Skip to main content
Original Issue


There is a theory—not widely held, to be sure—that the 1972 Munich Olympiad will never, happen. The theory was expressed most recently in a Munich beer cellar, one of those smoky places with tables on sawhorses and fat, off-key waiters and draft beer that is sold not only by the yard but by the 200 and even the 1,500 meters.

"You know," my friend said, "there's a theory that the '72 Olympics will never happen."

"Not widely held, I trust," I said. "But go on."

"Well," he said, "you've driven here, and you know what a huge traffic jam Munich is, and what a bunch of crazy drivers the Munichers are. Why, I know a man who went out and bought a big Land Rover; he says that's the only way he can get the right-of-way."

"Yes," I said. "It's awful. As bad as Manhattan."

"Worse than Manhattan. Because all the high-speed roads lead straight into Munich, like the spokes of a wheel."

"Which can only mean that at Olympic time...."

"Exactly!" the friend said. "At Olympic time, 50,000 Americans will fly to Europe and rent cars, and 200,000 Europeans will decide to drive here, and they'll all head toward Munich at top speed and Boom!—they'll converge on the Bahnhof and there'll be a huge explosion and that'll be the end of Munich. There'll be nothing left but the Englischer Garten."

Fantasy has always overwhelmed me, especially when it is presented with a straight face, so I withdrew into the late John Lardner's favorite, all-purpose retort: "I wouldn't be surprised."

Having completed a driving tour of Europe, my first in four years, I wouldn't be surprised at anything that happens on European roads. Continental driving, never anodynic, has become a wheeled nightmare, at least by American standards. Traffic densities have gone right up the graph along with European prosperity, and safety tolerances have gone right down. In Paris, minicars whirl around the Place de la Concorde seven and eight abreast, the space between them roughly equal to the thickness of a ball-park hamburger. Parisians joke about the pedestrians who had to be airlifted off a traffic island by the Obelisk, and two others who starved to death waiting for a break in the flow.

In this year of the XXth Olympic Games, you will not find American diplomatic officials in much of a joking mood. Says an attaché in Berne, "On the record, we have to talk about how skilled and courteous the European drivers are, but that's pure bull. Europeans are horrible drivers, ghastly. They're turning the Continent into an abattoir. Now comes the Olympics, and a zillion Americans have decided to bring over their own cars or fly to Europe and then rent a car and drive to Munich, and not a one of them with the slightest idea of the realities. Why, Hertz had 14 of its renters killed last year, when there weren't any Olympics."

"Fourteen killed in Europe?"

"Fourteen killed in Switzerland," he said.

If you are frightened by the accident statistics released in Washington, then consider some statistics from Europe. France kills about 15,000 per year, averaging 13.4 deaths per 100 million driven miles. One rainy Gallic afternoon, Travel Writer Temple Fielding witnessed four separate fatal accidents. West Germany lags only slightly, with about 14,000 deaths annually, or 12.5 fatalities per 100 million driven miles. In sharp contrast, the U.S. figure dropped below 5.0 last year. Statistically, you are almost three times as likely to die on the highway in France and 2½ times as likely in Germany, and the figures are not much lower for other European countries.

Europeans are well aware of the problem, but they just don't know what to do about it. Sometimes stringent measures are taken. In Segovia, Spain, Writer Richard Oulahan was involved in a traffic jam caused by a parade of 45 or 50 little Spanish cars driving slowly past a priest. The Father was sprinkling each car with holy water and blessing it, and as Oulahan commented later, "They needed that blessing and all the luck they could conjure up, because Spain may be the most hazardous country in Western Europe for motorists."

Spain's preeminence is debatable, and others with nationalistic pride are quick to debate it. "If I were a young man just starting out," says a French hotelier, "I'd do one of two things: open an auto-repair shop or a mortuary."

Belgians, by common consent, are among the worst drivers, perhaps because for years they were not required to take a road test to get a driver's license. One American swears that he was cruising along a Belgian highway at 80 mph and was passed by a hearse.

Nor are the Italians out of the com petition. A Bolognese bookseller speaks proudly of his country: "Where else can you neck your girl friend, eat a slice of mortadella and get into an incidente orribile at the same time?"

Professional Chauffeur Noel Maria nominates his native Portugal for the world's-worst trophy. "I am driving all over Europe," he says, "but my beautiful Portugal I am hating to driving the most. I prefair driving anyplace than this place!"

"Why has European driving deteriorated so markedly?" you ask.

If you will excuse a personal observation, I answer: European driving has not deteriorated a bit. It has remained uniform ever since the end of World War II, when the first Messerschmitt three-wheelers and Topolinos and Citroën Deux Chevaux appeared on the scene. It has remained uniformly orribile. One reason is that the great mass of Europeans are still unaccustomed to cars and driving. At heart, they are bicyclists, horsemen, pedestrians.

Another reason is that they have their cars all mixed up with their pride and their passions, not unlike Americans, but they have neither the skill nor the good roads nor the traffic systems to save themselves from their own wild impulses. "I hate to admit it," says Businessman Klaus Dietrich of Frankfurt, "but every European, when he buys his first car, he gets that crazy gleam in his eye and he says to himself, 'This is my car! Now I show them!" This will go on for another 50 years at least, and then we'll—how you say it?—we'll cool it."

Says a transplanted Viennese, Franz Spelman, "We're just not used to cars, and we're still overexcited by them. We haven't reached the point that you Americans have, where the car has become a normal daily adjunct of life. A car is still an event in Europe, and we get carried away. Sometimes on slabs."

To attempt a driving trip in Europe these days is to undergo a trial by trauma. To begin with, most Europeans drive tiny, high-rpm cars that whine and spit and snap, giving you the feeling you're trapped deep inside a big generator and may never get out. The cars are underpowered and overdriven; the same tiny "Seat" (Spanish-made Fiat) that blocks your way for six miles of uphill mountain driving will fly by you at 80 mph on the first available downward pitch. And Lord help you if you don't get over and let him pass! Por Dios, you will see tailgating brought to a fine art, unmatched even in the Lincoln Tunnel. In France, it is an everyday occurrence to look in your rearview mirror and see a Simca halfway up your rear bumper, or a lane of Renaults and Citroëns and Matras tooling along at 85 mph as though they were welded together tail to nose.

If an Italian friend is correct, then the Christian religion must take some of the blame for such deadly European nonchalance. He asked to take the wheel of my rented car, and we careened down a two-lane road in the Dolomite Mountains at top speed, only occasionally drifting into the correct lane. "Hey," I hollered. "Why, Claudio...."

"I know what you are thinking," my friend said calmly as he nipped the wheel a millimeter to the right to miss a hill-climbing truck. "But you are wrong. God will protect us till He is ready to take us to His side."

"Is it against the rules to give Him a little help?" I inquired in a squeaky, whiny voice.

Claudio turned and looked at me disdainfully. "Give Him help?" he said. "You are typical American person, to think He needs your help! A shame on you for such thoughts!"

Claudio's fatalism is trans-European. An American expatriate talks about Teutonic drivers. "They figure it's all in the lap of the gods. You'll be driving along a two-lane highway and suddenly an oncoming car'll pull out to pass, maybe 50 meters ahead. There's only one way you can miss him, and that's to get off the road, run up on the shoulder. It's like a game of chicken, except that if you lose you're dead. Another thing the Krauts do: when they want to pull out and pass, they pull out and pass! They don't use the mirror, and they don't turn their heads to see if somebody's already in the passing lane. They just don't worry; God will protect them. Last fall an American insurance executive was driving from Munich to Innsbruck on a two-laner, and he was passing a line of slow traffic when one of the slower cars pulled out, shoved him across the shoulder and down into a meadow. He was killed. It was in the lap of the gods, but the gods took the wrong person."

One bright Italian day, when most of us were younger and more foolish, I was driving a typical European toy car—a Fiat 1100 convertible—up the Autostrada del Sole near Rome. "Let's see what she'll do," I said to my wife, and floored the gas pedal on a long, flat stretch of road. We whirred along at 140 kph (87 mph), and just as we were passing a lumbering old truck, the truck driver swerved out and ran us off the road. Before the little car could be brought under control, we had torn up about 200 yards of fine Italian grass, and we were both quivering with terror. My wife was first to speak. "That's—the closest—we'll ever come—to dying—in a wreck," she said breathlessly. She was right, except that five minutes later, a few miles farther down the Autostrada, we underwent exactly the same experience, at a slightly lower speed. This time the offending truck driver shook his fist at me for committing the unpardonable: I had tried to pass him.

Since those two closest calls of my life, minutes apart, the true symbolic and psychological significance of overtaking in Europe has become clear. My Munich friend—the one who thinks the Olympics will blow up—puts it this way: "When you pass a European driver, you tell him that he's frail and weak and near-sighted, and that his wife is having an affair with the butcher. And of course you're telling him that his car's a joke, just like him."

How else to explain the peculiar peck order that has developed, based on price and horsepower? According to Franz Spelman, who lives in Munich but drives all over the Continent, "A 304 Peugeot is never supposed to pass a 100 Audi. The Audi is supposed to yield immediately to a BMW 2000, even if this happens on a mountain road where passing is suicidal. And if you come up behind a Porsche 911 or a Ferrari Dino or a Lamborghini—well, just don't pass him or something awful might happen."

For a concrete example of what Spelman meant, consider a lonely stretch of country road L499, serpentining through dense forests between the villages of Mechernich and Satzvey. It is just after midnight, and Herfried Ahrens, owner of a chain of department stores, is driving briskly in his powerful Mercedes 280SL. A car approaches from the rear, all headlights flashing, and passes Ahrens on a curve. The merchant notices that the passing car is an Opel Commodore, 60 hp weaker and $3,000 cheaper than his Mercedes, so he flicks up his own bright lights, stomps on the accelerator and passes the Opel. This happens four or five times, at speeds up to 90 mph, until finally the two drivers stop and climb from their cars for a more intimate confrontation. Six shots later, the driver of the Opel, a bricklayer, is dead.

In Germany, no one was either disturbed or surprised that Herfried Ahrens was cleared of all charges. An Opel Commodore does not pass a Mercedes 280SL, und das ist das.

Indeed, the best possible advice for an American driver in Europe would be never to pass—except that if one never passes, then one must be passed, and other problems will ensue. You can be driving 50 mph along a German Autobahn and incur the wrath of a speeder simply because you don't cower all the way over to the shoulder when he hurtles by, and he may cut you off sharply just to show his contempt. Or you may be climbing up a steep succession of mountain switchbacks with a European driver tailgating you and flashing his lights menacingly, demanding that you pull over and let him pass even though there's nothing but sheer cliff on your right. This happened recently to an American driver, and he tapped his horn twice out of pure frustration. Thirty minutes later he came to an intersection where an Austrian highway policeman and the impatient motorist were waiting to charge him with illegal use of the horn. He paid a fine.

One may or may not agree with Dickens' Mr. Bumble that "the law is a ass," but certainly European law is at least—well, different. In fairness it must be pointed out that it is next to impossible to wind up in a European jail on a driving charge; such matters are almost invariably handled on a less punitive basis (but if you're hell-bent on going to jail in Europe, try bribing a policeman or calling him a Fascist pig or driving drunk).

Once inside the jail, however, one has gone through the looking glass. Habeas corpus is unknown. Should you be unfortunate enough to become involved in a fatal accident in Spain, for example, you may languish for months while the police make a leisurely and thorough investigation. Don't bother to call your lawyer; the Miranda Decision is inapplicable.

In the courtroom one also must be prepared for a surprise, especially if the courtroom is in Switzerland. A laborer in Geneva found himself hauled into court for failing to yield the right of way—a month earlier in another city. Entirely on the unsupported testimony of the complainant, the man was fined $18. Enraged, he took the case to an appeals court, which, equally enraged, quadrupled the fine and tacked on costs.

A Swiss national—let us call the poor fellow Good Driver Schweik—was cruising along a one-way street when he came to a barely moving car ahead. He pulled out to pass, and the slow car moved squarely in front of him. This went on for several blocks, until finally Good Driver Schweik made an especially determined move, whereupon the slower car rammed him.

The rammer stormed out of his car and proclaimed in rustic Schweizerdeutsch, "I've been driving for 27 years!"

Good Driver Schweik said calmly, "Yes, I'll bet you have. Around the dunghills of your village."

Fisticuffs ensued, and the rammer pummeled Schweik into the earth, climbed back into his old car and drove off. By American standards, he had committed about six separate and distinct offenses, including assault with a deadly weapon, assault and battery, and hit-run driving.

A few weeks later, Good Driver Schweik received notice that he, Schweik, had been charged with various traffic offenses. In court the judge told him, "Herr Schweik, you come from the big city of Zurich, and you've had a good education and a good background. But this poor fellow that hit you, he's from a small village. He hasn't had your opportunities. He doesn't have your sophistication. When he tried to keep you from overtaking, you should have realized that he didn't want you to pass! You should have been patient with him. As for the fight, well my dear Herr Schweik, it wasn't very kind of you to talk about the dunghills of his village, was it?"

His Honor's final decision was a model of Helvetian jurisprudence: he dropped all charges and ordered the drivers to split costs. Schweik was relieved to have beaten the rap after having committed such heinous offenses as coming from a big city and being sophisticated.

Of all the European countries, Switzerland will be the most crowded this summer, both because of its many sightseeing attractions and because it is just down the block from the Olympic Games. Already car-rental agencies are reporting sellouts (or rentouts) and rushing cars into Zurich and Geneva from other parts of Europe.

Too bad, This picturesque little country that so magnetizes the tourist is an aggravating place to drive. Thousands of Swiss seem to suffer from chronic irregularity or iron-poor blood or some other undiagnosed condition that causes them to turn into snapping ogres the instant they get behind the wheel of a car. Tempers flare; insults and sometimes blows fly freely. A South African diplomat's wife passed a Swiss car, and at the first stop street in the center of town the indignant Swiss got out of his car and slapped the woman in the face. In a similar incident, two secretaries from the U.S. Embassy in Berne got off with minor shakings.

For a time, the Swiss enjoyed questioning one another's sanity by driving alongside and sharply turning an imaginary key on the temple in a clockwise direction. When that was made a misdemeanor, people began using a backward peace sign (and sometimes half a peace sign) as a show of annoyance. At the moment, the typical Swiss driver seems content to shake his fist, especially at foreigners, and the practice has become so widespread that certain consular employees have removed their CD (Corps Diplomatique) tags so that they will not be spotted as auslanders.

A while back, Hertz began putting big yellow-and-black T (for tourist) signs on rental cars. A pamphlet explained that the conspicuous T would tell the natives that you are "a tourist who may not be familiar with our roads...who may drive into a wrong lane...and then the Swiss will not immediately lose their temper." No, not immediately; not for three-fifths of a second. Latterly, against the odds, Hertz reports the sign is bringing good results, the deep-down Swiss courtesy apparently having won out over the deep-down Swiss insularity, and now other Swiss auto-rental agencies are following suit.

But if attitudes are improving ever so slightly, the awful Swiss roads are changing hardly at all. "We invented DDT," my Swiss friend Michael Vescoli once told me, "and we had the first cogwheel railroad and the first self-winding watch, and we developed milk chocolate and the gas turbine, but we still haven't discovered the highway!"

"Cowpaths" is a better description. Except for a superhighway that is progressing by inches, Swiss roads are high-crowned, slick, pockmarked and adorned at every blind 90-degree turn by a farmer leading a herd of goats or a blind old bullock plodding ahead of a tank of liquid fertilizer or a young Oberländer dawdling along the center stripe, all of them secure in the knowledge that the right-of-way firmly belongs to them. "The pedestrian," says an anguished Zurich cabdriver, "he is a sacred cow in this country." Under Swiss law, you are always at fault if you hit a pedestrian, no matter what the circumstances. As Vescoli said, "If you pass under a tree and a man drops out of the tree in front of your car and you hit him, you're at fault for passing under the tree at that particular moment." The law is accented in a typical drivers' examination:

Q—If you see a child crossing the road, when do you stop?

A—Before you see the child.

One would suppose that such laws would make prudent drivers of the Swiss, and one would be wrong. Typically European, the Swiss have two speeds: all-out and full-stop. I once had the pleasure of driving 1,200 miles through France with a Swiss chauffeur, and for 1,200 miles his foot was shoving with all his strength at either the gas pedal or the foot brake. A day's driving left us physical wrecks. My head bobbed dizzily about like a rag doll's, and I had long, sometimes losing bouts with mal de mer, hundreds of miles from the sea.

In Lugano, a Swiss tried to convince me that he and his countrymen are highly skilled drivers, that it is not poor drivers but poor conditions that cause such a high accident rate. "Why, take my own case," he said, not without a certain hauteur. "Already, on the narrow, crowded streets of Lugano, I am hitting two children."

My anguished look startled him.

"Oh, no, no, no," he said. "Not to worry, my friend. They were not hurt bad. Just a scratch or two."

Well, one might have thought, at least this Swiss has learned his lesson. After hitting two innocent children, he obviously will be driving like an old lady. Then I went for a ride with him, and he drove like Emerson Fittipaldi, through those same narrow, crowded streets of Lugano.

Later we were driving north out of Zurich, duplicating the Zurich-Munich trip that several thousand Americans would be making later in the summer. Near the Albis Tunnel, there was a warning sign with an animal on it.

"What's that?" I asked my wife.

"Wait," she said. "It's—no, it can't be. Yes, it is! It's a frog!"

"A frog?" I said.

"Yes," she said, "a frog. What do you suppose it means? 'Dangerous frog ahead?' 'Beware of giant frog?' "

We found out later that the sign of the frog signified that there was a frog-breeding area just off the road, and that sometimes frogs by the hundreds slithered their way across, making the road even more dangerous than usual. "When the frogs begin to move," a Swiss informant explained, "you would be wise to stop and give them the right-of-way, like any other Swiss pedestrians." He told me that there had been a small tempest when it was first announced that the sign would be put up. "People said there were already enough signs cluttering our roadsides. One man joked that they should put a picture of a cat along the frogs' path, instead of a frog along the highway. Another said, 'But anybody knows—frogs can't read signs!' "

Now, whenever reminiscing about the painful art of driving in Europe, I try to remember that frog-warning sign at Albis, and how the pedestrian is always right, even if he falls from a tree, and the peculiar rule priorité √† droite, which means that anyone on your right is right, and if you hit him, you'll get yours later. I try to remember whether a Renault 17 should be driven past a Saab Sonett with alacrity or trepidation, or not at all, and whether a Fiat 500 coming up from the rear with all eight headlights ablaze should be ignored or avoided or what. The rules and strictures and traditions and customs fuse together in my mind, and I am left with one superconclusion, one universal admonition to myself and my fellow Americans, one ultimate truth about driving in Europe: