Ignorance is not an excuse for not following road laws, and being a foreign driver will not give you a 'get out of jail free' card. Almost every country has its own unique set of regulations, so do some research before heading off. This should prevent any unpleasant encounters with the traffic police and could make the difference between a disaster and a hassle-free trip.
First Things First: International Driving Permit (IDP)
If you intend driving in any country you’ll need to have a valid driver’s licence. Some countries do not recognise your national SA driver's licence, but officially recognise an International Driving Permit (IDP). Other countries might honour your valid driver's licence but require a local language translation from either an embassy or consulate. The IDP satisfies both of these requirements.
Also, keep in mind, where the local government may not require an IDP for legal driving, car rental companies may request that you produce a valid IDP for rental purposes. Various motorists have reported that where car rental companies did not request an IDP for rental purposes they did have problems when they were involved in accidents. Authorities and rental companies may at any point, dispute your driver's licence. The IDP serves as an official document and constitutes proof that the holder possesses a valid driver's license. Obtaining an IDP is therefore highly recommended and essential in non-English speaking countries.
Whatever you do, always ensure that you do have both your valid driver’s licence as well as the IDP present. Always keep copies (preferably certified copies) separate from the original, in case the documents are lost or stolen.
Rules of the Road
Never assume anything. Rules and regulations vary greatly from one country to another and a minor offence may get you into major problems. Alcohol levels in countries differ, so ensure that you’re aware of the legal limit.
Familiarise yourself with basics on speed limits, road signs, parking regulations, use of seatbelts, compulsory items required in vehicles, the legal driving age and accident procedures.
If stopped at a roadblock, be courteous and responsive to questions asked by the authorities. Do request an officer’s identification card and if it isn’t displayed then do not provide payment for any speed fines or ‘offences’. Ask the officer to follow you to the nearest police station and resolve the matter there.
Rental vs. Private
Different rules apply at each country border. When travelling across borders you will be required to produce the vehicle registration papers or the rental agreement. Confirm that you have adequate insurance cover and whether you need to obtain additional Third Party insurances (required in Africa) or pay road permits or taxes. Vehicles that cross any border are, by law, required to display the distinguishing sign to indicate its country of registration.
Various things should be considered when renting a vehicle. Confirm if your rental vehicle has breakdown cover and the procedures to follow in time of need.
Are We There Yet?
Avoid petty arguments about directions. Invest in a decent map and study it before you travel. Better yet, it could be worth your while investing in a GPS navigational unit and purchasing and downloading the country map prior to your trip. Tom Tom provides a global solution. If buying is not an option, consider renting one.
Most countries use metric measurements consistently, but be sure that you know how to do conversions so that you don’t accidently speed. When travelling in various countries, you’re often required to convert kilometres per hour (km/h) to miles per hour (mph), the same with driving distances.
A quick guide to remember: 1 Mile = 1.61 Kilometres.
Refuel as often as possible but bear in mind that in some countries the fuel price is not fixed and there can be a considerable difference between fuel prices on major motorways compared to smaller intersections. Enquire from the locals what type of fuel is available, how the fuel pump is operated and the method of payment to ensure you don’t run dry.
Some countries have attendants while other allow for customers to pump fuel before settling the bill. Many countries have pay-at-the-pump or prepay facilities. Always ensure that the vehicle is filled with the appropriate fuel. Fuel dispensers are also known as bowsers (in Australia), petrol pumps (in Commonwealth countries), or gas pumps (in North America).
What Will Be, Will Be
Whatever happens, chances are you’ll upset a local driver. Respond with an apologetic smile and a friendly hand signal. Partial use of your hand or fingers may inflame the situation further. Always keep doors locked, and valuables out of sight.
Whatever you do, make sure that you enjoy your well deserved holiday, and if all else fails - call a cab!