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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Get your motor runnin': Driving in Slovakia

Hot down summer in Slovak cities, back of your neck feeling dirty and gritty? High time to get out of Bratislava, or Topoľčany, or Košice, or whatever concrete and steel jungle you're roasting in?
While the car-less among us are riding the hot, sticky rails, those endowed with a motor vehicle have over 17,794 kilometres of roads leading them through Slovakia's thrilling countryside. Only 370 kilometres of those roads are highway, but snaking two-lane routes and bumpy provincial passages are part of the holiday charm.

Hot down summer in Slovak cities, back of your neck feeling dirty and gritty? High time to get out of Bratislava, or Topoľčany, or Košice, or whatever concrete and steel jungle you're roasting in?

While the car-less among us are riding the hot, sticky rails, those endowed with a motor vehicle have over 17,794 kilometres of roads leading them through Slovakia's thrilling countryside. Only 370 kilometres of those roads are highway, but snaking two-lane routes and bumpy provincial passages are part of the holiday charm.

If you're new to Slovakia, or a new car-owner, you will have questions as you prepare for the winding roads. What are Slovakia's licence requirements? Do I need stickers? Whom do I call in case of emergency? Fortunately, the answers to those questions are direct and simple.

Foreign tourists do not need a Slovak driving licence or an international driving licence if they are here for less than 30 days (although foreigners with green cards must get a Slovak licence; call 124 for detailed English-language information).

All foreign driving licences and permits are recognised. However, a person must be 18 years of age to drive in Slovakia, even if they have reached legal driving age in their country of origin. So if you have an American or Canadian visitor under 18, even if he or she has a licence at home, don't give them the keys.

Under Slovak law, however, you may pass over the moped, provided the recipient has the proper paperwork. A person need be only 15 to drive one, but must have a moped driving licence, even if such a licence is not required at home. The age for a full-fledged motorcycle is 17; the stipulations are otherwise the same.

The upside to Slovakia's having so few kilometres of highways is that there are few requirements to buy road stickers, those nuisances of the European motorways. Nevertheless, it's a good idea to pick up a pamphlet at gas stations with a map indicating those highways that do require them. Stickers (nálepky) cost only 400 crowns for cars weighing less than 1.5 tonnes, 900 crowns for larger cars; these figures are per year, with 60 or 130 crowns required for 15 days.

Foreign drivers need to be aware that Slovakia has a zero tolerance policy concerning alcohol and the operation of a motor vehicle. Those used to limiting themselves to a few drinks before driving will have to limit themselves to zero in Slovakia. Frequent checkpoints make breaking this law a risky proposition.

Although you would never guess it from glancing around at rush hour in Bratislava, the use of mobile phones while driving is outlawed. Trams turning right have right of way, although the Spectator urges drivers to yield to trams under all circumstances.

Very few Slovak street signs have a textual message rather than a symbol, for example a blue sign with white writing saying choďte vľavo, or 'pedestrians must walk on the left', or a white-on-red sign saying Prejazd zakázaný, or 'closed to all vehicles'.

Most, however, communicate in symbols. A sign bearing a white bar placed horizontally against a red background means do not enter; it may indicate a Jednosmerná premávka, or one-way traffic. A sign with a big blue 'X' signifies no stopping, while one diagonal blue slash (half the 'X') indicates no standing for more than three minutes.

Stop signs are easily recognised, but many intersections won't have any; the car approaching the intersection from the right has the right of way. Yield signs are red and triangular, with a white triangle on the inside. You can never turn right on a red light, and in fact, foreigners must be careful of lights; frequently, only small lit arrows indicate which lane is allowed to proceed.

In the event of a breakdown, call The Slovak Autoturist Club (SATC) at 124 or 0124. The club provides 24-hour road assistance throughout Slovakia. Its English and German speaking operators also answer general travel and driving questions. Prices for roadside assistance vary according to location and need, but SATC offers substantial discounts for those with AIT assistance booklet or membership cards in most European automobile clubs.

All accidents must be reported to the police under Slovak law. Their number is 158. If you are stopped by police under normal circumstances, be courteous, but if you are asked to pay a fine and you believe you did nothing wrong, ask for a receipt (potvrdenka).

Aside from those few bumps, Slovak roads tend to be in good shape and clearly marked. Speed limits on town streets, roads and highways are 60, 90 and 130 kilometres (38, 56 and 81 miles) per hour, respectively (60, 80 and 90 for motorcycles).

One final note on cars in Slovakia. The rates of Slovak car-rental agencies are substantially cheaper than those of firms in Western countries, ranging from 690 to 1,500 crowns ($14 to $30) per day. And the process is marked by substantially less red tape.

In the words of an oft-travelling friend: "It costs way more to rent a car in the US, or in France or Italy. And it's more of a hassle. Here I walked in, handed them my licence, paid, signed a paper, and received the keys. It was great."

Foreign Affairs is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the spills and thrills of life in Slovakia.

The next Foreign Affairs column will appear on stands August 13, Vol. 7, No. 30.

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