Driving in Switzerland: an update

Re: my last Rules of the Road post, I have now delicately raised the issue of roundabout etiquette over lunch with Swiss colleagues and I can report that this apparent lack of indication is not in fact a result of continental complacency. Not at all.

The difference instead is educational. Unlike Brits who must indicate their intended direction on entering a rondpoint, Swiss drivers are taught only to indicate as they leave the circle.

I know. Figure that.

Whilst I find this a curious approach – raising as it does the possibility of Mr. Swiss Driver tootling around and around said tarmac island indefinitely should his indicator be kaputt – if that’s the local way then I consider myself – as they might put it back in Yorkshire – learned.

It also means the end of my one-man re-education campaign, which had previously involved driving straight into roundabouts in order to come bumper-close to Mr. Turning Swiss to advise him on the error of his ways. Sad maybe, but that’s the cost of European integration right there.


Rules of the road

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 arDon't worry about the damage, worry about the fine.e 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.

Très bien!

The man who kept a journal

Lausanne Train Station - Going NEutral

As you will likely discover if you happen upon this pocket of cyberspace more than once, I am increasingly becoming un homme des trains.

It only took me a year of driving an hour each way to work, early in the morning, through rolling countryside and mountain tunnels, to realise that if I continued one of two things would happen. I would either doze off at the wheel and plough into a jaw-droppingly picturesque Swiss ravine, or the number of speeding tickets I received from stern-faced cantonal coppers would render this form of transport economically unviable.

Thus the inspired decision last year to invest in a 3300 Swiss franc Abonnement Generale (a rail pass to you and me) and what seems like at least half a life spent riding the rails. A hobo with a laptop maybe, but all the more relaxed and productive as a result.

All of which I proffer simply to be able to begin with the line, “So, I was on my way to catch the train yesterday when…”

I spied an occurrence of such bizzarity, such innate goodness, such, well, Swissness, that I had to review it several times afterwards in my mind to confirm that what I’d seen was correct. Hold onto your hat…

At the entrance of Lausanne train station, a man placed a free newspaper back in the dispenser.

Earth shattering isn’t it?

Now, I don’t mean he picked it up off the floor in a bid to tidy up the place. That would be, around here at least, pretty normal.

Nor do I mean to suggest that in his haste to make the train he accidentally nudged a Vingt Minutes off its pile and was instantly driven to reaction by his guilt. Again, that would rather be par for the course.

I mean this: having arrived at the Gare de Lausanne, he walked down the steps of his platform, paper in hand, out to the station’s entrance and then delicately slotted his now-finished dose of Paris Hilton pictures and local weather back into the nearest rag dispenser for another news-hungry commuter to digest.

Imagine! Who does that? And why?

It’s astoundingly considerate. A little over the top even. Quite possibly a worrying precursor of obsessive compulsive disorder (just imagine how long it takes him to get out of his maison in the morning!).

I smirked about this behaviour all the way to Morat, some 75 minutes away, running it through my mind while trying to get inside his. And all the while wondering whether through breathing the same air and nibbling the same cheese as said commuter I would ever perhaps morph into a similarly conscientious member of society (rather than, as now, merely grunting my way around Suisse Romande, dropping a trail of pain au chocolate crumbs as I go).

The jury’s out on that one.

But until it returns… have you finished with that?