Driving overseas? Read this first

It was an open-ended question, the kind you learn to ask after renting countless cars: Is there anything else I should know about driving here?

“Yes,” said the Hertz agent at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, after taking a glance at my keys. “You can’t drive this car in Paris.”

Turns out my visit last week coincided with some of the city’s worst smog in years. In an effort to cut back on pollution, only cars with odd-numbered license plates could drive in the City of Light. Mine had an even number.

Fortunately, I wasn’t driving to Paris.

But that question — what else do I need to know? — is always a useful one to ask. Additional restrictions may apply, particularly if you’re driving overseas. Drivers report being hit with high fines and mysterious tickets, and they don’t know whether to pay them. There’s no easy solution.

Paris is hardly the only city that restricts vehicle traffic. London’s $16.50-per-day Congestion Charge affects vehicles operating from 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. If you forget, you’ll pay a $214.50 fine, reduced to $107 if paid within 14 days, plus an administrative fee if your car rental company handles the transaction.

That’s what happened to Vanessa Morton, a vintner from Dallas, when she drove into the wrong part of London on a recent trip. “Five months later, our rental car agency sent us a letter advising they had charged our credit card for over $200 in fines, which we discovered they were entitled to do under the terms and conditions of the rental agreement,” she recalls.

In São Paulo, your car is assigned a day of rest to cut down on traffic. For example, if your plate ends in 1 or 2, you’re not allowed to drive in the city limits on Mondays, says Suzanne Garber, who works for a New Brunswick, N.J.-based non-profit group. The rules are enforced by cameras, which also catch lead-footed drivers in the act.

“I’ve learned from personal experience on both fronts,” she says.

Before we go any further, a little disclaimer: Most of my columns feature intractable problems and improbable resolutions, thanks to the advocacy work I do on the side. Not this one. I’ve never been able to talk my way out of a traffic ticket, let alone someone else’s.

But if I could, I would forgive all traffic violations against car rental customers in Italy. They are by far the single biggest source of consumer complaints about international car rentals that I receive in my work as a consumer advocate.

For example, Peggy Kroll, an outreach coordinator for a non-profit organization in West Palm Beach, Fla., traveled to northern Italy with three friends in 2012. She was shocked when one of her companions, who had rented the car, received two additional bills almost a full year after they’d returned the vehicle. The violations, for illegally entering a limited traffic area and for driving in a lane for public transport, didn’t make sense to her.

“None of us was aware of any signage indicating that we were in contravention to the laws of the town,” she says. Still, her friend paid the fine.

Here’s where things get a little fuzzy. Because the notices sometimes aren’t in English, it’s hard to know who’s behind the bill — the municipality or the car rental company. It’s also difficult to discern what you’re paying — a car rental company processing fee, or the actual ticket, or a combination of both. And then there’s the issue of what will happen if you refuse to settle up.

“No one knows,” says Elizabeth Knight, an American attorney who writes a blog about Rome called RomeIfYouWantTo.com. “But I would not risk it if the traveler ever plans on returning to Italy, as fines for those with unpaid tickets can be extraordinary. I have heard of vehicles being confiscated due to unpaid tickets. Imagine being left on the side of the road in Tuscany with your screaming children, having had your rented Fiat confiscated.”

I can’t. There has to be a better way of handling moving violations for international visitors. At a minimum, motorists should know what laws they’ve broken and soon after their trip, not months or years later. And ideally, we should have a clearer idea of what we’re paying and our options, including what will happen if we don’t.

Tips for happy motoring

If you’re renting a car overseas, here’s how to avoid a mystery ticket.

• Always ask. Tell the company where you’re driving and ask if there are any special restrictions. Car rental companies don’t want you to get into trouble with the law, either.

• Drive defensively. Adopt amore cautious driving style when you’re in another country. In many parts of Europe, speed traps are automated with cameras but are easy to avoid if you drive the speed limit.

• Pay the fine. Fighting a traffic ticket from afar is possible but almost never practical. Not paying it at all could land you in serious trouble if you ever return. Besides, you broke the law, even if you didn’t know it.

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