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The world’s best drivers

By Stephen Corby, 17 Mar 2016 Car Style

The world’s best drivers

Are Australians the world’s best drivers? Our well-travelled journalist, Stephen Corby, discusses.

One of the great things about being born Australian is that it makes you naturally awesome at everything. We are widely acknowledged as being world beaters at sport, champion drinkers, wonderful travellers, generous hosts of the best Olympics ever, and unparalleled when it comes to the ability to burn meat with fire.

But what about our driving? We’d like to think we’re better than any other country, sure, but the facts tell a different story.

Nor do the experiences of anyone who’s ever driven overseas in places like Germany or Italy, where the art of controlling a motor vehicle exists on an entirely different plain.

The World Health Organisation uses measures like the number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year to compare how each country fares in terms of road trauma. The worldwide average is a deeply disturbing 17.4 (which adds up to a whopping 1,250,000 road fatalities every year), while in 2013, Australia recorded 5.5, compared to 9.3 for Europe, 17 for south-east Asia and 26.6 for Africa.

It will no doubt shock the hell out of anyone who’s ever seen a speed kills sign to learn that the rate in Germany - where some roads have no speed limits - is lower than ours at 4.3, while the United Kingdom makes both countries look bad with 2.9 deaths per year per 100,000 head of population.

Outside of bald statistics, which do give some hint our world ranking, how do we rate as drivers, globally?

COUNTRIES WHERE DRIVERS ARE WORSE THAN US

Egypt

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but in this motoring scribe’s wide research of driving habits, nowhere, but nowhere, is scarier than Egypt.

If you can drive through Cairo for more than 10 minutes without being involved in a collision with some kind of large object - cow, car, truck, oxen, horse, human, donkey - you’ll be doing better than I managed.

After two minutes in a minivan, careering through traffic that moves like bean-bag beans being thrown in front of a strong fan, I predicted we would have an accident. It took four more minutes, and our driver then jumped out to hold onto the arm of the other motorist so he could not take off – and it all seemed totally normal to them.

To be honest, I was too frightened to attempt driving in Egypt myself (how the death rate there is only 12.8 is beyond me), but even catching a bus is eye-wideningly terrifying.

India

Yes, the drivers there are terrible, but they’re not the worst part.

The worst part of India’s chaotically insane roads is that no one, and no thing, respects them. A lot of people in India don’t have cars, and don’t seem to accept their existence, so they will wander along busy freeways, straight at you, while leading a few goats on a rope. It’s your job to avoid hitting them, and the three dogs that are now rolling around in the middle lane.

India Car

And woe betide you actually encounter a cow, because they are sacred in India and traffic will simply stop if a heifer decides to cross the road, or sit down on one.

Indians, who have a fatality rate of 16.6, treat intersections as giant games of chicken and getting out of any “Give Way” situation involves diving into the maelstrom head on and hoping for the best.

It really is an exciting place to drive, but not in a good way.

China

The funny thing about the Chinese is that they clearly think we’re all terrible drivers, because they make it nigh-on impossible for foreigners to obtain a licence to drive there, and yet their road-death rate of 18.8 per 100,000 people per year is appalling.

As is their driving. Mostly, traffic does not move at all in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but frankly that’s a relief. The Chinese drive with a lack of care for each other’s property, or lives.

Their roads are also constantly filled with what feels like thousands of cyclists, who simply add to the level of carnage.

Throw in the fact that the air is often as dense as cotton wool, so you can’t see far, and you will soon be glad you weren't allowed to get a licence.

COUNTRIES WHERE DRIVERS ARE BETTER THAN US

Germany

This list really could be exhaustive, but we’ll just give credit to those who deserve it most, and the top of the list are the Germans.

There’s a reason they make some of the world’s best cars, and it’s because they love driving, and driving fast.

To experience an autobahn at 200km/h plus, with plenty of cars wooshing past you as if you’re parked, is to know motoring nirvana.

It’s not so much that the roads are somehow magical; it’s more about the ability, and the manners, of the drivers.

No one ever sits in the overtaking lane, or the middle lane for that matter, going slowly. No one. Ever.

Not only do Germans not tailgate you, it’s actively policed. Some freeways have cameras that measure how close to the car in front you are and will send you a fine if you’re too bumper hungry, yet those same roads have no speed cameras.

Out on twisty roads, the Germans strut their stuff as well; never braking in the middle of corners, knowing what an apex is and basically engaging, deeply, with the business of driving.

Part of the reason they’re the world’s best drivers is culture and attitude, but it’s also a lot to do with the training and testing you have to endure to get your licence.

One young German professional told me recently that she’d given up on being allowed to drive, because the licence test was just too tough.   

Perhaps we could learn something here.

Italy

Unlike Germany, Italy has speed limits on all of its roads, but no one there seems to know, or care, what they are.

Apparently things are changing and the Italians are coming under the cosh of speed cameras, but until recently it was not unusual to see people sitting on 180 or 200km/h on freeways with a posted 140km/h maximum, and police cars simply waving to them as they went past.

Fiat Italy Flag

Italians drive fast, they drive well and they drive with great flair and passion, and a certain love of showing off.

The country that gave us Ferrari, Maserati, Ducati, Lamborghini and Alfa Romeo reflects that kind of lust for the mechanical joy of speed.

What’s most noticeable, though, is that they take pride in driving, and that it’s important to them to be good at it.

We were once harried down a mountain pass for many miles by an older fellow in a Fiat goods van of many years spent. My co-driver, at the wheel of a BMW 3 Series, did his best to shake him, but the Italian held on with fierce pride and fiery eyes.

They also still drive cars with manual gearboxes. Hurrah for them.

United Kingdom

It’s not a particularly pleasant place to drive, because its motorways are so crowded and many of the country lanes are barely wide enough for two horses to pass, but it is, as you would expect, very polite.

Drivers in London are more likely to flash their lights and let you out of an intersection than in Sydney (they like to use their headlights to communicate, and it’s not a hard language to learn). The Brits don’t hog the fast lane and they get out of your way if you come up behind them and flash your lights, without the resultant road rage you’d expect here.

And they have a proper disdain for motorway speed limits as well. Doing 20mph (36km/h) over the 60mph limit is simply accepted as legal behaviour, and when traffic does move it moves at a good pace.

It’s hard to admit, but the Brits are better drivers than us as well.

So where does Australia finish?

Our general road rudeness, inability to understand the words “Keep Left Unless Overtaking” and tendency towards aggression place us almost line-ball with the Americans, who are just slightly worse than us.

Australians aren’t quite as low as mid-table, because there are so many, many places on Earth with truly appalling, and deadly, driving habits, as our comparative road-safety figures suggest, so we’re probably in the top third, globally (this is not a scientific conclusion, merely one based on observation).

But sadly, we’re a fair way from the very top.