What’s the most dangerous activity for any traveler? Driving. If you plan to rent a car, the risk could multiply if you aren’t familiar with the vehicle, the local roads or the traffic laws. Here are some driving safety tips from Global Rescue travel expert, Harding Bush.

No matter where you are in the world, driving is one of the most dangerous activities for a traveler.

Globally, more than 3,500 people die every day on the roads, which amounts to nearly 1.3 million preventable deaths and an estimated 50 million injuries each year – making it the leading killer of children and young people worldwide. According to the CDC, injuries related to vehicle accidents are rated as the world’s eighth leading cause of death. The U.S. Department of State notes traffic accidents are the leading cause of non-natural death for Americans traveling or living overseas.

“Travelers will contact Global Rescue for advice on avoiding a kidnapping, what to do if caught in a natural disaster, or avoiding armed conflict and terrorism. They should be much more concerned about driving — or even getting into a car — overseas,” said Harding Bush, operations manager at Global Rescue.

[Related Reading: Driving Safety Abroad]

The Decision to Drive Abroad

Driving overseas is a serious decision.

“Travelers should carefully research their transportation choices while abroad. The safest option likely may not be the most convenient or cheapest,” Bush said.

For example, driving in even the most modern country can be difficult for foreigners unfamiliar with the local traffic laws, customs and driver etiquette.

“Traffic patterns and road signs may be different or misunderstood. U.S. drivers may be accustomed to cars in a traffic circle having the right of way. In many places overseas, it’s the vehicle approaching the circle that has the right of way, and cars in the circle must yield to them,” Bush said. “During heavy congestion, the car with the most forward front bumper has the right of way in some countries. It may be illegal to use the horn for anything but safety in one country, but, in another country, horn use is considered a courtesy to other drivers.”

Then there are the other motor vehicles on the road. Travelers may be sharing the road with a mix of traffic, including cars, buses, taxis, bicycles, rickshaws, large trucks and even animals. This increases the risk of crashes and injuries.

A combination of other factors could also contribute to a crash: unsafe vehicles (vehicles sold in 80% of all countries worldwide fail to meet basic safety standards promoted by the United Nations World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations), driving above the posted speed limit, the influence of drugs and alcohol, travel fatigue, poor road surfaces without shoulders, unprotected curves and cliffs, and poor visibility.

“Most travelers understand the associated risks with public transportation in countries with limited road infrastructure. The buses or taxis may be poorly maintained, unlicensed, overcrowded or located in areas of rampant crime,” Bush said. “That’s when many travelers choose to rent a car and drive themselves.”

markus-spiske-RnOAhYsDbqY-unsplash (web)

Rental Car Considerations

Having a rental car puts you in control of your schedule. “There are no bus or train schedules to determine when you come and go, and you can adjust the trip along the way, stop if you see something interesting, or leave if a spot is overrated and overcrowded,” Bush said.

There are several factors to consider before you rent a car abroad:

  • Most rental cars in Europe have manual transmissions; if you can’t drive a stick shift, renting a car with an automatic transmission can cost nearly twice as much. “Rush hour traffic in Barcelona, Spain is not the place to learn to drive a manual transmission,” Bush said.
  • You may be required to have an International Driving Permit (IDP), a multi-page booklet translating your driver’s license into many different languages. The International Driving Permit is helpful if you are pulled over by police and they don’t speak English. International Drivers Permits are available at AAA branches and require a passport-type photo. “Ignore the advice from friends who have rented cars overseas and said they were never asked to show an IDP,” Bush said. “The rental car company does not enforce this law. The police enforce it.”
  • If you’re hoping to tour Europe by car, check with the rental car company first. “Just because you rent a car in one country doesn’t mean you can drive it to other countries. Ask the rental car company about restrictions,” Bush said.

Rental Car Safety Checklist

Inspect the vehicle with a rental agent prior to taking possession of the rental. Make sure all safety equipment is present: spare tire and tire changing equipment. Ensure all the seat belts work, and there is plenty of window washer fluid. Some rental cars have the hood latch disabled to deter part theft; know if this is the case.

Familiarize yourself with the vehicle before driving away. Know how the lights, directionals, locks, windows and climate controls work. Learn how to adjust the seats and the mirrors. Not knowing these things can distract and add stress while driving and lead to an accident.

Check the fuel level and know what type of fuel the car uses. See how to open the gas cap cover. Never let the tank get below half full. On your way out of the rental parking lot, identify a gas station nearby to fill up when you return.

[Related Reading: Road Trip Safety Tips]

Insurance Considerations

  • Understand what kind of insurance your credit card provides while renting a car. Investigate whether your insurance on your personal vehicle covers rental cars — and does it cover renting a car overseas?
  • Have proof of your insurance and know how to contact them if you are involved in an accident.
  • Consider getting the Loss and Damage Waiver from the rental car agency. This is not insurance, but it will prevent you from having to pay for damages immediately upon returning the car. A loss damage waiver is usually between $15 to $50 per day, and allows you to drop the rental car and leave regardless of damages. Even if your insurance covers this, you may have to pay upon return and then make a claim to your insurance provider.

Research Your Route

  • You should research your intended driving route before you rent a car, get local maps to understand the basic layout of the city, and preprogram destinations in your GPS or mobile phone navigation app.
  • Ensure you have a way to secure the phone so you can keep your hands on the wheel. If you have a passenger in the other front seat, have them assist with the navigation.
  • Drive cautiously and stay alert. Get an idea of how much time or distance between signs and exits, and be aware of the typical traffic courtesies, like lane changing procedures.
  • Break your trip into phases for easier navigation, such as airport to the southbound highway, cross the river, then turn west at an exit. “This will also help you from getting lost,” Bush said. “There aren’t always easy on- and off-ramps for every interchange. In many countries, missing an on-ramp or taking the wrong exit means many extra miles.”
  • Are there tolls along the route and are they paid? Some countries require a vignette or a toll sticker, usually available at the airport, highway rest stops and near border crossings.

What If You Have an Accident?

  • Know the emergency services numbers for the countries you will visit. Many countries have dedicated emergency numbers with other language capabilities.
  • Ensure you know how to contact roadside assistance for the rental car company.
  • Know the accident reporting procedure for the area/country you are visiting. The rental car company usually provides this information with the rental documents. 
  • Confirm you have appropriate insurance for the rental car, such as the daily damage waiver. Be sure you understand your credit card’s car rental insurance policies, many are not as comprehensive as you think.
  • In general, your U.S. auto insurance policy does not cover you abroad. However, it may when you drive to Canada and Mexico. Check with your insurance company.

Rental Car Alternatives

Do you still really want to rent a car?

“Renting a car while traveling abroad can offer many conveniences. Still, it should only be taken on by experienced drivers who have researched the driving and safety conditions in that country and understand all the local peculiarities of renting and driving a car in a foreign country,” Bush said.

There are other options:

  • A car service with a local driver is nearly always safer and more efficient. You know you’ll get where you need to, and you don’t have to worry about parking or the car being stolen. Discuss safety considerations with the driver and have a point of contact at the car service company.
  • Legal and registered taxis are the next best thing to a car service, and you can likely arrange these through your hotel for the safest and most reliable options.
  • Choose your accommodation so you do not need to drive. A centrally located hotel, rental property or inn may be steps away from activities, entertainment and restaurants.

No matter what you decide, arm yourself with a Global Rescue travel protection membership. It was a lifesaver for Barb Allan when the Unimog — the off-road vehicle transporting the group to the birdwatching site — veered out of control while traveling up and over an embankment. She was thrown against the cab, banged her head, and her teeth went through her upper lip. Allan needed internal stitches to her lip — something that could not be done at the lodge — so Global Rescue arranged for a medical evacuation to a hospital with a higher level of care.