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Survival on the Greek Roads

driving in greece

27 Simple Rules of Survival on the Greek Roads

Driving in mainland Greece and on the Greek islands is a pleasure for those who know how to drive and especially those who know how to drive defensively. Driving in Athens is different. The most important thing to know is that following the rules is seen as a weakness of character by many Greek men who drive with the patience and consideration of a 13 year old drug addict in need of a fix. There are lots of people on the road who could not pass a road test if they had to, yet they are driving and some of them are driving fast.

If you study my 27 Simple Rules of Survival on the Greek Roads you will know what to watch out for.

1) You must always keep in mind that you may be the only person on the road who actually took and passed a road test. Many of your fellow drivers rather than go through the inconvenience of taking the test or risk failing it simply bribed the people administering it. Just assume that nobody but you knows how to drive and you have to make up for their lack of ability by driving more defensively.

2) There are lanes but these can get blurred in certain places so keep your eyes on the car in front of you. There is especially a lack of lane discipline at night. The double lines in the middle of the road mean no-passing just like at home but don't be surprised to see someone else passing in fact they may be coming right towards you. Just take it to mean that you should not pass and that you should be extra alert for someone who is passing from the opposite direction because the rule does not apply to them. When driving on the National Road and in the countryside remember the advice of George the Famous Taxi Driver: Keep to the right. Some Greek drivers do not like to be told what to do and they see the double white center line as a challenge to them to cross it and assert their individuality.
When I would rent a small car like a Hyundai Atos I would have more close calls then when I drove a Suzuki Grand Vitara which is a small SUV. Opposing drivers seemed to give me room with the Vitara while with the Atos they seemed to wait til the last second to swerve out of the way. Maybe its a coincidence, but more likely it is a macho thing. They don't want to mess with a truck. They say it is the same with priests. So if you don't want to become a priest drive a truck or SUV.

3) If you decide to stop when the light turns orange be aware that the guy behind you may have already decided he is going to go through it and brace yourself. That does not mean that you should race through yellow lights to avoid being rear-ended. It means you should slow down and it means you should definitely not decide at the last instant not to go through. Make your decision early. It is better to have the guy behind you swearing at you than on top of you.

4) Motorbikes don't obey any lanes or rules and there is usually one or more somewhere nearby. Watch out for them especially on the islands where tourists who have never driven a motorbike in their lives are doing so now and are possibly drunk too. Motorcycles are responsible for the greatest number of accident victims in Greece.

5) Watch out for people opening their doors without looking while parked or double parked. Expect the unexpected

6) In the mountains and rural areas, driving can be treacherous due to narrow roads, blind curves, and unprotected embankments sometimes on the edge of 1000 foot cliffs that fall to the sea, or even worse, the ground. Watch out for people parked in unbelievably stupid places like when you come around a mountain bend and someone is relieving himself or taking a picture of his girlfriend while his car is parked halfway in the road.

7) Road signs are mostly in Greek and English but that does not mean you will always see them, especially in central Athens. Usually when I leave the city for the first time my wife watches for street signs and my mother-in-law is forbidden to speak until we have reached the National Road or the Hymettos Ring Road.

8) There are certain days and times when traffic is terrible, beyond belief. The days and times and directions vary but correspond to working and shopping hours so you may want to familiarize yourself with them. Keep in mind that demonstrations can have an undesirable effect on your plans to travel in and out of Athens. Most are in the Syntagma Square area but they often march somewhere. Strikes and demonstrations are usually announced in the English language Kathimerini Daily. Cars parked on the route of protest marches sometimes get smashed, especially if they have foreign plates and particularly American plates. A good rule is to not park on the street between the Athens Polytechnic University and the American Embassy on November 17th.

9) Leaving Athens by car on the Friday before a holiday weekend and returning after a holiday weekend is a nightmare, no matter where you are going. This is especially true of Easter and the beginning of August when many Athenians take their vacations. If you can stay in Athens and leave when everyone is returning then do that.

10) If you have never driven in mountains before you may want to practice using your gears to downshift and reduce your speed instead of using your brakes and then not having any when you need to actually stop.

11) Always wear your seatbelt. If you have toddlers ask the rental agency for a car seat before you leave home and if they don't have one, bring one. Kids under 18 years old are not allowed to drive. Children under 10 must sit in the back seat.

12) The Speed limit in Greece is 100-120 kmph on highways unless otherwise posted and 50 kmph in residential areas unless otherwise posted. Most road signs are pictures that are pretty self explanatory.

13) When asking directions expect to hear something like: Go about 3 kilometers, take a right at the traffic light and ask someone else. Directions, no matter how precise always include asking someone else, thus increasing the possibility of being given the wrong directions. Make sure you have a map. A compass is not a bad idea either.

14) If you are staying in Athens and renting a car for an overnight trip or longer ask the rental agency to pick you up at your hotel and when you return to meet you there. Swift Rent A Car will actually pick you up and drive you out of Athens and if you ask, they may drive you in too though by then you will probably feel confident enough to do it on your own.

15) If you plan to do daytrips by car while staying in Athens each night try to find a hotel with parking or ask the hotel where the closest parking garage is. It is almost impossible to find a parking spot in downtown Athens. A legal one anyway. If you park illegally the police will take your plates and it will cost 150 euros to get them back. Paying the money is the easy part.

16) Young Greeks with nice cars drive fast. They do have excellent reflexes which gets them out of trouble as fast as they get into it, probably having something to do with a diet rich in cafeine and nicotine. That means you will have some close calls, almost guaranteed, but if you are attentive and they are not fighting with their girlfriend or mother on the cell phone, chances are you won't have any major accidents. But they do happen. The peak time for accidents in Athens is from 5 to 9 pm as tired drivers return home from work. Many fatalities occur late at night when speed, alcohol and youth are factors.

17) It is easier to rent a car as you need it on each island, then it is to rent a car and take it on and off the ferries to several islands. With the cost of ferry tickets now it is more economical too. Driving a car on a ferry can be a little intimidating at first because usually you have to back in and follow instructions in Greek that will enable you to squeeze your car into a space you never would have thought possible. Getting off is easier but often you have to wait for the car next to you to move so you can open the door and get in. By then you may have asphyxiated from carbon-monoxide, but if you haven't the rest is easy.

18) Gas stations are common but be aware that in many cases they don't accept credit cards.

19) There is an Emergency Line for Visitors to Greece: Dial 112 for information in English, French and Greek regarding ambulance services, fire brigade, police and the coast guard (I guess in case you fall into the sea). For roadside assistance call ELPA at 10400 and chances are good there will be someone there who speaks English. If you are renting a car be sure you have a 24-hour line or cell phone number for the rental company so you can contact them in an emergency or hassle them if the car is a piece of junk.

20) To rent a car in Greece you only need a valid license from your home country. But according to Greek law you need a valid U.S. license as well as an International Driving Permit. The U.S. Department of State has authorized two organizations to issue international permits to those who hold valid U.S. driver's licenses: AAA and the American Automobile Touring Alliance. Vehicles may be rented without an international license, but the driver will be penalized for failure to have one and insurance coverage would not be provided in the event of an accident. Fines are high. EU citizens can use their national driving license.

21) Fines are strict for breaking traffic laws in Greece. Running a red light or ignoring a stop sign is 700 euros. Not using a seatbelt in a car or wearing a helmet on a motorbike is a fine of 350 euros. Talking on a mobile phone without a hands-free kit is 100 euros. Driving under the influence depends on how you score on the breathalyser and can be from 200 to 1200 euros. Most of these fines also come with a loss of license for 10 days to 6 months.

22) The Greek police do use road-blocks to administer breathalyser tests.

23) The cheapest cars are generally the most dangerous. I drive a Suzuki Grand Vitara with about 6 airbags because if someday I do have a serious accident in Greece I want to survive it. Most accidents involving tourists are bumps and scrapes though there are fatalities. Greece has one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities in Europe and just because you are only here for a couple weeks does not mean you are exempt. On the small islands you can get by with a small car which is usually Category A since any collisions are more likely to be with another small car or a motorbike. But on the mainland or the larger islands send a little extra and get a bigger, safer car. Make sure it has seatbelts and they work. Ask about air-bags too.

24) In case I have discouraged you from driving and have decided to walk everywhere keep in mind that Greece also has one of the highest number of pedestrian deaths in the European Union. Because there is a shortage of parking spots many drivers park cars over curbs and sidewalks so pedestrians are forced to walk in streets. Drivers who run lights are a danger and collisions between pedestrians and motorbikes are common.

25) If you rent a car and it has a serious problem don't wait til you return it to report it. For example if you get a car and the air-conditioning does not work, call the agency and tell them you want a new car delivered right away. It is best to know if there are any problems before you drive off and checking the AC is pretty easy to do. Cold air comes out or it doesn't. In the summer when rental cars go out as fast as they come in a problem may not be reported by the previous renter and not caught by the rental agency. But that should not be your problem. It is however your responsibility to report the problem right away. Even if it is not serious and does not require a new car think about the person who will get it next. At the very least make a list of anything that does not seem right to keep minor problems from becoming serious ones and causing major problems for the next person who rents the car.

26) If you happen to break the law and get a ticket (rare) police may not speak your language. Even if they do arguing with them is useless and not recommendable. If you do not agree, just take the ticket, go to the traffic police station and talk to the chief and if you are lucky he will speak English. You should also call the rental agency and ask them to help you because if you leave it is just as likely that the police will come after them too. Remember that no matter how outrageous the fine seems you can pay half price by paying it within 5 days.

27) If you are driving on a weekend, particularly on a Sunday afternoon or evening you should assume that everyone on the road except for you, is drunk. Unless you are drunk too.

There is probably something I have forgotten so you can e-mail me if you think of it:

Driving in Athens can be challenging at first but once you get out of the city you should be fine as long as you PAY ATTENTION. If you love to drive you will love driving in Greece. The roads are pretty good and there is very little of the US Interstate-Autobahn kind of highway driving that makes driving boring. If you are not a good driver then you will probably be terrified at first but the practice of paying attention may make you a better driver. To put you more at ease I have been driving in Greece for 10 years and so far (knock on wood) I have only hit a building, and gotten sideswiped by a garbage truck while my car was parked. So there is hope for you too.

More Greek Driving Rules

Dear Matt,

Since you asked, here are a few more points regarding driving in Greece. Enjoyed your writing very much, I think it is helpful to stress on differences between driving in the UK and Greece, it can save lives.

1) Flashed head lights, long or short means the driver is coming through. Contrary to the UK this means the driver is not giving way to you but alerting you that s/he is coming through.

2) Hazards lights do not mean that the vehicle is standing or is in an emergency parking position. It means the driver is going to do something unexpected and at the end, when s/he is finished the car will stop, somewhere, it could be on the right it could be on the left, it could even be in the middle. When you see a vehicle put on its hazards lights on, keep a distance and expect anything to happen.

3) The vehicles, unlike in the UK, who enter one of the very few roundabouts in Greece have the right of way. So if you are in a round about watch out for incoming traffic into the round about, they expect you to stop and let them get in.

4) This is a very difficult one but it is important. Hardly anyone in Greece pays attention to a pedestrian stepping into a zebra crossing. Usually if one sees that, s/he speeds up to pass the pedestrian before s/he gets to block their way. Better safe than sorry DOES NOT work here. If you stop because at the far end of a zebra crossing someone puts their foot on the asphalt, the car behind you will crash into you. The car behind simply does not expect you to stop. The same is also true about amber or yellow lights, almost everyone, as soon as they see a yellow light speed up. This must sound really confusing to British drivers so my advice is just drive slowly and with much caution it is much better to be shouted at for driving too slowly in unfamiliar territory than never getting there.

5) For some reason most beautiful sceneries are at dangerous corners. Remember, you donít have to become a part of the scenery to enjoy it.

6) The furthest beach is not necessarily the best one. Rental cars give you the freedom of movement even if they are dormant at times. Relax and enjoy your holidays.

These points and more are mentioned in an article I wrote years ago published in a UK magazine, here is the link from my site in case you need it. It is titled : Getting killed on the road can ruin your entire holiday

Many thanks for your good work, keep it up.

Faris Nejad (author of
The Curse of the Ancient Greeks which you kindly advertised on your site)

Hi Matt

Loved your piece on driving in Greece.  Some good points in there and also very amusing.

I run a small B&B on Crete and I always send my guests a short advisory on Greek driving before they arrive. The first thing I tell them is ďRule No 1 is there are no rulesĒ I think that goes a long way.

But one item that I always stress is not included in your piece.  It is this.  Over the years the highways in Crete have been upgraded substantially, but there are still long stretches of highway that are not dual carriageway, and are only one lane in each direction, plus the shoulder.  One thing many visitors donít seem to notice is the localsí custom of moving over on to the shoulder so that a faster vehicle can pass.  Even young macho types will do this for you.  At the end of the day it is much safer for everyone if you keep an eye on your mirrors and just move over when someone charges up behind.

Foreign visitors who insist on driving with their offside wheels on the centre line when faster traffic is trying to get past will find that the overtaker will always do it at exactly the wrong moment, endangering himself, the car he is overtaking and probably oncoming traffic too.

Maybe itís just a Cretan custom; but I donít think so.


Hi Matt,

I lived in Greece for a few years and drove all over including Athens. The one thing you haven't mentioned is that Greeks cannot stand being behind another vehicle if they think you are not breaking the speed limit by a sufficient amount. Often, in this situation, they will overtake you then brake furiously and turn right or left a few metres down the road. One to watch out for.

All the best,
Stuart H

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