The prep work begins with applying for an International Driving Permit (IDP). This is sort of like a translation of the issued driving permit in the country of residence. The IDP includes translations in 10 languages, and is accepted as a valid license for tourists in over 150 countries, provided it is accompanied with the original driver’s license, and passport or other required travel documents.
The IDP can be obtained online or in the post from specific organizations in different countries. For example, some of the auto clubs issue them in the US and the CAA does it for Canada, while the AA is authorized to issue IDPs for UK residents. It is valid for 12 months, with an additional 3 months (if required) in between the application and the “effective from” date.
The second thing that needs some advance ground work is vehicle insurance. Rental agencies provide the minimal required level of coverage, but that is not likely to be enough to offer the same level of protection provided by insurers at home. It is advisable to gets some extra cover when traveling overseas.
The most important part about being able to drive overseas is to be aware of the official rules for drivers and vehicles. It’s hard to learn the local language just for a trip, so depending on road signs is out of the question. This means extensive preparation, starting from which side of the road to drive on to traffic signal rules, speed limits, seat belt rules and maps showing one way lanes, tolls and highway exits.
A brief detour here about the history of this whole infernal left/right side of the road business. It began in medieval Europe, when people had to protect themselves with swords while passing each other on the roads. Since most people are right-handed, the normal tendency was to move left while holding the sword. It makes sense for modern-day road navigation which is just as dangerous as sword fights.
So what about right side drivers? Well, that probably began in France, when peasants were told to move right to keep the road clear for the speeding carriages of the Aristocracy on the left. After the French Revolution, the nobles were nice enough to join the peasants on the right side of the road to avoid having their heads chopped off. The practice then spread to countries/colonies like the United States that were being helped by the French in their bid to be free of the British Empire.
Getting back to the present, these are still dangerous times. Over a million people die each year from road accidents. Another 20 to 50 million are injured or end up disabled. A WHO report estimates that worldwide traffic fatalities will increase to 2.3 million by 2020. By 2030, deaths by road accidents will be the second biggest killer after HIV/AIDS. If somebody comes up with an AIDS vaccine before then, vehicle accidents will be the No. 1 cause of death for mankind.
An overwhelming number of these accidents happen in third-world and low income countries. This makes it even more important to learn the rules and traffic etiquette and quickly adapt to driving in a foreign country. Find out what kind of cars will be available (automatic transmission/gear sticks, gas/diesel, etc.) and whether fines are implemented for not wearing seat belts, not honking before sharp turns, and so on.
When traveling across snowed-under roads during winter, travelers need to be prepared with winter tires and snow chains. In fact, it’s better to study up on specific road hazards on a route before setting off. Jet-lagged driving is another big cause of accidents abroad, coupled with ignorance of local speed limits and a drink or two. That’s cause enough for a DUI arrest or a fender bender in a foreign land.
Take some time to adapt to driving in a foreign country. Don’t rush into it – if they drive on the opposite side of the road, then practice on an empty road first. Remember that jay-walking may not be legal but it is still commonplace in many countries. One mistake is all it takes to ruin the vacation or business trip.