seasoned adventurer or embarking on your first journey. For people who choose to drive their way across the continent, international road rules offer an additional, exciting challenge.

Europe is rightfully proud of its mosaic of cultures, each of which provides international travelers with unique, one-of-a-kind experiences. Like their cultures, each European country manages its roads just a little bit differently than the others. Knowing how to navigate common and uncommon traffic circumstances will make your continental cruising much more fun (and less dangerous!).

In 1968, most—though not all—European countries adopted road rules set out by the Vienna Convention of Road Signs and Signals. Designed to increase road safety, the multilateral treaty standardized the system for road signs, traffic lights, and road markings that are used internationally.

At the same time, the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic standardized international driving laws as well. Ireland, Moldova, Spain and the UK have not adopted the international system.

European Road Systems

Most European road travel is very similar to that of the US. Only the UK and Ireland drive on the left side of the road. All other European countries drive on the right.

  • Passing is allowed as safety dictates. Some countries use a single line to prohibit passing; others use two. Passing is often prohibited in the slow (far right) lane. Travelers on the Autobahn will learn quickly to make way for others coming up (fast!) behind them.
  • Traffic circles (“roundabouts”) occur in virtually all countries. They slow down traffic flow and sometimes provide several exit points. These are found on both highways and in cities and towns. Circling the interior lane for a few turns can give drivers a better sense of where they are and where they want to get off.
  • Headlights are often mandatory, even in the daytime.
  • Phones are prohibited without a hands-free option.
  • Without a specific sign authorizing it, right turns on red lights are almost always prohibited.

In France, an unused breathalyzer kit is required to be on board in every car, as is a safety kit which includes a reflective vest and roadside triangle. The mandatory breathalyzer as a law is indeed still a bit ambiguous, and it met a rough start as manufacturers simply could not create enough on time to meet the law deadline. To our knowledge, the proposed fee of 15 euro for not having it is not being enforced due to lack of supply. Auto France provides every one of our clients with these compulsory items inside the vehicle upon delivery at no extra cost.

European Road Signage

Signage is used to direct traffic, identify roads, and warn of alterations or safety hazards. Not surprisingly, graphics and symbols are used more than words, and most are specific enough to inform every driver of road conditions, regardless of their nationality or native language. Colors and shapes also convey specific driving instructions.

  • Triangles warn of safety or pattern changes ahead, such as railway tracks, crossroads, or road grade changes. The specific concern is identified as a symbol within the red border of the triangle.
  • Circles with blue backgrounds indicate directional arrows, the location of traffic circles, speed limits, and other special information that is specific to the location.
  • Circles with red borders or diagonal lines prohibit actions. The symbol in the center of the circle indicates the prohibited act: no left or right turns, road closures, no entry to one-way streets, no passing opportunities, excess vehicle loads, and other options are prohibited when identified in the center of a circle.
  • Squares and rectangles indicate more general information: directions, crosswalk indicators, bridges, and the location of hospitals.
  • Red signs generally always indicate a warning or prohibition. Red borders on any sign are used to indicate possible safety threats (animals on the road, tunnel ahead, roadwork ahead, etc.) or required vehicle stopping (checkpoints). The specific concern is registered as a symbol inside the red border.
  • Blue circles are requirements. Drivers must obey the sign: right or left turns, vehicle speed, crosswalk, bicycle lanes, etc. A blue circle with a red diagonal line or cross indicates "no parking" or "no stopping", respectively.
  • Blue squares are also primarily informational, indicating the presence of crosswalks, limited access areas, residential areas, or one-way streets. Border crossings are blue squares or rectangles in all countries that mark those locations.
  • Yellow signs can be used most often with another color. Yellow indicates a warning. When bordered by red, the warning is emphasized. Ireland uses yellow as the background for many of its traffic indicators.
  • Green signs are used as an alternative to blue in some countries. Many don’t use green at all.

Driving in Europe is a unique and entertaining way to experience its myriad of cultures, especially when you rent a car for a long-term visit or cross-continent road trip. Mastering the “language” of international traffic rules and signage is another badge of honor for every international traveler.

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