United Kingdom – Looking forward to a quick holiday across ‘La Manche’ before it gets too busy?
Landing in France and knowing you can ride just about anywhere is still rather exiting for most of us however beware as we are now being watched a little closer than normal.
Waiting ‘en masse’ in the port of Calais however are the Gendarmes who appear to be paying a little bit more attention to the behaviour of some of us riders ‘inbound’ from Dover.
Hypocrites I know! Not that long ago we all thought the French themselves were the scary drivers, in particularly the Parisians; the cheek of it, how times have changed.
Don’t for one minute imagine the French police expect us all to arrive wearing union Jack leathers as we enter their country but they are aware we drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road which to them is daft.
We could argue that if it wasn’t for Napoleon and Hitler they too would be driving on the left as we do, I fear however they would still declare that they could tell us English drivers from the rest anyway.
As one Chief de Prefecture suggested at a recent European police conference “The English drive off the channel ferry waving their paperwork at everyone whether they are police, customs officials or lavatory cleaners looking not dissimilar to General Patton entering war time Paris”.
“What they don’t quite realise is that times have changed and some of them are quite oblivious to the hazards that will confront them when they are driving on our roads today.”
Actually he could be quite right as a couple of bikes leaving our ferry both attempting ‘pole position’ as first out of the port area ended up both on the wrong side of the road and the law. An accident within 500 metres – holiday over!
Clearly new riders (in a foreign land that is) need time to get used to riding on the ‘wrong side’ of the road or indeed the ‘right side’ during their holiday they are guaranteed to learn quite a lot.
Other more experienced riders actually like the challenge of riding ‘our’ right hand drive bikes on the wrong side of the road, after all listening to your partner shout in the intercom “clear to overtake” or “oh my god, we’re all going to die” can still be someone’s idea of fun.
Europe is a big place and whilst we can ride almost anywhere within it we should all be warned that police attitudes towards our driving behaviour on the road will vary.
Showing aggression for instance on the French roads today may get you into big trouble with the ‘Route National’ police.
If they order you to stop at any time don’t argue just do it.
They will certainly appreciate your attempts to speak their language and after all they might just want to inform you that your luggage rack fell off 10 kilometres back or there’s a blockage in the road ahead.
If you don’t speak French however it’s no big deal as these officers communicate perfectly well with all drivers by using a series of grunts and chin movements operated by a hand inside their holsters which is all surprisingly effective!
If you are confronted however avoid at all costs ranting about why their not catching murderers and rapists because believe me the sight of them drawing their guns and pointing them at you will reduce you to a gibbering wreck.
At this juncture many of us would possibly display extreme subservience and start waving our reflective jackets, triangles, passports, and driving licences at them whilst at the same time pointing to our GB sticker and spare light bulbs.
Our behaviour may have some effect on these hardened law keepers but don’t worry unduly as they assure all travellers that they will not draw their guns unless they intend to shoot; usually at bandits it’s true; but nevertheless they do and will, I know I have seen them in action.
Working recently with the Gendarmerie in the early hours of the morning on a police operation in a French port, 16 bullets were fired at an English car that failed to stop when ordered to do so.
Fortunately for the driver his stolen car from the UK was right hand drive and fortunately by force of habit the French police shot into the empty passenger side (the drivers’ seat on a LHD car).
Whilst the bullets narrowly missed the driver it was clear he would never be quite the same again.
Please remember if you are pulled over by the ‘Rats Noire’ they will more often than not want to smell your breath for alcohol and check for any radar detection devices, possession of which it should be noted are all dealt with very severely in France.
Be advised, French breathalysers will almost always indicate that your ‘quick’ pint of lager or glass of wine has put you over the limit. Their limit is in fact set to the strength of just one wine gum.
Also take note that laughing or even smiling in their presence can be seen as an act of aggression, whereas crying or even sobbing is much more acceptable.
Even if they find nothing untoward they still might take exception to you’re ‘Sarkozy is a poofter’ T shirt and however much you might mention how your dad helped them in WW2 it probably wont help.
It’s more likely however that they will grunt, wave their arms, blow their whistle a bit and send you on your way!
Also watch the speed limit! You will get an on the spot fine if you get caught exceeding it and if your more than 40 kph over legal limit you could be jailed, your bike seized and you, your wife made to work in a sweat shop in Marseilles.
If you have a crash and it’s your fault then you will find the police will materialise immediately out of an adjacent bush; if it’s not your fault however, then it’s likely you will hanging around for some time.
If you do have a prang, the other driver should offer you a ‘Constat Amiable’ form (amiable declaration) which actually is standard procedure. Beware but if you have never seen one before, ring your insurance company for advice.
Treat with caution anything you are asked to sign as some of these forms have been known to translate as ‘It’s all my fault and I will pay this person whatever they want for the rest of my life and bequeath my house to them in my will’.
The scenery in France can be fantastic. At night time however if your seeing too much of it check to see if your headlamp beam adaptor is still on.
Not the most heinous offence this one but you stick out a mile and it will assuredly get you stopped either by the police or the new ‘road pirates’ looking for tourists to steal from.
If you intend crossing the Spanish border you will need to buy another triangle as you’re now required to carry two.
Those returning from holiday may sell you one they don’t need but be careful as Interpol is onto this illegal black market in fake triangles and you could again find yourself in trouble.
Driving through Spain is you will find much the same as France except you have to, by law, blow your horn and flash your lights a lot more except in towns however where anything within reason is allowed except by visitors.
In small towns you will need tickets from a tobacconists shop to park your bike outside even numbered houses on a Thursday and odd numbers on a Tuesday (it may be the other way round), this of course does not apply to Saints days or days with a ‘th’ in it.
If you are on a one way street, remember stay to the right and allow for oncoming traffic to pass.
Unfortunately the ‘Guardia Civil’ who are similar to the Gendarmerie but with bigger whistles and smelling slightly less of garlic are really important people and appear initially to have no time for – well anybody.
Get to know them however and they will drink you under the table and attempt to marry your daughter before you sober up.
That said you will only ever really see them at the centre of a traffic jam which to be honest wouldn’t exist if they weren’t there.
If you get to Italy be prepared for close formation driving and you’ll need to carry a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit on your bike also. The police in Italy are strict with foreigners and are known to be excitable, but if you are important, good looking or you have a nice bike you should be OK.
In big towns and cities you must try not to indicate when changing lanes, it only warns other drivers of your intentions and they will speed up and never let you in.
Also making eye contact with other drivers always means that they have the right of way.
Remember in a country of about 25’000 different individual police forces where laws change every 3 km, nothing is for certain.
That said the charm of the carabineri, if they like you, could see you being introduced to their complete family (usually at least 800) and you might never want to leave Italy again.
Cyprus where the wearing of sunglasses is compulsory has one of the worst fatal accident records in Europe, but they do however drive on the left.
There is no highway code or any speed cameras and smoking on a bike with a person under the age of 16 on the back is an offence.
In villages most drivers give the appearance of being drunk. In reality there are so many potholes that locals never drive in a straight line.
Whilst learning this slalom style of riding avoid at all costs other vehicles with previous extensive damage to the bodywork.
They are all looking for a suitable accident to be involved in and you can bet the officer who reports it will be their ‘Uncle Costas’.
Staged Accidents evolved here.
The majority of police vehicles have their blue lights on all of the time so it’s often difficult to know if you are being stopped or their just going home for tea.
Malta however where the weather is mostly ‘scorchio’ may be just the place for you.
Everyone should actually be riding on the left but visitors tend to agree that it’s usually chaos on the roads anyway & it appears that anything goes.
However you can’t knock a place where it’s friendly, very British and everyone wears their George Cross with pride.
As regards the laws of the road, well there simply aren’t many that locals take any notice of, which in fact suits the majority of holiday makers the majority of who tend to be over 55.
As one senior Maltese police officer said “We can ride on the right or the left whatever, but it’s much better when it’s hot if we all just drive in the shade”
Dr Ken German