The hazards of being on the road are reinforced by some truly awful statistics. Over one million people are killed in road accidents globally every year and hundreds of U.S. citizens are among those killed or badly injured in road accidents overseas. About 70% of those deaths occur in developing countries and involve pedestrians or cyclists. Further, over 10 million people are crippled or injured in road accidents every year.
Note: No matter where you are in the world, the first rule of road safety is to wear a seatbelt at all times.
When you are traveling overseas, it’s important to remember that are many road safety rules other than which side of the road you’re supposed to drive on.
Every country has their own road safety laws, driving customs, and road security factors. The potential hazards of any given region of any given country are unique to that area and if you’re unfamiliar with the region in which you are traveling, you are more at risk of making a mistake, misjudging a turn, or failing to properly understand the signs.
The potential hazards of road conditions are another factor. Your driving skills may be further tested if you encounter:
Seasonal driving hazards like flooding or rock slides
Livestock or other obstacles on the road
School bus stops or school crossings
Narrow roads, narrow bridges, or poorly maintained roads
Roadblocks, border crossings, and crash barriers
The local rules of the road and driving culture should also be taken into account, including:
Speed limits and traffic signals
When and when not to honk
When and when not to flash your lights
Yielding to pedestrians or cyclists
Driving while using mobile devices
Drinking and driving
Emergency response procedures
Local emergency service numbers
Potentially corrupt law enforcement
In addition, there are vehicle safety issues to consider. Not every country has the same standards for vehicle safety or required safety inspections. In some cases, you won’t find seat belts for every passenger and severely overloaded vehicles are a possibility in some regions of the world.
In some regions of the world, you may have difficulty summoning roadside assistance (although your travel insurance provider can provide some help here). If cell phone service is less than reliable, you may have difficulty calling for help.
Here’s what you need to think about before hitting the road and driving overseas.
Verify whether you have auto insurance overseas
In general, the auto insurance you have back home will not cover you abroad – except in some circumstances when your policy may provide coverage in neighboring countries (Canada and Mexico). Check with your insurer, but know that even if your policy is valid, it may not meet your host country’s minimum requirements.
While most auto rental companies can provide auto insurance, your best bet is to have independent travel insurance with coverage for car rental collision. You’ll save a lot of money by not buying at the rental counter. You may have the same level of coverage with your credit card as well, so you can check with your credit card travel protection plan.
Either way, it’s important to note that these plans do not provide coverage for damage to other vehicles, structures, or persons – it’s not like your auto insurance back home. See what’s not covered with car rental collision coverage (including the coverage with your credit card) for more details.
Note: some countries require drivers of rental cars to buy coverage inside the country. See our review of car rental collision coverage for more details.
See this post for details on coping with a car crash abroad.
Is an International Driving Permit Required?
The documentation requirements of every country are different and it’s your responsibility to ensure you have what you need to comply. International driving permits are officially sanctioned by the United Nations and accepted worldwide in over 150 countries as a recognized form of identification. In some countries, an international driving permit is required to rent a motor vehicle, and for many tourists it’s simply a handy form of identification or assistance while traveling.
Essentially, many tourists rely on international driving permits as inexpensive identification security that allows them to keep their more private identification safely hidden in their money belts!
So, how do you know if an international driving permit is required or just nice to have? Essentially, because most countries do not recognize a U.S. driver’s license as valid identification and most will accept a valid international driving permit you’re best off getting one if you’ll be traveling and/or driving in any overseas country.
International driving permits cannot be issued more than six months in advance of your desired travel dates, and you can obtain an international driving permit even if you’re already overseas (with 4-6 weeks of time or pay extra for express mail processing).
See Should You Get an International Driving Permit for more details
Read the guidelines for an international driving permit.
Learn about local driving laws before you leave
Try to obtain information about local driving laws before you leave from the country’s embassy website (look up the embassy), foreign tourism offices, or from a car rental company in the foreign country.
The U.S. State Department’s country-specific pages for information. In looking up Traffic Safety for Belize for example, we found these useful details:
Valid U.S. driver permits are accepted
Poor road maintenance is common
Pedestrian crossings are not always well marked
Unusual traffic customs include pulling to the right before making a left turn, stopping in the middle of the road to talk, tailgating at high speeds, and more
Bicycle traffic is a constant traffic hazard
Hitting a cyclist can mean significant financial penalties and jail time
This information will give you a good start and the local driving laws should fill in any questions you have.