by Edward Wilkinson-Latham

The policeman waved my driver’s license and journalist card at me as the downpour ricocheted off his Autobahnpolizei rain cap.

“You vill promise, yah?”

“But I misread the signs,’ I pleaded pitifully.

He asked me again.

I nodded compliantly with solemn eyes from my driver’s seat, as the rain fell in long tears down the half opened window.

“Yes, I promise to tell the people of Canada not to speed in Germany,” I replied.

“Das is it. Ze autobarn is not a Formula One race track Mr. Vilkinson, even for a travel writer from Canada,” and with that he returned my identification. In exchange for letting me off the 80 Euro fine, I promised to tell you that it is a myth that the autobahn has no speed limit. In fact only certain areas are subject to no speed limits while the majority has a recommended maximum of a rather ordinary 130kms. Or so the signs say, apparently!

Every year, millions of tourists grab their driving gloves and head to the enlarged Europe for the romance of a road trip. While there may be uniformity of some regulations amongst the European Union member states, each country has it own inventiveness and quirks when it comes to road rules and signage.

If you are heading to Britain or Ireland for a driving holiday you will encounter the joys of right hand drive and those cherished monuments to motoring madness, the three-lane roundabout. While you are anxiously screaming in ignorant fear at the other motorists and making yet another lap in the echo of their car horns, you might be lucky and notice a blue circular sign with white two arrows pointing downwards. This does not instruct you that you are driving the wrong way but rather to expect vehicles passing you on either side. No kidding!

While we are all aware of the ubiquitous no parking “P” symbol with a red diagonal through it, in Spain a vertical white line with a red diagonal means you cannot park on Monday Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Two lines mean no parking on the alternate days. Any clearer?

You may be cruising through the Swiss countryside at some point spot a blue sign with a gold French horn decal. An alpine horn amusement park perhaps? No, it means you must give way to Postal vans of all things, and if you don’t, a bureaucratic and irate postman will contact the polizei with your number plate. “But I thought it was a rest stop for buglers, officer,” will only fall of deaf ears.

In Malta an odd black symbol resembling an unpleasant medical instrument, on a white background with a diagonal red line through it, does not warn of strange rituals near by, but in fact is a sign forbidding the use of a car horn.

Finland has some particularly confusing signs. Yellow rectangles underlined with brackets and cryptic numbers try to baffle anyone who might want to park on the street who doesn’t have a calendar about their person. In the country yellow signs with a red border and a black creature in the centre are meant to warn of elk, but the terrible illustration resembles more a wolf or hyena and could easily panic a visiting family to lock their doors and gun it to the next town.

For other drivers these road signs are a reminder of the colourful differences of road travel and there are even hobbyists in anoraks that photograph and note the position of differing road symbols. Enough incidences of motorist confusion around the world however inspired the University of Krakow to undertake a study on road signs two years ago. Canada, Finland, Israel and Poland were chosen for the study.

Ultimately the results unremarkably stated that road signs are more easily understood if they are just like the ones we know at home. Time wasted you might agree, since nobody wanted to change their signs, least off all to comply with a neighboring country, leaving tourist drivers to continue acting confused and angering postmen all over Switzerland.

After WWII the United Nations agreed to create a series of international signs and most countries agrees up to a point, then forgot all together in some places. Now the EU, desperate to go forward in a quest for equilibrium, is trying again. Until then, you will have to keep your eyes peeled and your mind open.

Alternatively you could order Know Your Traffic Signs available from the EU Department of Transport and well worth it for a giggle in the safety of your armchair.

© 2002