Driving on the ‘right’ side of the road

Right-hand drive vintage car in Prague © John Millar

Right-hand drive vintage car in Prague © John Millar

Continental Europeans, together with Americans & Canadians, are quick to tell British people that they drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. To them, driving on the right is ‘right’! Some British people can be just as bad in reverse, complaining that if they take their car across the English Channel, they have to drive on what to them is also the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

Like many British people, I have regularly taken my British registered right-hand drive (RHD) car to continental Europe both for holidays as well as for shopping trips to Calais. I personally have no real problem with driving a RHD car on the right (as in the opposite of left) side of the road. In the past few years I’ve twice driven from the UK to Galicia in the far north-west of Spain, as well as to southern Bavaria, to Switzerland and in June 2008 to Savona in northern Italy & then by ferry to Corsica.

Once you have driven well away from the French Channel ports and the popular coastal holiday areas of France, a British registered RHD car can attract considerable interest and attention. Last year, we drove slowly through a Corsican mountain village, the car windows wide open because of the heat. We passed the village bar with several men sitting outside enjoying a lunchtime drink. Spotting the RHD and the GB sticker, they stared at us in utter amazement until one of them called out rather slowly, “Do you speak English?” Sybille and I just descended into fits of laughter on hearing him. It was almost as though we had arrived from outer space!

Exactly a year ago, immediately before our holiday in Corsica, I accepted the invitation to be the next Anglican Chaplain in Prague. One of the many decisions that we then had to make was what to do with my car. Should I sell it and buy a left-hand drive (LHD) model in the Czech Republic. Or should I take it with me even though it would have the steering wheel on the ‘wrong’ side.

I soon decided that I would take it with me and that when we moved, we would drive all the way to Prague. My reasons were numerous

  • Selling my car for cash in the UK would never produce sufficient funds to buy the equivalent or similar model in the Czech Republic. I’ve since discovered that second hand cars here are considerably more expensive than in the UK.
  • I bought my current car, a Renault Scenic, from my local garage in Oxfordshire in January 2004. They have looked after and serviced it ever since and I was on first name terms with the owner and his staff. Buying a car in Prague without being able to speak Czech and with no way of knowing a vehicle’s history was a risk I was not prepared to take.
  • Driving in the car from Oxfordshire to Prague, enabled us to bring many things with us which we could not have put on a plane nor sent with the rest of our belongings which were transported here as a part container load. Chief amongst these was Oscar the cat, along with various plants, including a bay tree and an olive tree. We were also able to bring a computer and monitor and numerous other things that enabled us to live fairly normally before being reunited with the rest of our belongings some four weeks later.

As the Czech Republic is now part of the EU, I assumed that I would not have too many problems registering the car here. After all, there are an increasing number of LHD cars being driven around the UK with British number plates. These have either been brought into the UK by citizens of other EU countries now resident in Britain or by Brits themselves who have returned from living in continental Europe and have brought their LHD cars with them. That was, of course, before knowing what I now know about Czech bureaucracy!

My initial enquiries were all met with the same negative response. Yes, you can import a car but it must be LHD. There is no way to get a RHD car registered in the Czech Republic I was told. It was then that we first discovered the value of the website expats.cz. Searching the forum soon brought us to several threads dealing with cars. And with regard to getting a RHD car registered, the answer each time was, ‘Talk to Adrian of Nepomuk‘.

Adrian is a Brit married to a Czech and now works for his ‘in-laws’ truck and car servicing business in Nepomuk, south of Plzen. Early one Monday morning last December, after various phone & email exchanges, we made the one and a half hour journey out to Nepomuk. The main alteration necessary to the car was the headlights being changed so that they dip in the correct direction for driving on the right. Temporary stickers on the headlights are fine for short term holidays but not acceptable if the car is to be registered here. Fortunately, no other changes were necessary as my Renault Scenic already has functioning rear fog lights on both sides and a speedometer that is calibrated in kph as well as mph.

After that, we set off with Adrian to nearby Horažd’ovice where before and after lunch, the car was tested both mechanically and for it emissions, very much along the lines of the annual British MOT test. The tests were successfully passed and produced two protocols for me to take away. Adrian also arranged for us to go to another test centre in Prague some ten days later, in order to have the car mirrors checked to prove that the driver’s rear vision is not impeded by virtue of the car being RHD. This duly produced protocol number three.

Armed with these protocols, I successfully found a firm of English-speaking insurance brokers who kindly arranged third party insurance for the car, essential as my British insurer would only cover me for the first 90 days after leaving the UK. But jumping through the final hoops and getting the car registered with Czech number plates, had to wait until we had being granted our residency permits proving where we live. My previous blog entries entitled ‘A 21st century defenestration of Prague‘ and ‘Dealing with Czech bureaucracy’ will explain that long drawn out procedure.

However, yesterday morning, accompanied by the ever-faithful Czech-speaking Gerry, I went to visit the imposing offices of the Czech Ministry of Transport alongside the Vltava River in the centre of Prague. Gerry took great delight in informing me that, prior to 1989, the building had been the headquarters of the Communist Party! There I presented all my numerous protocols, a copy of my UK car registration document, my passport and my Czech residency document and a signed statement in Czech and English declaring that my Renault Scenic is only for my own personal use and that I will not sell it on to anyone else in the Czech Republic. I also completed and submitted an application for a special exemption for my RHD car. Once I have my certificate of exemption, I can submit it with all the self same papers to another office in Prague and finally get a Czech registration document and Czech number plates. I’ve already paid the necessary fees.

What is so funny is the reason why in Czech law, it is possible to get an exemption for a RHD car. The explanation is that until 1939, the Czechs drove on the left side of the road using RHD vehicles! The rules of the road were changed overnight by decree when Hitler and his Nazi forces marched in. Therefore all cars made in and for driving in Czechoslovakia prior to 1939, are RHD. It was for these vintage cars that the original exemption provision was incorporated into Czech law.

The evidence of history is very easy to see in the historic centre of Prague today as in the photo above. Numerous individuals and companies offer visiting tourists guided drives around the main sites in vintage cars and nearly all of them are RHD because they date from the 1920s & 1930s. The odd one that is LHD is an import from Germany. My red Renault Scenic may not be a vintage car, (though it is now 9 years old), but it very soon will be a legally registered right-hand drive car in the Czech Republic.

6 comments to Driving on the ‘right’ side of the road

  • Kath

    But what many of us are dying to know is….how is Oscar the cat faring in his new home?

  • Ricky

    Kath – Oscar is doing fine and has adapted remarkably well to being a ‘flat cat’. However, I’m sure he does miss not being able to supplement his diet with Oxfordshire field mice and baby rabbits. He has only had to go to the vet once since being here when in February he developed itchy skin which he kept biting. However, a dose of ‘stronghold’ administered by the vet, killed the dust mites causing the problem and now his skin is clear and his fur is shiny.

    Incidentally, did I ever tell you that Oscar got his paw through the metal grill of the dog crate in which he travelled and successfully opened a rear car door whilst we were doing 120 kph down the German autobahn…….

    Btw, the olive tree is thriving on the balcony with new leaves and tiny olives!

  • Wow, what interesting history about the way Czechs used to drive. Who knew?

  • Ricky

    Karen – The whole of the Austro – Hungarian Empire drove on the left until the collapse of the empire at the end of WW1 in 1918. Former parts of the empire then changed from driving on the left to driving on the right at various times over the next twenty two years. In some countries it was by choice; in others, as in Czechoslovakia, it was imposed by the Nazis.

  • Hi Ricky,
    All I can say is that I’ve done driven from the right side and probably wouldn’t do very well at all if I tried! That’s something that really does scare me! My Dad has been to the UK many times and didn’t have a problem, though one time he did stop one of those huge traffic circles :0)

    WBSD is almost here! Be sure to visit my blog for updates and the link list for Saturday!

    Can’t wait to see what everyone write about!!

    Have a great day,
    Sher :0)

  • Am very glad to hear that you have the plates on the car at last !

    The law in czech can be a pain, the exemption for RHD cars is more likely the same as the diplomatic exemptions given to embassy staff.
    In fact the law of the land still prohibits right hand drive cars from being registered – it is true – i have been refered to it by several officals who weren’t aware of any other options. – they could almost recite it by chapter and verse, so they don’t like it much when i tell them their job 😀

    Older LHD and RHD cars are registered differently, they are only for personal use and have to be kept in as original condition as possible. Czech historic cars are given very cheap insurance, and they were subject to driving only to events and having to keep a journey chart.

    I am pretty sure a decent lawyer could take the czech ministry of transport to task over its handling of EU RHD cars like this – but the risk of cost and hassle does put me off from being first.