Driving in a strange land can be liberating, but be mindful of local laws, weather conditions
The year-end holidays are here again, and well-travelled Singaporeans are preparing to go on their annual pilgrimage to explore exotic lands - often behind the wheel.
Driving can be liberating in a strange land, especially now with GPS navigation being so commonplace. In countries like Japan, you can simply key in the phone number of the destination and the navi will do the rest.
But to drive abroad, you have to prepare yourself well or you may risk unpleasant surprises that could potentially ruin your entire trip.
The following is a checklist you might want to take note of. It is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good place to start nonetheless.
• Many places require an international driving licence. You can get one from the Automobile Association of Singapore. Bring identification along with you when you drive. A passport, for instance. You never know when you will be required to prove that you are who you say you are.
• Travel insurance is advisable, whether you are driving or not.
• Take note that many countries have zero tolerance for speeding. That means you can be taken to task even if you exceed a stated limit by 1kmh. Exceeding a limit significantly can earn you swift deportation.
• The above also applies to drink driving. In Australia for instance, you will be surprised where and when you are asked to do breathalyser tests.
• In left-hand-drive countries (the majority of the world), take your time to accustom yourself to driving on the other side of the road. Don't worry, people won't blow their horn at you if you go too slow - unlike in Singapore. Be extra careful at junctions.
Avoid driving if you are tired. This may seem like a no-brainer, but many people are too hyped up during a holiday to notice they are tired. Remember, you may be in a different time zone, so your sleep rhythm is out of whack. Do not drive on the first two days if you can help it. Better still, have a co-driver. And give yourself plenty of time allowance so you don't have to hurry.
• Driving at night is more challenging, as many rural areas will not be lit by street lamps. This may add to the stress of driving in a foreign land. But don't be overly worried if you are unable to reach your destination by nightfall. Go slower, and you should be all right. A lower speed will allow you to avoid surprises such as terrain changes, road curvatures and animals. Remember, better to be late than never.
• This time of the year, countries in the Northern Hemisphere will often start to be wintry. It is very important that the car you rent is fitted with winter tyres if snow is expected. Suitable tyres are more crucial than all-wheel-drive, although having both is preferable.
• When driving on snow, a smooth and steady throttle will go a long way to keep you safe. Sudden inputs - whether to the accelerator, the brakes or the steering wheel - can cause a skid.
• Be mentally prepared for a skid, as it is almost unavoidable. Should the vehicle slide towards the left, steer towards the right to counter the skid. A gentle throttle combined with a steady countersteer will almost always correct a skid.
• On roads with thick snow, avoid driving too near the "curb". There will usually be marking poles to tell you where the tarmac ends. If you go too near, you might just end up in a ditch. Once you slide over such an embankment, it is almost impossible to correct.
• Black ice - or a thin layer of frozen water on tarmac - is by far the most slippery surface you can encounter. There are signs to warn you of this, but not always. So keep your distance from the vehicle in front, go slower (especially at night) and be ready to take evasive action - which often means having to steer away from a collision even as your foot is keeping the brake pedal to the floor. So, having a car with anti-lock braking system (ABS) is a must.
• To avoid your car windscreen from fogging up in cold weather, deactivate the "Recirculation" button on the air-con. This will remove moisture from the cabin.
• Should you find yourself in a vehicle breakdown, or in any mishap that renders your car inoperable, remember it is not safe to stay in a car which is parked on an expressway shoulder. Likewise, changing tyres on a shoulder is unsafe - whether you are abroad or at home. Get out, and wait at least 50m behind your vehicle for help, preferably on the other side of a traffic barrier if there is one.
• On a long haul, having water and some food with you is advisable. The same goes for having proper clothing - in case you find yourself in the situation above.
• Obviously, obeying traffic rules when you drive is a given. In many countries, road hogging, overtaking on the wrong side (on the right in most countries), and changing direction without signalling are serious offences.
• When renting a car, pay more for one from a reputable big-name company. Such companies usually have newer and better-maintained fleets. The last thing you want is a beat-up car which fails on you.
• Avoid driving if you are tired. This may seem like a no-brainer, but many people are too hyped up during a holiday to notice they are tired. Remember, you may be in a different time zone, so your sleep rhythm is out of whack. Do not drive on the first two days if you can help it. Better still, have a co-driver. And give yourself plenty of time allowance so you don't have to hurry.
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