I've just come back from an extensive trip through Europe, it was my first time to the "Old World" and let me tell you, it was a real eye opener. Whilst there I spent a lot of time on the road, driving many different cars, under varied conditions on all sorts of roads through the UK, France, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy.
The experience of driving through Europe was liberating and exhilarating on one hand, stressful and scary on the other. Anyone who's driven in Rome or Paris in peak hour traffic will know what I mean.
What driving in Europe did leave me with is a sense of frustration, knowing that when I return to OZ I'd have to put up with our hamstrung, over regulated driving conditions. It was at that point I came to the conclusion, DRIVING IN AUSTRALIA SUCKS!
First off before I begin, I don't advocate hooning, speeding or irresponsible driving. I believe we should drive to the conditions present. Driving in a manner that promotes safe, smooth traffic flow which takes into account road conditions, driver ability, road quality, dynamic ability/limits of a car, courtesy towards our fellow drivers and last but most importantly, using common sense. All of which I experienced continuously and consistently in Europe.
It's a real shame we don't adopt similar driving legislation. Number one: our road network is good enough (despite what the polies and the police would have you believe), and number two: I believe most Australian road users would do the right thing and adapt to a European driving style without killing themselves.
No we don't have the extensive 3 and 4 lane super-ways that the Europeans have but the multi-lane highways we do have are highly rated and our B roads are vastly superior (I'm talking to you England).
Before you start shaking your fist and saying that we can't do that, it would be irresponsible, it would incite hoons to be reckless and so forth. Hoons are always going to be hoons regardless of legislation, that's why they're hoons.
Road fatality percentages on average in Europe are substantially less than that in Australia.
I believe we can adopt more liberal driving legislation and that it would work without detriment to our traffic system or our safety. Why? I experienced it in Europe first hand and it works. The reason I'm so convinced it would work here is that Australians are quick studies and are generally as intelligent and sophisticated as our European cousins.
If they can do it, so can we.
The first time I drove on a European road was the UK. Very quickly I felt comfortable with how the traffic flowed and what was expected of me by my fellow drivers. I thought to myself, don't be a knob, me and you'll be just fine. At no point did I feel unsafe or bewildered by the traffic conditions I experienced. UK's back roads can be atrocious, they are at times too narrow, poorly serviced, potholed, undulating, blind cornered serpentine monstrosities. When I say narrow, quite often you'll hit stretches where two opposing cars can't pass each other without one pulling onto the shoulder, and even then it's a squeeze.
Unbelievably, the speed limits through these backroad sections are either 50mph or 60mph! Yes you read that right. The reality is the speed limits are quite often not observed. Doing so would be suicide. People in the UK drive to the conditions. Many times I would be sitting on 30-40mph simply because that is all the road and the car would safely handle even though the posted limit may have been 60mph. It was expected and nobody following me at these times lost their patience or drove up my backside trying to make me push on. It wasn't safe to do so.
I had a conversation with a friend I was staying with at the time and he found my observation spot on. He commented that on English back roads driving at night can be safer because you can see the driving lights of oncoming traffic for miles. Interestingly then, you can increase your pace on those said narrow back roads as a result.
Driving in the suburbs is similar to Australia but somehow, despite vastly more traffic, it flows better than ours. Why? Well I'm not a 100% sure, I wouldn't say their infrastructure is that much better than ours. Where I think they score so highly, is driver etiquette. I think it's universally understood, "we are all in it together, let's make the best of it, then we can all get to where we need to go safely and efficiently".
Other drivers are happy to let you in when required, they seem to pay more attention to traffic conditions around them and importantly they don't suffer from "speeding fear syndrome". You are expected to keep up with the traffic flow conditions and if that means you're going 5-6mph over the current posted limit, then that is what you do. This is suburban driving we're talking about, highway driving is a whole new experience again.
The current UK national posted speed limit is 70mph (110kph) but there is active talk of increasing that to 80mph (130kph) and I can understand why. Trucks and large commercial vehicles excluded, nobody observes the posted speed limit. At first I found this very worrying as it's ingrained into us in Australia that the consequences of speeding is hefty fines. At the speeds a large number of UK drivers were driving, we'd have lost our licence in Oz.
If I wanted to keep up with the highway traffic flow I had to sit on a 140kmh. Once I got used to the idea I found this very liberating. Never in my driving life had I experienced such stress free, smooth traffic flow. UK drivers are highly skilled, courteous and observe a strict code of driver etiquette. Most of their highway stretches have 3 and often 4 lanes. Very quickly you learn to observe the unspoken code, if someone is approaching you from behind at a faster pace, then pull left. Or if you haven't noticed someone behind, a flick of the high beams means pull left. You're expected to, so you do. There is no histrionics, you don't feel inadequate if you're in a slower lane. It just works. In the far right lanes it was not uncommon to see cars travelling at 160kph or more - and yes, they were usually high end BMW's, Mercs, Audi's, Jags and the odd supercar.
The UK has taken the unexpected route of removing most fixed speed cameras on highways as they found it did not change accident rates but it did effect traffic flow. There are sections where the speed you're travelling is monitored point to point. At these sections everyone is dutifully sitting on 110kph (which comparatively feels like a crawl) but as soon as it's past, they all pick up the pace again to the 140kmh average.
Just to cement how UK drivers set a pace according to the conditions, one of the brand new cars I drove there (I won't name manufacturer or model here, suffice to say it is probably the worst car I've driven to date) was incapable of driving at 140kmh, or I should say it could, but I didn't feel safe doing so. As a result I sat on the 110kph limit, nobody was bothered by it and it didn't bother me. I sat in the middle lane to avoid the trucks, it just meant I had to pull left more often to accommodate the faster traffic around me.
My next driving experience was Italy and I bet as anyone reading this who's driven there will agree, they don't really have speed limits. Well they do but everyone treats them as loose recommendations. If the posted limit says 60kmh they'll do 120kmh, ok, I'm exaggerating a little but you get the gist.
Italian drivers are crazy. Crazy but skilled. Again, once I got my head around their driving ethos I was fine. First up, road rules are optional, indicating would require an additional action and Italians don't have time for that. Dodging, darting, weaving, changing lanes without warning is all normal. Never leave an open gap or you'll lose the race and yes, they all think they're Fangio. The thing is, a lot of them are.
As a result you become hyper-vigilant, ready for anything and by the end of my stint in Italy I felt I could take on a round of the World Rally Championship.
The interesting thing though is, at no point did I feel unsafe, even though their driving may appear highly erratic, there is method to their madness, it's all about taking every reasonable opportunity to move ahead. To keep the traffic flow moving at a pace which the prevailing conditions allow, rather than any set speed limit.
The national road routes (called Autostrade) if you choose to use them, require a toll. For the privilege you'll be travelling multi-lane super-ways with a posted fine-weather limit of 130kph. Unlike the English, Italians drive at a pace that seems to be whatever goes at the time.
I found that anything other than the slow lane reserved for trucks and commercial vehicles, road speeds were dictated by driver skill, outright car performance, road conditions and weather. There were times that traffic flow in the lane I was in, nudged 190kph at which point I would bow out and move right, happy to sit in lanes that were travelling around 140-150kph.
French driving conditions are a mix between what I experienced in the UK and Italy, they are not as erratic as the Italians and highway speeds would top out at a 150kmh average, bearing in mind their national limit is also 130kph.
Their suburban driving habits most closely match ours but again, "speeding fear syndrome" does not appear to be an issue. They also drive to conditions, if the traffic flow permits and the road quality is good they will travel a little faster than the posted limit. Conversely if the road is bad, weather uncertain or conditions are unfavourable they tend to drive slower than the posted limit.
Driving in the big cities themselves, controlled chaos probably best describes it. Driving in Paris, Rome or London is best avoided, sheer traffic volume is mind boggling. This is where it's clear cut that their infrastructure is vastly superior to ours. You don't need to drive in the big cities, their public transit system is so efficient the most you'll wait for the next bus or train service is 10 minutes.
So, having experienced all this, where did it leave me in relation to the way we drive in Australia?
There is undoubtedly room for compromise from our current driving legislation where the focus should shift from speed as the main safety issue. We need to promote safer driving across the board, driver education and awareness. We need to drive to the prevailing conditions and realistic speed limits should be set according to those conditions. There are sections of Australian back roads that we're all aware of where the posted limit is 100kmh but the reality is, 80kmh is probably safer. We also have great sections of multi-lane highways where there is no physical reason why the limit could not be lifted to 130kmh without impacting safety and at the same time improving traffic flow.
One of the most important lessons I take away from driving in Europe is driving etiquette, something we in Australia disgracefully lack. Obstructing traffic is something we see all too often, hanging in the right hand lane at speeds less than the current traffic flow, oblivious to what is going on around them. Who hasn't seen that? For god's sake, pull left, you don't own the road. All you're doing is increasing stress for everyone and making fellow drivers agitated to a point where they make poor decisions. That's when the trouble starts.
Car safety, car technology and general road quality have improved in leaps and bounds over the last 20 years, yet traffic legislation in Australia has remained pretty much static or become more restrictive. I'd like to see that legislators treat us less like naughty school children. It's as if they think we're only capable of using crayons and that if we're given more freedom, we'll all graffiti the walls. Yes some will but they're doing that now.
For anyone reading this that thinks I haven't read the European driving style right or that it simply wouldn't be viable in Australia, I'd love to hear your input.
In a final analysis, it really does come down to driving with common sense, something that European drivers take for granted.