10 Things Gearheads Could Learn from Our European Friends

Guest Bloggers

Guest Bloggers | Jan 26, 2016

By Jim Travers

This is a great country, don’t get me wrong. I’m all about mom and apple pie just as much as the next guy - especially since this is an election year and a hefty chunk of our electorate stands poised and ready to fire.

But there are some things we could stand to learn from our European friends. A good baguette in every corner cafe would be one place to start. But this is Car Talk, after all, so we’ll keep the talk to cars, or at least close. Here are ten things we American gearheads could stand to learn from our pals across the pond. Some save fuel, some make driving safer. Others just make driving more fun.

1) Rotaries. Call them rotaries, traffic circles, roundabouts, or what you will. Just call them a good idea. Unlike traffic lights, rotaries keep traffic moving at intersections. That not only saves time and fuel, it also lets you buy some time if you’re unsure of the next turn. Just keep going around in circles until you figure it out. All over Europe, rotaries are seen in some pockets of the U.S. but have yet to really catch on. That’s partly because many of our drivers are scared by them, which brings us to…



2) Better driver education. What passes for driver training and licensing requirements in the United States would just be a warmup for getting a driver’s license in most of Europe. Spain, for example, has seven different types of graduated driving permits, and getting a license requires professional instruction in addition to a certificate of physical and mental fitness. There’s more to safe driving than knowing how close you can park to a fire hydrant. Better training makes for safer drivers, and safer roads. It would also enable more widespread use of…


3) Manual transmissions. All but obsolete on U.S. roads, stick shifts remain hugely popular in Europe. Why? A manual transmission can provide better fuel economy, allow for more precise car control, and help keep the driver more involved in the experience. That can not only make driving more fun, it keeps that right hand busy with something other than a phone, which reminds us…

4) Less texting. Already at epidemic levels on our highways, a casual observation of European roads revealed far fewer drivers fumbling with devices in an entire afternoon than can be seen in one trip across the decomposing and soon to be replaced Tappan Zee Bridge. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about one third of U.S. drivers admitted to texting or emailing behind the wheel, compared to 15 percent in Spain. The reason for this is stiffer penalties, along with everybody busy shifting gears. And speaking of decomposing bridges…

Our once state of the art Interstate system has decayed to the point where it is literally falling apart as budgets have been cut over the years. (Bidgee/Wikimedia Commons)

5) Higher fuel taxes. This one’s a sure fire hot button, but the truth is that higher fuel taxes go to a number of good causes, including infrastructure. Bridges don’t tend to fall into the drink as often when they’re maintained, and highways we drove on over there were in far better shape overall. Our once state-of-the-art Interstate system has decayed to the point where it is literally falling apart as budgets have been cut over the years. Fuel taxes also go to other good stuff like public transport and bike lanes. That doesn’t hurt driving enthusiasts, it helps them. Who wants to sit idling away inexpensive gas while stuck in traffic on a bridge that’s about to collapse? And did we mention bikes?

A handful of Amsterdam's 900,000 bikes. (Betty Ming Liu)

6) More bikes. Yup, more gearheads need to get into, or onto bikes. In fairness, many of us already do, and are the healthier for it. No city embraces bikes like Amsterdam, which has an estimated 900,000 of them. Virtually every street has dedicated bike lanes that are set up like mini-streets of their own, with traffic signals, signage, and center lines. You see whole families out pedaling, and making better time cross town than they could in the family sedan. As a bonus, most of those families aren’t pedaling with a paunch. Amsterdam even has a downtown parking garage just for bikes, with room for 4,000 of them. But not everybody wants to ride, which is why we need to embrace more…

Wouldn't you prefer the bus over gridlock? (Betty Ming Liu)

7) Public transportation. Raise your hand if you’ve spent more than ten minutes looking for a parking space in your own fair city. Now think about getting across town instead in the same amount of time. Madrid’s Metro is but one of the clean and efficient subway systems in European cities, with comfortable and modern trains that run every few minutes. There are enough routes so that you can reach just about anyplace in the city with just a few minutes of walking. And again, much as I like to drive, I’ll take a subway or bus over gridlock any day of the week. When we do drive, we should think about…

Either that's a small car or Car Talk's been adding human growth hormone to our blogger's coffees... Pictured, the author with rental car. (Image: Betty Ming Liu)
(Betty Ming Liu)

8) Smaller cars. It really isn’t necessary for most of us to drive something the size of a subdivision to work. What passes for a compact car here looks strangely large on the streets of Europe, where micro cars abound. Ok, so we may not embrace cars the size of a Barcalounger. But good things really do come in small packages, and that really applies to cars. Most small cars are not the penalty boxes they once were, and many are now comfortable, quiet, and as loaded with cushy features as their land yacht counterparts. Plus, they’re a whole lot easier to park, and can easily double the fuel economy. And an open secret is that most are whole lot more fun to drive.

"Nothing gets your attention like the sound of four or five engines all firing up while you’re shuffling across the street." (Betty Ming Liu)

9) Auto stop-start. This one is already making inroads in the U.S., and will be required on new cars soon. But those frugal Europeans beat us to the punch. Called various things, auto stop-start shuts the engine off at stoplights to save fuel and reduce emissions, and starts it up again as soon as you take your foot off the brake or hit the gas. As a bonus, it doubles as a warning to pedestrians that the light has changed. Nothing gets your attention like the sound of four or five engines all firing up while you’re shuffling across the street.

Move over McDonalds! (Betty Ming Liu)

10) Road food. All right, so if you’ve bought in to a smaller car with a stick shift, and taking the bus once in a while. Maybe you’ve even pumped up the tires on your bike. Reward yourself with something to eat. Everybody knows that Europe is full of tasty, healthy food, but did you know that even highway rest areas put a lot of our delis to shame? We saw plenty of highway rest stops with all kinds of fresh and appealing food. And instead of smelling like something just died, most are clean and pleasant places where people hang out and linger over a tasty meal or a cappuccino. Maybe we can learn something from that, too.

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