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posted on 29 September 2017

The Rules Of The Road For Travel Abroad


-- this post authored by Scott Stewart

The commander of the Russian army's airborne forces took an unwelcome detour recently while traveling in northwestern Russia. Riding in a motorcade, Col. Gen. Andrey Serdyukov was seriously injured when the van carrying him ran into an oncoming car. A dashcam video captured by a vehicle traveling in the same direction shows the first three vehicles in the motorcade careening through traffic on a rain-slicked, two-lane highway ahead of Serdyukov's van, which then crashed and rolled several times. The case offers a reminder of the danger that automobile accidents pose to reckless or inattentive drivers and the people around them on the road.

Traffic accidents claim far more lives each year than do wars and criminal homicides, though they receive less attention from the media by comparison. In 2010, for example, 1.24 million people died from traffic accidents, compared with 500,000 people killed in military conflicts and homicides combined. And for travelers, who often are in strange environments and may be unfamiliar with the streets, traffic laws and driving customs of the places they visit, the risk of a mishap on the road is especially high. Data tracked by the U.S. Department of State over the past 15 years show that vehicle accidents were responsible for an average 27 percent of the reported deaths of U.S. citizens abroad. Similarly, the incidence of traffic-related deaths among travelers became such a concern for China and the United Kingdom that their governments launched campaigns to raise awareness of road safety and to help their citizens overseas in the event of an accident. Traffic accidents are a serious problem for travelers, whether ordinary tourists or VIPs like Serdyukov. But the good news is that they are often avoidable.

Causes of Deaths of U.S. Citizens Abroad

Keys to Keeping Safe on the Road

One of the best ways to protect yourself while traveling is to take the same safety precautions that you'd take at home. Wear a seatbelt, abstain from drinking and driving, obey traffic laws, and pay close attention to road conditions and hazards. Before you get behind the wheel, think carefully about whether you'll feel comfortable in certain environments. Will you be able to manage driving your rental car during rush hour in Beijing or Rome? Are you prepared to deal with a mechanical issue if your vehicle breaks down in heavy traffic or in a remote area? If you have even a shadow of a doubt about the answer to these questions, then perhaps taking a different mode of transportation would be a better option. Don't push yourself to drive if you feel uncomfortable. And if you do decide to drive, take the time to get acquainted with the local traffic patterns and stresses before plunging in.

I know from personal experience that driving on the left side of the road in places such as Ireland and Australia takes a lot of concentration for someone accustomed to driving on the right side. A mistaken right turn at an intersection or, more likely, out of a parking lot can prove fatal. The amount of traffic in many foreign countries, and local drivers' aggressiveness, also can take even seasoned motorists by surprise. Drivers in New Delhi or Cairo, for example, may subdivide a congested four-lane road into six or seven lanes of traffic. Furthermore, the confluence of cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles and auto rickshaws in some cities abroad can be unsettling for many drivers who aren't used to it. Add to that the distinctive driving customs common in some places - such as driving with the lights off at night to save on gasoline - and you could have the makings of a car accident. Consular information sheets and other travel advice from governments facilities overseas usually will provide important information about transportation safety and local driving conditions. I urge travelers to check these sources before a trip.

When Others Are Behind the Wheel

Public transportation can be a safe and efficient alternative to driving in some parts of the world. In others, however, it is neither. Street gangs in Central America, for instance, make a habit of waylaying buses to shake down the driver and passengers for money and valuables. Taxis or limo services can offer a safer option, but they come with their own risks. Though many countries have strict regulations governing taxi operations, drivers can sometimes skirt these rules through bribery. Consequently, being a licensed taxi driver doesn't necessarily indicate proficiency as a motorist. (The problem is even more pronounced among unofficial cabs and ride-hailing services, which entail less training and oversight.)

I recommend using taxis only if a trusted local friend or colleague can attest to their safety. Before you get in, give the cab a close look to check for maintenance and safety issues. Wait for another vehicle if your taxi doesn't have functional seat belts or if its doors don't unlock or open from the inside. If you get into a cab and the driver is driving in an unsafe manner or at an unsafe speed, find a safe place to get out, pay the fare and find another mode of transportation. Cutting your ride short may be inconvenient, but it beats getting in an accident. The rule applies to foreign and domestic travel alike; I've had to stop taxis in Manhattan mid-ride out of concern for my own safety.

As a general rule, private transportation is safer than are public transportation or taxis. Cars and drivers can be hired in advance based on recommendations from reliable local sources, business contacts or hotels. In fact, hotels often offer their own transport services or partner with vetted taxi or limousine services for their guests' convenience. A traveler usually can trust these drivers because they have a long-standing relationship with the hotel and don't want to jeopardize their business by putting a passenger in danger. But there are exceptions to every rule. When I worked in executive protection, I encountered even high-end private drivers who were reckless. If you find yourself in that situation, don't hesitate to call the company and request a different driver. Remember: You are in charge of your own safety.

Still, traffic accidents are an unfortunate reality for travelers. Even safe, reliable drivers can fall victim to dangerous driving conditions, including other drivers. Driverless carsmight someday mitigate these risks, but for now, we are left to deal with human drivers - and human error. By taking a few simple actions and exercising common sense in our travels, we can at least reduce the threat that traffic accidents pose.

"The Rules of the Road for Travel Abroad" is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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