Sunday, 17 May 2009

Should I drive?

Finally our visa to Italy and Greece had been approved. In 2 weeks time I'll be lying around hot sunny beach and playing soft golden sand!!! Hurray....!!!

However, I do have a dilemma about my trip to Greece. While public transport such as train are reliabe and covering loads of route in Italy, it is not much so in Greece. I do consider driving, until I saw this website.


Driving in mainland Greece and on the Greek islands is a pleasure for those who know how to drive and especially those who know how to drive defensively. Driving in Athens is different. The most important thing to know is that following the rules is seen as a weakness of character by many Greek men who drive with the patience and consideration of a 13 year old drug addict in need of a fix. There are lots of people on the road who could not pass a road test if they had to, yet they are driving and some of them are driving fast.

If you study my 25 Simple Rules of Survival on the Greek Roads you will know what to watch out for.

1) You must always keep in mind that you may be the only person on the road who actually took and passed a road test. Many of  your fellow drivers rather than go through the inconvenience of taking the test or risk failing it simply bribed the people administering it. Just assume that nobody but you knows how to drive and you have to make up for their lack of ability by driving more defensively.

2) There are lanes but these can get blurred in certain places so keep your eyes on the car in front of you. There is especially a lack of lane discipline at night. The double lines in the middle of the road mean no-passing just like at home but don't be surprised to see someone else passing in fact they may be coming right towards you. Just take it to mean that you should not pass and that you should be extra alert for someone who is passing from the opposite direction because the rule does not apply to them. When driving on the National Road and in the countryside remember the advice of George the Famous Taxi Driver: Keep to the right. Some Greek drivers do not like to be told what to do and they see the double white center line as a challenge to them to cross it and assert their individuality. 
 When I would rent a small car like a Hyundai Atos I would have more close calls then when I drove a Suzuki Grand Vitara which is a small SUV. Opposing drivers seemed to give me room with the Vitara while with the Atos they seemed to wait til the last second to swerve out of the way. Maybe its a coincidence, but more likely it is a macho thing. They don't want to mess with a truck. They say it is the same with priests. So if you don't want to become a priest drive a truck or SUV.

3) If you decide to stop when the light turns orange be aware that the guy behind you may have already decided he is going to go through it and brace yourself. That does not mean that you should race through yellow lights to avoid being rear-ended. It means you should slow down and it means you should definitely not decide at the last instant not to go through. Make your decision early. It is better to have the guy behind you swearing at you than on top of you.

4) Motorbikes don't obey any lanes or rules and there is usually one or more somewhere nearby. Watch out for them especially on the islands where tourists who have never driven a motorbike in their lives are doing so now and are possibly drunk too. Motorcycles are responsible for the greatest number of accident victims in Greece.

5) Watch out for people opening their doors without looking while parked or double parked. Expect the unexpected

6) In the mountains and rural areas, driving can be treacherous due to narrow roads, blind curves, and unprotected embankments sometimes on the edge of 1000 foot cliffs that fall to the sea, or even worse, the ground. Watch out for people parked in unbelievably stupid places like when you come around a mountain bend and someone is relievimg himself or taking a picture of his girlfriend while his car is parked halfway in the road.

7) Road signs are mostly in Greek and English but that does not mean you will always see them, especially in central Athens. Usually when I leave the city for the first time my wife watches for street signs and my mother-in-law is forbidden to speak until we have reached the National Road or the Hymettos Ring Road.

8) There are certain days and times when traffic is terrible, beyond belief. The days and times and directions vary but correspond to working and shopping hours so you may want to familiarize yourself with them. Keep in mind that demonstrations can have an undesirable effect on your plans to travel in and out of Athens. Most are in the Syntagma Square area but they often march somewhere. Strikes and demostrations are usually announced in the English language Kathimerini Daily. Cars parked on the route of protest marches sometimes get smashed, especially if they have foreign plates and particularly American plates. A good rule is to not park on the streer between the Athens Polytechnic University and the American Embassy on November 17th.

9) Leaving Athens by car on the Friday before a holiday weekend and returning after a holiday weekend is a nightmare, no matter where you are going. This is especially true of Easter and the beginning of August when many Athenians take their vacations. If you can stay in Athens and leave when everyone is returning then do that.

10) If you have never driven in mountains before you may want to practice using your gears to downshift and reduce your speed instead of using your brakes and then not having any when you need to actually stop.

11) Always wear your seatbelt. If you have toddlers ask the rental agency for a car seat before you leave home and if they don't have one, bring one. Kids under 18 years old are not allowed to drive. Children under 10 must sit in the back seat.

12) The Speed limit in Greece is 100-120 kmph on highways unless otherwise posted and 50 kmph in residential areas unless otherwise posted. Most road signs are pictures that are pretty self explanatory.

13) When asking directions expect to hear something like: Go about 3 kilometers, take a right at the traffic light and ask someone else. Directions, no matter how precise always include asking someone else, thus increasing the possibility of being given the wrong directions. Make sure you have a map. A compass is not a bad idea either.

14) If you are staying in Athens and renting a car for an overnight trip or longer ask the rental agency to pick you up at your hotel and when you return to meet you there. Swift Rent A Car will actually pick you up and drive you out of Athens and if you ask, they may drive you in too though by then you will probably feel confident enough to do it on your own.

15) If you plan to do daytrips by car while staying in Athens each night try to find a hotel with parking or ask the hotel where the closest parking garage is. It is almost impossible to find a parking spot in downtown Athens. A legal one anyway. If you park illegally the police will take your plates and it will cost 150 euros to get them back. Paying the money is the easy part.

16) Young Greeks with nice cars drive fast. They do have excellent reflexes which gets them out of trouble as fast as they get into it, probably having something to do with a diet rich in cafeine and nicotine. That means you will have some close calls, almost guaranteed, but if you are attentive and they are not fighting with their girlfriend or mother on the cell phone, chances are you won't have any major accidents. But they do happen. The peak time for accidents in Athens is from 5 to 9 pm as tired drivers return home from work. Many fatalities occur late at night when speed, alcohol and youth are factors.

17) It is easier to rent a car as you need it on each island, then it is to rent a car and take it on and off the ferries to several islands. With the cost of ferry tickets now it is more economical too. Driving a car on a ferry can be a little intimidating at first because usually you have to back in and follow instructions in Greek that will enable you to squeeze your car into a space you never would have thought possible. Getting off is easier but often you have to wait for the car next to you to move so you can open the door and get in. By then you may have asphyxiated from carbon-monoxide, but if you haven't the rest is easy.

18) Gas stations are common but be aware that in many cases they don't accept credit cards. They are also hard to find in Athens so leave town with a tank of gas that is at least half full.

19) There is an Emergency Line for Visitors to Greece: Dial 112 for information in English, French and Greek regarding ambulance services, fire brigade, police and the coast guard (I guess in case you fall into the sea). For roadside assistance call ELPA at 10400 and chances are good there will be someone there who speaks English. If you are renting a car be sure you have a 24-hour line or cell phone number for the rental comany so you can contact them in an emergency or hastle them if the car is a piece of junk.

20) To rent a car in Greece you only need a valid license from your home country. But according to Greek law you need a valid U.S. license as well as an International Driving Permit. The U.S. Department of State has authorized two organizations to issue international permits to those who hold valid U.S. driver's licenses: AAA and the American Automobile Touring Alliance. Vehicles may be rented without an international license, but the driver will be penalized for failure to have one and insurance coverage would not be provided in the event of an accident. Fines are high. EU citizens can use their national driving license.

21) Fines are strict for breaking traffic laws in Greece. Running a red light or ignoring a stop sign is 700 euros. Not using a seatbelt in a car or wearing a helmet on a motorbike is a fine of 350 euros. Talking on a mobile phone without a hands-free kit is 100 euros. Driving under the influence depends on how you score on the breathalyser and can be from 200 to 1200 euros. Most of these fines also come with a loss of license for 10 days to 6 months.

22) The Greek police do use road-blocks to administer breathalyser tests.

23) The cheapest cars are generally the most dangerous. I drive a Suzuki Grand Vitara with about 6 airbags because if someday I do have a serious accident in Greece I want to survive it. Most accidents involving tourists are bumps and scrapes though there are fatalities. Greece has one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities in Europe and just because you are only here for a couple weeks does not mean you are exempt. On the small islands you can get by with a small car which is usually Catagory A since any collisions are more likely to be with another small car or a motorbike. But on the mainland or the larger islands send a little extra and get a bigger, safer car. Make sure it has seatbelts and they work. Ask about air-bags too.

24) In case I have discouraged you from driving and have decided to walk everywhere keep in mind that Greece also has one of the highest number of pedestrian deaths in the European Union. Because there is a shortage of parking spots many drivers park cars over curbs and sidewalks so pedestrians are  forced to walk in streets. Drivers who run lights are a danger and collisions between pedestrians and motorbikes are common.

25) If you rent a car and it has a serious problem don't wait til you return it to report it. For example if you get a car and the air-conditioning does not work, call the agency and tell them you want a new car delivered right away. It is best to know if there are any problems before you drive off and checking the AC is pretty easy to do. Cold air comes out or it doesn't. In the summer when rental cars go out as fast as they come in a problem may not be reported by the previous renter and not caught by the rental agency. But that should not be your problem. It is however your responsibility to report the problem right away. Even if it is not serious and does not require a new car think about the person who will get it next. At the very least make a list of anything that does not seem right to keep minor problems from becoming serious ones and causing major problems for the next person who rents the car.

26) If you happen to break the law and get a ticket (rare) police may not speak your language. Even if they do arguing with them is useless and not recommendable. If you do not agree, just take the ticket, go to the traffic police station and talk to the chief and if you are lucky he will speak English. You should also call the rental agency and ask them to help you because if you leave it is just as likely that the police will come after them too. Remember that no matter how outrageous the fine seems you can pay half price by paying it within 5 days.

After reading all that, do you think I still should be driving in Greece? 


Merryn said...

i dun want to comment coz rite now, i so 'dun like' you! so jealous u going to italy.... LOL! haih.. ur life is good! hahahhaahha...

Char said...

I have never driven in a foreign country so I'm no help. Sorry.

AG said...

hmmm... kok serasa nyetir di indo ya je? hahahahaha.. well, as long as u survive driving in indo *especially jakarta during rush hour, try senen for a better practice* then u r ready to go to greece.. *nyengir2*
sama kaya di jkt, semuanya sim tembak.. lane buat 3 mobil, dibikin 5 mobil... motor mo ke kanan, ga pake sen, belok langsung dari jalur paling kiri..
dan waktu gw di indo, gw d tutup mata pas si christian nyetir.. jarak ma bus sebelah cuma 3cm, tetep dipepet.. soalnya kalo ga maju, belakang pepet dan klakson.. in the end, malah kena, hahaha... so, mo balik indo dulu buat practice? :p

Ellena said...

Wow... this sure look great!!!! But the route and long list sure look complicated.... *faint*

But no matter wat.. I am sure you and your family will enjoy the wonderful trip and do we are so excited to look forward for more great photographs of your trip soon... :) Take care and enjoy.

Cath J said... message...can't hardly read all.. lol...

But woww.. italy and greece...wonderful place! Ohh I am waiting for beautiful photo.. ;-D

Stardust said...

Honey, I'm not the type who likes to take risk, especially if an expensive and ought to be great holiday is at stake. Driving long distance can be so tiring too.

Well it's all up to you. His angels be with you when you travel!

J.H said...

@Merryn : I should be envious to you folks who stayed 20-45 minutes to lovely sunny beach with golden sand, with water warm enough to swim on. Or with 60 SGD can fly to phuket so can add up cheap spa with the package.
Sigh...I really didn't ask much....

@Char & Stardust : I do normally drive for each of my overseas trip. I don't like to be bound by schedule or dragged by tour group. But, reading about driving in Greece really put me off...!! It sounded really scary!!

@AG : cuman tinggal 2 minggu, mana sempet latian?? Belon lagi kalo sign board nya in Greek????? mati deh gw.

@Ellena & Cath : I'll be posting the picture as soon as possible. Let's pray that there is easy internet access somewhere!

AG said...

btw, how long are u gg to be away? just enjoy, and hv a great time there =) waiting for the pics for sure! :p

J.H said...

@AG : 2 weeks!!! :-) yippeeee

AG said...

2 weeks... ikutttt... hahaha :p

KY said...

Have you tried driving on the left hand side of the road? It irks me lot when bf said that we drive on the 'wrong' side of the road back home as it's the same like in UK :P . Have lotsa fun on your holidays!

sharilyn said...

wow. ummmm... i'm thinking "no", but, hey, it would be an adventure! :) i enjoyed driving in the UK (on the left--not wrong!--side of the road) once i got used to having cross-traffic passing me on my right side! but i would never have dared it in London itself! we drove to/through scotland and then dropped the car off at Heathrow...

do they drive on the left as in the UK? if not, i don't know that i would take on the challenge of that as well! :)

whatever you decide... you'll have a great time!!! can't wait to see photos! are you going to see santorini?

sharilyn said...

wow. ummmm... i'm thinking "no", but, hey, it would be an adventure! :) i enjoyed driving in the UK (on the left--not wrong!--side of the road) once i got used to having cross-traffic passing me on my right side! but i would never have dared it in London itself! we drove to/through scotland and then dropped the car off at Heathrow...

do they drive on the left as in the UK? if not, i don't know that i would take on the challenge of that as well! :)

whatever you decide... you'll have a great time!!! can't wait to see photos! are you going to see santorini?

J.H said...

@KY and Sharilyn
UK is just like Singapore/Indonesia, we drove on the left side of the road. However, I did drive in States whenever I was there for holiday, I don't find it any problem with automatic car and such a civilised driver.

But with a manual car + uncivilised driver who never passed any driving test? mmm... I have to have a think about!