Driving in Europe a lesson in civility

If there’s one thing that my life of international jet-setting has taught me — besides the blatantly obvious fact that fast, exotic automobiles are barrels of fun — it’s that Canada is truly the greatest country on the planet.

It’s not a conclusion that was obvious to me as a youth, my testosterone-fuelled wanderlust seduced by American freedom, Italian food and ruthless German efficiency.

Fortunately, now that the idealism of youth has passed, any thoughts of abandoning the Great White North strong and free are long gone. Life’s seemingly endless calamities — such as George W. Bush, a global economic meltdown only we managed to avoid and a sense of worldwide impending chaos — never seem to touch Canada.

OK, with that caveat (hopefully) warding off any angry letters admonishing me to “get the hell out of here if you don’t like it,” here’s one hard, unassailable criticism we have to take on the chin without plaint — driving north of the 49th parallel pretty much sucks in every way.

We are sanctimonious in our desire to save the environment, truly evangelical in our passion to ward off even the most minor injury despite incredibly loose licensing standards and, until the latest economic stimulus, positively parsimonious in our road improvements. We drive big, fat cars at incredibly slow speeds over roads better suited to a motocross track among some of the worst drivers on the planet.

Hence, why I do so love driving in Europe.

The most obvious reason is that European drivers are far superior. Perhaps it’s the continent-wide passion for motoring that instills this sense of accomplishment. Or, maybe it’s just necessity — the higher speeds on some of Europe’s highways demand each and every driver to focus on the task at hand.

I didn’t see one accident in my latest two weeks abroad. One also never sees anyone talking on a cellphone, reaching for a cup of coffee, applying their makeup while behind the wheel or any of the other incredibly stupid activities our seemingly comatose drivers resort to in the hopes of allaying the boredom of toddling along at 100 kilometres an hour. Indeed, I feel far safer zipping along the A99 around Munich at 200 km/h than mingling among the boneheads cruising the 401 at an Ontario Provincial Police-approved buck-10.

And, somehow, everyone seems to get along. As She-Who-Never-Packs-Lightly and I were descending the famed Stelvio Pass — motorcycling’s mecca high atop the Italian Alps — we ran into a bicycle race (yes, 2,700 crazed locals were ascending the 2,757 metres of the tougher north side’s 10% grades in the Italian equivalent of a weekend “fun” run). Incredibly, at least to my Canadian mindset, the impossibly narrow and twisty road that is the Stelvio wasn’t closed to traffic, meaning all those sweating and heaving Lance Armstrong wannabes were sharing the road with tour buses, cars and literally hundreds of motorcycles, creating more mayhem than a Walmart parking lot on Boxing Day. Equally incredibly, there was only one police car assigned to the whole 27.5-km event.

Yet, not a horn beeped, and I didn’t see a single moment of internecine warfare. Motorcycles and cars deferred to bicyclists in their quest for oxygen deprivation. Yet, in a sense of camaraderie I’ve never seen from Toronto cyclists, those same competitors acquiesced the right of way to the lumbering tour buses, despite all vying for a competitive time. It was as if the spirit of Rodney King had descended upon all.

There’s also the small fact that European roads are infinitely better. Never mind the excuse our Canadian winters are so much harsher, excusing the seemingly inexhaustible frost heaves we call secondary highways. All but the most remote roads atop the Swiss Alps are remarkably smooth. And the aforementioned Stelvio Pass — the second highest in the eastern Alps — remains billiard table smooth years after its last paving, despite temperatures chilly enough for snowboarding in mid-June. Ditto northern Holland, where conditions may actually be harsher than all but the worst of Canadian climes.

There’s plenty more. There’s the Italian highway gas stations, with cafeteria repasts that would rival Il Fornello entrees. There are cars designed with passion as their primacy and practicality rendered secondary.

Nothing we buy in North America can compare with the sheer beauty of a red Alfa Romeo. Even the French are designing appealing automobiles, the Peugeot 206 CC hardtop convertible almost making She-Who-Only-Buys-German forget her dedication to BMW.

In the end, it is quite simple. For most North Americans, the automobile is but a mere conveyance, with a smidgen of status consciousness thrown in. For Europeans, driving is, as the adage professes, more about the experience than the destination. It’s something we could learn.

Stelvio Pass, Italy. Photograph by: David Booth, National Post