I’ve been sworn at in enough different languages to know that, deep down, fundamentally none of us on this planet is all that different.
But I’ve also been tailgated enough times through Belgium to know that where you come from makes a difference to what you’re like as a driver.
Last week I drove 3200 miles across Europe, in a Land Rover Defender, which gave me ample opportunity to see other drivers from a slow-moving vehicle – like a fat referee struggling in the melee of a football match. And it set me wondering: where exactly will you find Europe’s worst drivers?
Aforementioned Belgium? Perhaps. I’m quite serious about the tailgating. You can be in France one minute, where lane discipline is almost as exemplary as an autoroute’s road surface. The next moment you’re in Belgium and it’s an evens bet which you’ll see first: a windscreen so large in your rear-view mirror that you can read warning notices printed on the sun visors, or a pothole the size of a 1932 Austin Seven.
Curiously, though, it’s not an aggressive tailgate like you’d find on the Hammersmith Flyover in London. Belgian drivers are just waiting, closely, often while towing a trailer, most likely for another traffic jam to begin.
The French version of tailgating is slightly more assertive. It’s probably accompanied by a left-hand indicator, things used in three-minute spells or not at all, impatiently suggesting that, really, you’ve passed that Dutch caravan now and it’s time to pull to the right. It works. Dedication to the correct lane goes to make French autoroutes boring but mostly frustration-free.
Spanish motorways are similar, but both outright lane discipline and following distances are more sloppily applied. Sometimes an entire vehicle could be fitted between me and the Spanish car following me. Sometimes a Belgian tourist proved it.
But on back roads, there is impatience in Spain. Not as much, perhaps, as in Italy, where reckless overtaking is a national pastime. And overtaking skills are seemingly lacking in every single country I’ve ever visited. Whether it’s a lack of patience or spatial awareness that means drivers sit so close they cannot see the road ahead at all, I don’t know. But in the end it made me yearn for dear old Blighty.
And then I returned to it. No word of a lie, before I had even pulled onto the M20, I spotted him, in a red, 15-year-old BMW, slavishly dedicated to the middle lane, setting his speed only by what was in front of him, affecting precisely everyone in the vicinity. Sigh. I nearly turned around and headed south again. Some of the very worst drivers, I fear, are here.
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