Every nationality it seems has its own particular approach to driving. And while this topic is admittedly the clichéd fallback of the uninspired travel writer, le homme suisse is genuinely an interesting case. As generally speaking he’s actually a most excellent driver.
Not for Monsieur Suisse are the urban scrapes of the Italian motorist, nor the risk-defying autobahn antics of Herr Deutsche.
And our Swiss chauffeur generally drives more slowly, more considerately than his French-speaking neighbor just the other side of the border.
Mr Swiss’ voiture is likely newer, with less dents (if any), and I would hazard a guess he gets by with less motorized bumps and bashes each year than all his European cousins.
But he does have his moments. And they can enliven the arteries of the uninitiated Brit.
So here follow a few observations from three years of driving in Switzerland:
1. Pedestrian crossings are holy
Unlike many European countries in which you take your life in your hands every time you try to cross the road, Swiss pedestrians are like cows in India – sacred. (Providing they are crossing at an approved spot.)
In fact, if a Swiss pedestrian so much as glances towards a striped yellow crossing from within leaping range, you’d better be prepared to break, if not start slowing straight away. For know this – they will hurl themselves bonnet-wards without a second thought.
Les anciens in particular assume that you’ll follow the letter of the law, as presumably everyone has done for decades before, so don’t even expect them to look and check. They won’t. They’ll just totter across like your route was a little extra pavement.
In short, if you’re not on your toes, you’ll quickly be on someone else’s.
2. If it’s in front, it rules
To my mind the most crucial Swiss driving lesson: if someone is in front of you, they will do exactly what the buggery they want. And they’ll expect you to let them.
You could be panning it down the motorway 30- or 40kph faster than your sloth-like neighbor in the slow lane, but when it comes time for him to finally overtake the truck or tank he’s behind (literally, as there’s plenty of military in Switzerland relative to its size), he’ll pop into your path without so much as jetting you un oeil (throwing a glance). Cue some serious brake hammering on your front and some equally serious tremoring on your heart’s.
The same applies, more bizarrely still, at roundabouts. Which is a result of many Swiss drivers being seemingly oblivious to the function of those little stalks either side of the steering wheel that make the side lights flash on and off.
Really. I’ve very rarely seen a Swiss driver indicate. Even less often when heading all the way around a rondpoint. I have however seen their faces more closely than I’d planned after I assumed they were heading straight through and pulled out into their path. I’m not sure who was more aggrieved. They’ve even pipped their horns at me on occasion – an illegal act except in case of emergencies, of which I’m guessing taking liberties at roundabouts is one.
3. Remember your tires
Now then, every car in Switzerland comes with its own set of extra tires for winter. These aren’t the chain-ensconced spheres you may be thinking of, but simply tires with slightly deeper treads that work a treat when temperatures plummet and everything turns white.
It’s up to you to pop these on – or pay a garagiste around forty Francs to do so – around October or November time, lest you skate your way into an automotive crunch, your insurance company thumb its nose and the resulting monstrous bills be yours to pay.
Come April it’s back to the more fuel-friendly summer versions and you’re on your way.
4. What speed can you afford ?
Our last rule is not so much an observation of Monsieur’s roadcraft but a financial tip for those planning to drive in La Suisse. Calculate how fast you can afford to go.
Break the speed limit here and you won’t receive points on your license as you would in France or the UK. Instead you’ll pay. And you’ll pay plenty.
The amount you will be fined will be based on two factors: how far above the speed limit you were rocketing along, and your monthly salary. This wallet-squeezing ratio is why you might occasionally read in the news about a supercar owner, often unknowing foreigners, being fined mindboggling sums for attempting to break the sound barrier as they careered past Cossonay.
Which is really a waste, as the surrounding countryside is lovely to look at.
I’ve almost been party to this punishment myself actually, after some local law enforcers noticed me rattling through a tunnel on my way to a meeting (speed limit 100kph, actual speed 140kph – my one-time Swiss speeding offence and a continual source of dinner party shame).
My second mistake was trying to have the subsequent road-side conversation in French. The result of which was, well, not much… the only thing I understood with any degree of certainty was that I was knee-deep in la merde.
I did raise a smirk from the purple-faced officers at one stage after I got my adjectives confused and tried to pass my annual salary off as my monthly wage. This faux-pas became quickly obvious however when two bewildered gazes at my scratchy old Fiat Punto suggested they didn’t believe a man of such apparent means would choose to drive a vehicle with such, erm, caractère.
But after all that, in distinctly un-Swiss hip-hop style, I got off on a technicality after the Police speed recorder malfunctioned.