Do you know the amount of potatoes you’re legally allowed to carry?
Odds are you don’t need to because there’s no limit in place where you live, but this used to be a big concern with expensive consequences for motorists in New South Wales, Australia. Driving laws are influenced by the cars in a given nation, the folks who drive them and the environment they operate in.
While nearly every country bans speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol, some enforce seemingly weirder rules written to address specific local problems. That’s how lawmakers around the world ended up needing to take potatoes, headphones and mudflaps into consideration.
We’ve sorted through the myths and the legends to find the oddest driving laws in the world:
Australia: lock your car
In some Australian states, like New South Wales, the law dictates motorists must lock their vehicle immediately after leaving it if they’re going to wander more than about 10ft away from it. They are also required to secure the windows, a term which means closing them or leaving them open by no more than approximately three quarters of an inch. Of course, these laws don’t apply to cars that don’t have locks or windows, like a Mini Moke or a Jeep Wrangler without a top.
Australia: register your potatoes
The Marketing Act of Potatoes passed in Australia in 1946 bans motorists who aren’t part of the Potato Marketing Corporation or one of its agents from carrying over 110lb of potatoes. Law enforcement agents don’t need to carry a scale; they’re allowed to estimate the weight by glancing at the pile. Those who broke this law in the 1940s risked high fines but there’s no evidence it’s still enforced in 2019.
Bahrain: go to jail
In Bahrain, law enforcement officials can hand out jail sentences for nearly every traffic offense. Someone running a red light risks spending up to six months in jail, paying a 500-dinar (about £1000) fine, or getting handed the two penalties. Damaging property while running a red light is punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine that can reach 3000 dinars (about £6100).
China: gamble to drive
Chinese authorities cap new car sales by fuel type in a bid to curb air pollution and traffic congestion. In 2019, the Beijing Transport Commission allowed 60,000 new-energy vehicles (mostly electric cars) and 40,000 piston-powered models onto the city’s roads. Motorists participate in a lottery system to win the right to buy a car; the odds of winning are about one to 500.
Cyprus: eat before you go
Cyprus prohibits motorists from drinking behind the wheel, even if it’s from a bottle of water. Eating while driving is illegal, too, because motorists must keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times. And, like many Scandinavian countries, Cyprus asks drivers to have their headlights on at all times.
France: bring your own breathalyser
French motorists have been required to carry an unused breathalyser in their car since 2013. While motorists who chose not to purchase one originally risked receiving an €11 (about £10) fine, the sanction didn’t make it into the final version of the law so there is no penalty. Traffic control officers are required to say something along of the lines of “it’s the law” and use their own breathalyser to check alcohol levels.
France: no license, no problem
It’s perfectly legal to drive without a driver’s license in France. The catch is that you must be over 14 years old and have a permit to operate what’s essentially a moped on four wheels. License-less cars are limited to 8 BHP and 28 MPH. Manufacturers need to take weight restrictions into account, too. These small, noisy, eye-wateringly slow and overly expensive machines are common on French roads.
Germany: keep your tank full
It’s illegal to run out of fuel on Germany’s Autobahn network. Authorities consider running out of fuel a preventable problem while pointing out that stopping on the side of a road that often has no speed limit is extremely dangerous. The fine for running dry can reach €70 (about £60).
Japan: be careful when it’s wet
Japanese motorists need to think twice before driving through a puddle. The law states they need to have mudflaps fitted to their car, reduce their speed and/or take other measures before ploughing through water or mud to ensure they don’t spray pedestrians with it.
Japan: don’t ride with a drunk
Japan takes drunk driving extremely seriously. Driving under the influence of alcohol is evidently illegal but passengers risk up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of 500,000 yen (about £3500) if they hop in a car driven by a drunk driver.
Mongolia: drive what you want
Mongolians drive on the right side of the road but about 48% of the cars registered in the country are right-hand drive. That figure goes up to 55% in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. An even mix of right- and left-hand drive cars is as chaotic as it sounds and officials are considering import restrictions.
Spain: no headphones
Driving with headphones on is dangerous anywhere in the world; in Spain, it’s illegal regardless of whether you’re listening to music or talking on the phone using a hands-free kit. The law states it’s only acceptable to drive with headphones when you’re obtaining a motorcycle license and need to receive directions from an instructor.
South Africa: stay in if you break down
While not so much a law as a suggestion, authorities in some of the rougher parts of South Africa urge motorists not to take a look under the bonnet if they break down. It’s safer to stay in the car and call for help than to wander around the side of the road and risk getting robbed, hit or both.
Russia: keep your plate clean
You may have read it’s illegal to drive a dirty car in Russia; that’s not true. In Moscow, motorists risk getting stopped and fined if their license plate is covered in dirt, salt or road grime but they’re not liable to keep the rest of their car clean. Interestingly, police officers have sometimes taken advantage of the rumour to fine (or receive bribes from) drivers who haven’t stopped by a car wash in weeks. This practice was widespread enough at one point that radio stations began telling drivers their rights.
Sweden: keep your lights on
Swedish law states every car needs to have its headlights on 24 hours a day, regardless of road type or weather conditions. Motorists don’t need to turn the rear lights on until visibility decreases so drivers of late-model cars can get away with using only the daytime running lights when the sun is out.
Switzerland: don’t wash at home
In Switzerland, where what’s not illegal is generally mandatory, motorists aren’t allowed to wash their vehicle in their driveway or in front of their residence. The government has nothing against clean cars; the law simply prohibits Swiss citizens from dumping anything that could contaminate the water in the sewer system, including but not limited to the soap used to wash cars. Cleaning a car in Switzerland requires going to the nearest car wash station and paying to use its equipment.
Thailand: keep your shirt on
Thailand is hot and humid but that’s not a valid excuse to drive without a shirt. It’s against the law to go shirtless in a car, on a scooter and even on a bike. In 2014, authorities warned sun-craving tourists that the law applies to them, too, and called going shirtless both illegal and impolite.
United States: no inspections
In America, states and counties have the power to decide whether vehicles need to pass a regular safety and emissions inspection. Some exempt certain cars based on their age or body style while others have eliminated testing altogether. Michigan, Montana and North Dakota are entirely test-free.
United States: ride out back
Hawaiian motorists are allowed to carry passengers in the back of their pickup truck when certain conditions are met. They need to be at least 12 years old and all of the seats in the cab must be occupied. It’s a common and controversial practice in the state. Some argue it’s harmless and part of the state’s tradition while others point out it’s a spectacularly dangerous way to move people.
United States: keep your tires quiet
You’re a rebel if you roast rubber in Derby, Kansas. This town of 25,000 people banned burnouts, whether they’re done in a drag racing-style in a straight line or donut-style in circles. Anyone caught guilty of what Kansas lawmakers call “screeching tyres” risks receiving a $500 (about £384) fine or a 30-day prison sentence.
France: yellow lights (honourable mention)
For decades, cars registered in France needed to be fitted with yellow headlight bulbs. This law traces its roots to 1936 and it was allegedly passed so that soldiers would be able to tell French cars and enemy cars apart during a war. Some argue it had nothing to do with geopolitics and lights were made yellow to avoid blinding oncoming motorists. Either way, yellow bulbs remained mandatory until 1993.
Japan: two switches (honourable mention)
In the early 20th century, it was illegal for cars registered in Japan to have a single switch that controlled the lights. The dashboard-mounted switch could turn the headlights on but manufacturers needed to install a second, separate switch on the back end of the car for the rear lights. The idea was that motorists would know whether or not their rear lights were working if they had to step out and turn them on.
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