How the rules of road differ across Europe

The rules of the road very from country to country across Europe. Roanna Avison outlines the differences to help you stay on the right side of the law.For those drivers going to the Continent on a regular basis, the biggest challenge is knowing the local road laws. It is easy to be caught out by small variations, particularly on a journey that takes in a lot of countries. So to keep you legal and safe, here are the main points of difference between the rules of the road in the UK and 14 other EU countries you may find yourself driving through.

Priority schemes

In unmarked junctions and exits there is unconditional right of way for traffic on the main road or right of way for traffic approaching from the right in Austria, Germany, Denmark, Greece, France, Italy and Ireland. In Finland, Portugal, Sweden and the UK there is unconditional right of way for traffic on the main road, while in Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands the traffic approaching from the right has right of way.

In signed/marked junctions, traffic on the main road has right of way unless there's a stop sign which means you must give way to the right in Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Greece, Finland, Italy, Germany and Ireland. In France, Portugal and the UK, traffic on the main road has right of way, while in Belgium traffic approaching from the right has priority. When crossing pavements or cycle tracks remember that pedestrians and cyclists have right of way, except in France.

On roundabouts motorists already on the roundabout have right of way everywhere except Greece, where road users entering the roundabout has right of way. Motorists must give way to cyclists on roundabouts in Austria, Germany, Denmark, France, Finland, Ireland, Sweden and the UK. In Belgium, Greece and Portugal motorists have right of way over cyclists, even if they are already on the roundabout, while in Italy right of way depends on signage. Buses and trams have right of way when leaving bus stops in all member states except Greece and Italy.

Use of lights

The daytime use of lights is only compulsory in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. In Italy it is compulsory only outside urban areas. In Austria, Spain, Greece, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK, the use of daytime lights is allowed for warning, in tunnels, and in low visibility. The use of full beam during the day in prohibited in Greece.

Special lanes

Crawler lanes for slow-moving LGVs are used in Germany, Denmark, Spain, Greece, Italy and Sweden. Emergency lanes or hard shoulders run alongside roads in Denmark, Spain, Greece, France, Italy, Ireland and the UK and are for stranded and broken-down vehicles in Denmark, Italy, Ireland and the UK. Emergency vehicles can use them in Denmark, the UK and France. In Greece, the lanes are for emergency situations - and any vehicle using them in Spain should turn on their lights and drive between 60 and 80km/h. Other types of lanes you will come across are accelerating/decelerating lanes in Germany and Greece reversible lanes in Spain and overtaking lanes in Finland.

Pedestrian crossings

The use of pedestrian crossings is required in all these countries except the UK and the Netherlands, so there should not be people crossing the roads away from the official crossing sites. Parking is never allowed near a crossing and overtaking is restricted. Apart from in Austria, the Netherlands and Portugal, your speed must be adjusted so its possible to give way at the crossing. In Austria speed restrictions may be in place, but not at every crossing. In the Netherlands military vehicles are not covered by the rule and in Portugal pedestrians must adapt to the road situation and not jeopardise normal traffic flow.

Boarding and alighting passengers

There are rules on opening vehicle doors in Austria, Germany, Denmark, Greece, Finland, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the UK. In most countries special care should be taken not to endanger others or create an unnecessary nuisance. But in Portugal only doors on the pavement side may be opened. The rules for the loading and unloading of goods in Sweden and Denmark state that the process should not endanger others or create a nuisance. Passengers leaving buses and trams in Belgium, Germany and Denmark have right of way over traffic. It is forbidden to overtake at a bus stop in Portugal and Greece.

Mobile phones

The majority of EU member states have either recently introduced rules on the use of mobile phones while driving or are planning to do so soon. The consensus is that hands-free use of mobile phones is allowed. The exception is Ireland, which has no rules in place and at present has no plans to introduce any.

Speed limits

In Portugal the speed limit in urban areas for LGVs with trailers is 40km/h. Lower speed limits in residential areas can be found in Belgium (30km/h), Luxembourg (20 or 30km/h) and the UK (20mph). In France there is a speed limit of 30km/h for traffic within calming zones. In Italy and Ireland ambulances and fire engines are exempt from speed limits. Speed restrictions are put in place by automatic signal systems in poor weather in Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Sweden and the Netherlands. In other countries the law states that speed must be adapted to the driving conditions in adverse weather.

Distance between vehicles

Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain and France all specify that heavy and long vehicles should be at least 50m apart on the roads. France and Spain also have special provisions for tunnels.


Austria, Italy and the Netherlands seem to be the strictest on overtaking rules, disallowing it at road bottlenecks, places with inadequate visibility, humps and crests in the road, on bends, at pedestrian crossings, and at junctions. Luxembourg, France and the UK are the only countries that have no specific rules relating to overtaking at these points in the road.

The remaining countries all have differing rules.

  • Belgium does not allow overtaking where there is inadequate visibility and at junctions.
  • Germany forbids overtaking at pedestrian crossing and when there is inadequate visibility.
  • In Spain you may not overtake at a bottleneck, a pedestrian crossing or a junction.
  • While in Greece it is prohibited to overtake at bottlenecks, humps in the road, on bends, at pedestrian crossings, at junctions and when there is inadequate visibility.
  • Finland does not allow overtaking at bottlenecks, place with inadequate visibility, at the crest of a hill, on bends and at junctions.
  • In Ireland you are not allowed to overtake at a pedestrian crossing.
  • Portugal forbids overtaking on the crest of a hill, at pedestrian crossings and where visibility is inadequate.
  • Sweden disallows overtaking at the crest of a hill, on bends, at junctions and pedestrian crossings and where the visibility is inadequate.
  • Denmark's rules are slightly more convoluted. Overtaking at a bottleneck is generally forbidden, but exceptions can be defined with local signage. You are never allowed to overtake when visibility is inadequate. Overtaking when there are humps in the road is allowed, unless signs indicate otherwise, while overtaking at the crest of a hill is banned unless signs say you can. You can overtake at some bends, but again only if the signs say so. Overtaking at a pedestrian crossing is not allowed if you don't have a clear view of the crossing, while overtaking at junctions in normally banned, but sometimes the signs may tell you otherwise.

Changing lane

Changing lanes in junctions is forbidden in Belgium, Greece, Finland and Italy. In the Netherlands changing lane is banned before road crossings and in France changing lane is not allowed when visibility is reduced.

UK trailers are wearing out

The UK's trailer rental fleet is ageing fast, and the problem isn't going to go away until rates rise. That's the warning from TIP Trailer Services, which says it has witnessed rental rates diminish year-on-year for almost two decades. Damien Wall, marketing and services leader at parent company GE Equipment Capital, explains that in 1991 the weekly rate for a curtainsider was £160. This has fallen to an average of £80 per week today. He says the problem is most acute for box trailers and curtainsiders. "Supply and quality of kit is dwindling.

VOSA urges drivers to declutter

VOSA has issued a warning about the dangers of truck drivers cluttering their windscreens and dashboards. An article published earlier this month in The Times alleged that lorry drivers in France had been spotted "steering by ear" - placing one wheel on the white line and following the noise - leaving them free to watch a DVD, play a computer game or read. A spokesman for VOSA says: "This kind of behaviour is unacceptable. The drivers' view of the road is a reoccurring problem with the various items that drivers seem to clutter their windscreens and dashboards.

Operators given month's grace for LEZ

Transport for London (TfL) is giving a month's grace to operators who have ordered retro-fit equipment or vehicles that comply with the Low Emission Zone but have not yet received them. Demand for vehicles on the continent has resulted in spiralling lead times in the UK and with London's LEZ due to start in February, concern has been growing over operators' compliance. Orders for compliant Euro 3 and above vehicles have been placed but many have not yet been delivered.But TfL says companies have 28 days to bring vehicles that enter the zone into compliance.

Stobart Group pleased with post merger results

Stobart Group is encouraged by its performance following its merger with Westbury Property Group. In its latest trading statement, the firm says it continued to trade strongly in the year to December as new business wins and profitability grew in line with expectations.

Glyn Davies to focus on used trucks

Glyn Davies, co-founder of Hanbury Davies (HD), says he will now concentrate on his Hanbury Riverside second-hand truck sales and rental business following Wincanton’s acquisition of HD. He says: "Riverside will continue to be a major interest for us and we are going to develop it.

Road-pricing schemes get further funding

Local authorities in Manchester, Cambridgeshire and the West of England have been given more than £3m of central government funding to develop plans for road pricing. Transport Minister Rosie Winterton, who announced the new cash, says the money is intended as "pump-priming" and does not guarantee that any of these areas will benefit from cash from the main Transport Innovation Fund (TIF). The minister concludes: "We will also work with other local authorities developing proposals for improved local transport and demand management."

M&S buys 60 Mercedes Axor tractive units

Supermarket giant Marks & Spencer has taken delivery of 60 Mercedes-Benz Axors fitted with the manufacturer's 12-speed PowerShift automated transmissions. The tractor units will be powered by 360 and 400hp engines they will be fitted with standard sleeper cabs.

Eddie Stobart trading in line with expectations

Stobart Group has revealed that Eddie Stobart has continued to trade well since it was taken over last year. In a trading statement to the City chief executive Andrew Tinkler says synergies have already been identified between Eddie Stobart and other group businesses, particularly container transport division O'Connor Group, and its contracts have protected it from rising fuel prices.

Wincanton expands presence with Hanbury Davies buy

Wincanton has moved into the container market with the £25m purchase of Hanbury Davies. The supply chain logistics provider started its own container operations about a year ago and had about 30 vehicles based in Alconbury and Southampton. The addition of Hanbury Davies will add some 500 vehicles and 21 sites to the operation.