I have been in driving in Greece for a while now and have witnessed many examples of bad habits on the road, which have shocked my rapidly departing British sensibilities. It is not uncommon for drivers to hoot their horns at traffic lights, even when they are still on red and to fly through red lights. There is a reason of sorts for the some of the occasions when the latter occurs. Traffic lights, even in the capital, are not remotely controlled at different times of the day to allow for changes in traffic flow. Therefore in rush hour, for example, there can be dozens of cars waiting to go through a traffic light, which stays green for only ten seconds or less. This results in stressed out drivers sneaking through on red because they are tired of waiting. I have also been surprised on more than one occasion when going down a one-way street, by someone coming at speed in the opposite direction towards me. I have decided that if I ever dent the front of my car, the next time I see someone driving the wrong way up a one-way street towards me I’ll head straight for them and let the other guy's insurance company cover it. Sounds good in theory at least.
The Greeks seem to have a disregard for their own safety to a degree that I have not seen in northern Europe – drivers and pedestrians alike. For example, watch out for Greek grannies walking down the middle of the road with their shopping. Ok, so the pavements in some places are so bad that you have to walk in the road, but it is really necessary for pedestrians to go head to head with the traffic? Seatbelts are rarely worn and children can often be seen jumping up and down on the back seat, as though they were playing in their rooms, or wedged between two adults on a motorbike. There is very much an “it will never happen to me” mentality, but the statistics show that unfortunately it does happen, every day. I always wear a seatbelt, whether I am driving or I am in someone elses car. It often raises a strange look from taxi drivers, as though you are somehow questioning their ability to drive!
A Few Road Tips
- The first and most important one is to just be alert. This will keep you safe on the road 99.99% of the time. I realised recently that I am now no longer just looking at the car in front of me when I drive, but I am also unconsciously looking through his windshield at the car in front of him. You will soon develop quicker reactions and a sixth sense for when someone is going to do something unorthodox. Driving back in the UK would probably feel pretty dull now!
- Care needs to be taken on roundabouts, because it seems that the rule is the person who drives most aggressively, regardless of whether they are already on the roundabout or entering it, is the one who has priority.
- Unlike in the UK, when another driver flashes his headlights at you, he is not letting you pass, he is warning you that he is coming and to stay out of the way. The same goes for when someone honks their horn. If someone is letting you pass, they will usually wave you through with their hand.
- In built-up areas, go carefully through crossroads, because people do not always respect stop signs and may also have their view of you blocked by cars parked right on the street corner.
- In stationary traffic - and at all other times for that matter - leave a good distance between your car and the car in front. The reason being that few people seem to bother with clutch control and if the road has even a slight gradient, they will roll back a few inches before moving off - so your front bumper had better not be in the way. This does not just apply to cars - I have seen huge trucks roll back as much as a metre while the driver is engaging gear and preparing to move off. Pretty scarey!
- Maintain your vigilance even if you are driving down one-way streets. This is particularly important in small backstreets in residential areas. There is a chance that someone might surprise you and drive the wrong way along it towards you. Many Greek drivers will think nothing of doing this if it is a small, apparently quiet street and they think they can get down it quickly. "It is a one-way street...my way"!
- In response to what I said earlier about red traffic lights, when the lights turn green do not move off without checking that there are no latecomers coming from another junction. When I first started driving here, I thought that people had a slow reaction time when the lights turn green but now I understand that they are just being careful - why hurry?
About the author:
Emmanuel Mendonca moved to Greece in 2004 and is getting to grips with his new life in Athens. He publishes Greece travel and living articles for newcomers to Athens.