Five things you should know before you drive abroad

Think terrorism is the biggest threat when you travel? Natural disasters? Political unrest?

Think again… Unless you are traveling to a war zone or high-risk area, the biggest threat to your safety and well-being is traffic. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1.2 million deaths and as many as 50 million injuries occur every year due to road accidents. Thousands of these victims are Canadians travellers, according to Canadian Consular Affairs.

The good news is that road accidents are something you can help prevent. Here are five questions you should answer before you hit the road in a foreign country:

1. What do I need to drive?

Is your Canadian drivers licence enough? It depends. Many countries also require travellers to have an International Drivers Permit (IDP), which can be obtained through the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA). CAA advises that most rental car companies require an IDP even if the country does not. An added benefit of the IDP is that it can be translated into ten different languages, and can serve as an additional piece of photo I.D.

Insurance is another necessity. Your travel and health insurance policy should cover all activities in which you plan to participate, including driving. Rental car companies may only provide basic coverage, so make sure your policy is adequate to your needs. You may also need to be careful where you purchase your policy. If you’re travelling to Belarus you can only buy your health insurance from one of the country’s providers (or approved providers), and car insurance can only be purchased on arrival.

Some countries even require special permits to access certain roads and areas. For example, both the Czech Republic and Switzerland require a special sticker or “vignette” to drive on the expressways.

The trick: Know what you need before you travel, and plan in advance how and where to obtain it.

2. What local laws and regulations should I be aware of?

Traffic laws and regulations may not be the same as in Canada. Other countries have different rules about lane markings, who has the right of way and how signs and traffic lights are placed. These differences can cause confusion and unneeded hassle.

Drinking and driving is almost universally prohibited, but other bans may be in place. Many countries have banned cell phone use while driving, and New Delhi has even gone as far as to ban smoking as well.

Some countries even mandate the use of an emergency kit and other travel safety gear. For example, Spain requires drivers to bring along warning signs and a reflective jacket to be used in the event of an accident, and drivers have to have a spare tire and a set of light bulbs along with the tools to change them. Finland recommends studded tires for winter travel. Extra lighting, such as flashlights, is recommended for back roads travel.

Awareness is only half the battle: Just because you know and obey the traffic rules, doesn’t mean local drivers will. Be cautious and aware.

3. What hazards pose a threat?

Aside from the usual concerns of rapidly changing weather, poor road conditions and animals, there are a number of hazards you might face travelling abroad. Poor lighting, unpaved or winding roads, herds of livestock and a lack of adherence to laws could affect your safety in various countries. For example, avalanches could be a danger when traveling in the mountains in Switzerland and Andorra. Japan experiences periods of heavy fog, and sandstorms can cause poor visibility many regions of Africa. Construction can be more than just an inconvenience: a recent advice update for St. Lucia warns about possible dangers due to holes in the road and missing warning signs.

Even holidays pose significant hazards due to increased traffic and traditions. Easter weekend is especially deadly on the roads in South America, and Songkran (Thai New Year) poses a threat because spraying water on drivers and pedestrians is part of the annual celebration.

A little pre-trip research can help you avoid known hazards. Most governments, including Canadian Foreign Affairs and International Trade, include road safety in their travel advice to alert travellers to potential dangers in specific countries. You can also check with the national transportation authority and embassy for more detailed information.

4. What scams and crimes are common, and how can I avoid them?

Unfortunately, tourists are often a target for theft, bribery and hijacking. While normal precautions to prevent car theft (such as locking doors and keeping luggage out of sight) do help to deter theft, other scams and threats are harder to prevent if you aren’t aware of them.

For instance, in Spain criminals may slash the tires of a rental car and then rob tourists while pretending to offer help. The U.S. Department of State advice warns travellers to only accept help from uniformed police officers.

In other countries, counterfeit officers have stopped tourists at fake checkpoints and demanded bribes. Knowing how to react, such as asking for credentials and looking for certain markings on cars and uniforms, can prevent you from becoming a victim.

Once again, government travel advice can alert you to threats and advise you on how to prevent them or deal with them.

5. Where can I find the information I need about international road safety?

There are many reliable resources for general and country-specific road safety advice, such as:

• The Canadian Automobile Association.
• Government travel advice – look for the road safety or local travel section in the country advice. (The advice tends to differ from government to government, so you may want to compare).
• Your rental car company.
• Transportation authority websites (note: these sites are often not published in English).
• The World Health Organization’s road traffic injuries section.
• If you would like to talk to someone about road safety issues, call the embassy or consulate for the countries you plan to visit. You can look up the contact information through the Diplomatic Gateway.

You may also want to look for safety-related programs and events. The United Nations Road Safety Collaboration will hold its first Global Road Safety Week this month from April 23-29, 2007. A list of national and local activities can be found on their website.

Overall, safe driving practices are important in any country, but being aware of local laws and safety concerns can help you avoid inconvenience or injury when travelling abroad.