Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Stuff Ryanair, I'd rather be driving all over Europe

Safe: French-registered car

In this Ryanair/easyJet age, when you can reach a host of destinations within a couple of hours, the whole concept of the European road-trip seems strangely antique.

Why go to all the trouble of checking your tyres and your green card and loading up your hi-viz waistcoats and self-breathalyser kits (French law) when you can take the dawn bus to the airport with your 10kg wheelie case and be in Lyon in time for lunch?

Well, here's why: I love driving the highways and byways, not just here, but abroad. Motoring across Europe gives you a sense of the distance, the changing cultures and the shifting landscape that you fly over in a matter of minutes in a plane.

What is more, you can stop on a whim and savour that difference. And while most border posts have been dismantled (or converted into shopping centres), you have scarcely passed the "Bienvenue" or "Willkommen" signs before the architecture, the taste in food – and the number plates – have changed, too.

Ah, the number plates. If national identity is alive and well, the distinctive national car number plate is fading into history.

Having made several road trips in the past 18 months or so, I can attest that it is becoming harder and harder to see at a glance the provenance of another vehicle, as number plates become ever more standardised.

Time was when you could tell instantly not only which country a vehicle was from, but which region of that country. But regional identifiers are also in decline.

One sad explanation for abandoning regional plates in Italy was that it would stop Roma fans having their cars vandalised when their team played in, say, Naples.

In Germany, they have moved the other way – towards, rather than away from, local identifiers. Perversely, though, the effect has been similar.

In Britain, regional identifiers have never been so obvious. Long ago, AA and RAC yearbooks contained lists of suffixes that told you where a car was registered.

Now you have no way of easily divining from the number plate whether the vehicle in front of you is long-distance or local, or even – until you get close enough to see the tiny country code – from what country.

I know it is not politically correct to say so, but you are likely to exercise particular caution if the lorry's national plate identifies it as Polish, or Bulgarian – even more if it is Romanian.

The Spaniard is more prone to speeding and barging out without looking, or indicating. A Dutch car will be law-abiding.

In many years of continental driving, I have learnt that Italians are not (usually) as irresponsible as you might suppose. And I have learnt that the French can be admirably cautious in really terrible conditions.

When driving in France, it is also useful to know that a car is from Paris, Lyon or Marseille, so you can let them pass. Their drivers – I admit to crude stereotyping here – are often selfish and arrogant, all in their own way.

It is reassuring to know, too, that an infuriatingly slow, or erratic, driver is local. Without that knowledge, you could be tempted to take that needless risk.

Which is why I think the embrace of standardisation has a serious downside in depriving drivers of knowledge that can be critical to their safety and that of others on the road. This is one area where national and local stereotyping should be indulged.

I would like to say, "Long live traditional number plates; they save lives", but I fear the argument has been lost before it was ever really able to start.

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