Rules of the Road - Switzerland

Basics

The latest official statistics showed that 253 people died on Swiss roads in 2015. The population is approximately 8.2 million.

Switzerland has four official languages; German, French, Italian and Romansh.

German is the most commonly spoken language with 73% of Swiss Citizens speaking it as their first language. Most Swiss are at least bilingual and in major cities many people speak English.

In Switzerland, people drive on the right-hand side of the road.

Vehicles approaching from the right have right of way.

On multi-lane roads one should drive on the right (inside lane) and only use the left-hand lanes for overtaking/passing.

Distances and speeds are measured in kilometres. To covert miles into kilometres you multiply by eight and then divide by five. For example 50 mph is 80 km/h.

Swiss road signs are similar to those found across Europe and are, in most cases, self-explanatory.

In an emergency you can contact the appropriate services using the following telephone numbers:

117 – Police (Police, Polizei-Notruf)
118 – Fire (Feu, Feuerwehr-Notruf)
144 – Ambulance (Ambulance, Sanität-Notruf)

Alternatively the Europe-wide 112 telephone number can be used to access any three of the emergency services.

Country Information

The time zone in Switzerland is Central European Time (GMT +1 or GMT+2 during Summer Time/ Daylight Saving Time).

The international dialling code for Switzerland is 41.

The capital of Switzerland is Bern (or Berne). Zurich is the largest city.

Switzerland does not belong to the European Union, however, there are no compulsory border checks when crossing a land border from a neighbouring country.

The currency in Switzerland is the Swiss Franc – CHF.

The country code for Switzerland is CH

About 60% of the country’s total area consists of the Alps – a high mountain range running across the central south of the country. The more populous northern part of the country, called the middle land, has more open and hilly landscapes. This area covers roughly 30% of the country.

The Swiss climate is generally temperate but can vary dramatically from glacier-like conditions on the mountain tops to a Mediterranean climate at the southern tip of the country.

Vehicle Equipment

It is a legal requirement to carry a red warning triangle in your vehicle. You are also required to carry a spare pair of prescription spectacles if you use them for driving. If driving a right-hand car it is a requirement that you use headlamp converters.

While not a legal requirement, it is recommended that you also carry spare bulbs, a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher and high visibility vests.

Snow chains are compulsory in winter conditions. Road signs indicate locations where these must be used.

Speed Limits

The speed limits (unless otherwise posted) are as follows:

  • Residential areas – 30 km/h or 20 km/h
  • Urban areas – 50 km/h
  • Open roads – 80 km/h
  • Highways / motorways / autoroutes / autobahns – 120 km/h

Remember to look out for road signs indicating a different speed limit in force. Speed limits are maximum speeds in ideal conditions – you should drive according to the conditions and the distance you can see ahead to be clear.

Parking

Parking restrictions are strictly enforced in Switzerland and non-compliance with rules is punished by fines or towing of the vehicle. Certain cities have ‘Park and Ride’ schemes whereby car users may park on the outskirts of town and complete the journey by bus or tram.

If you must park in a city the following rules must be followed:

Parking on the pavement / sidewalk is prohibited. Do not park where you see a sign that reads ‘Stationierungsverbot’ or ‘Interdiction de Stationner’ as these indicate that parking is forbidden.

Most cities have ‘Blue Zones’ (indicated by blue lines on the side of the road). To park here you must have a blue parking disc. These may come with rented vehicles or can be purchased from police stations, tourist offices, petrol/gas stations, motoring clubs and banks.

Petrol / Gas / Diesel

Most petrol / gas / diesel stations are open from 8am to 10pm. Those on highways are generally open longer hours, some 24 hours.

Outside of opening hours petrol / gas / diesel is commonly available from automatic pumps that accept 10 and 20 CHF notes or credit cards.

You will often find that petrol / gas / diesel stations have shops that sell food and drink items as well as maps. Toilet/restroom facilities are also common in the larger stations.

Many, but not all, petrol / gas / diesel stations accept credit cards. It is always safest to carry enough cash to cover the cost of your fuel, particularly in remote areas.

Unleaded petrol / gas is available in 95 (regular) or 98 (super) octane.

It is known as:

  • Bleifrei in German
  • Essence sans Plomb in French
  • Benzina sensa Piomba in Italian

Diesel is also commonly available.

Breakdown Assistance

The best way to avoid a breakdown is to plan ahead. Perform basic vehicle checks before embarking upon a journey. It is also a good idea to check the weather forecast and listen for travel updates.

If you are a member of an Automobile Association in your own country you should check with the customer services department as you may be receive reciprocal cover in Switzerland. If this is the case you should take your membership details along with you.

If you hire a vehicle in Switzerland you should automatically benefit from roadside assistance while driving in Switzerland.

The Automobile Club of Switzerland and the Touring Club of Switzerland are both national breakdown and recovery services. If you intend to stay in Switzerland for a long duration you may wish to enquire about membership.

Tolls

In order to drive on a highway in Switzerland your vehicle must display a toll sticker called a ‘VIGNETTE’. The vignette is valid between 1st December of the previous year and 31st January of the following year (printed on the vignette). If taking a trailer or a caravan, you will need to purchase an extra vignette.

Cars rented in Switzerland have the vignette attached; otherwise you must purchase the vignette separately. They can be purchased at post offices, service stations, automobile associations, railway stations and border crossings.

License and Documentation

When driving in Switzerland you should carry your full driving licence, ID (passport), vehicle registration documents and insurance documents.

A FULL UK, or other EU / EEA, driving licence is sufficient for driving in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Residents of countries outside of the UK / EU / EEA will need an International Driving Permit.

If a car is not registered in the driver’s name the driver should carry a letter from the registered owner authorising the use.

Extreme Weather

Alpine winters can make driving more difficult. You should equip your car with winter tyres and snow-chains, and check road conditions prior to departure.

In winter, insurance companies will not accept responsibility for vehicles that do not have winter tyres.

General

Road signs are of a typical European design and the pictorial ones are therefore clear and easily understandable. There may be problems with signs which use only lettering as the language used will vary depending upon the part of the country you are in, for example, ‘exit’ on the highway is ‘sortie’ in French speaking areas and ‘ausfahrt’ in German speaking areas. The key to your safety is preparation and to always drive ‘defensively’.

The colour-coding of signs is as follows:

Highway signs (autoroute/autobahn): GREEN background (this differs from many European countries where the highway signs are blue).

Other road direction signs: BLUE background.

Prohibition signs: RED border and have a BLACK symbol over WHITE background.

Obligation signs: Narrow WHITE border and a WHITE symbol over a BLUE background.

General

You will find a selection of international car hire companies in the major cities and airports, as well as some local companies. Always hire from a reputable company – the cheapest deal may not be the best. There will usually be at least one English speaker in each rental location. One-way rentals between cities are available for an extra fee.

Requirements

You will either require a photocard driving licence issued by an EU country or a driving licence issued by your country of residence containing a photograph. If your driving licence is written in characters different to those used in Switzerland (e.g. Russian, Hebrew or Greek script) you will require an International Driving Permit (IDP).

You may also be required to show your passport at the time of rental.

The minimum age for drivers wishing to rent cars in Switzerland is usually 20 years. Particular categories of vehicle may have additional age restrictions. You must have held a full driving licence for at least one year.

Insurance

Fire and third party liability insurance is mandatory and is included in all rentals. Standard insurance cover is often limited to the legal minimum. This means that you could be held personally responsible for any claim for injury or damage over this limit. Upon payment of an additional fee, usually per day, you can increase the coverage.

Check before you travel if either your personal car insurance will cover you while driving a rental vehicle or if your credit card company or travel insurance company will. This may be cheaper than buying the insurance from the rental company.

Making a Reservation

It is advisable to book a vehicle in advance via the internet or telephone. As well as saving time upon arrival it will ensure a vehicle during busy periods. Booking online in advance can often save money, even if only done an hour before pick up, as internet rates are generally cheaper.

In certain locations, such as Geneva, rental companies close at 7pm. By booking in advance you will be able to extend the hours when you may collect the vehicle.

Payment

When hiring a car you will be required to provide a credit card for payment. Checks and cash are not generally accepted as any charges relating to your use of the vehicle such as parking or speeding fines can be charged to the credit card. VISA and MasterCard and to a lesser extent, American Express are all widely accepted. In addition to the charges for renting the vehicle you will also be required to submit a security deposit in the form of a ‘hold’ on an amount of money on your credit card.

Often the price quoted for hiring a vehicle won’t include all applicable taxes or insurance waivers. You will usually have the option of paying extra to reduce the amount payable by you should you be involved in an incident. Always ask when hiring a vehicle what the total costs will be.

Driving a Manual / Stick-Shift Vehicle

The majority of cars available for hire will have a manual transmission, although automatic vehicles are usually also available. If you do not have experience of driving a manual transmission, it is advised that you hire a vehicle with automatic transmission.

Driving Your Own Vehicle

You may drive your own vehicle into Switzerland from a neighbouring country. If you wish to do so you should carry the following documentation:

  • Registration papers for your vehicle
  • A valid certificate of insurance (check with your insurance company)
  • Your driving licence and International Driving Permit if required

Country of origin stickers are required on your vehicle, unless they are integrated into the number/licence plate on your vehicle.

If you are driving a right-hand drive vehicle you will require headlight deflectors.

General

You may encounter tunnels while driving in Switzerland, particularly in mountainous regions. Comply with all regulations, signs and requests from authorised persons at all times.

Before Entering the Tunnel

  • Ensure that you have sufficient fuel
  • Tune your radio to the traffic radio station if one is indicated
  • Switch on your headlights (low beam)
  • Do not wear sunglasses
  • Obey all traffic lights, road signs and speed limits

Inside the Tunnel

  • Maintain a four-second distance from the vehicle in front of you
  • Observe the speed limits (both maximum and minimum)
  • Make a mental note of safety equipment and facilities, such as emergency exits and emergency phones
  • Do not change lanes or attempt to overtake/pass another vehicle
  • Do not stop, except in an emergency

Exiting the Tunnel

  • On bright sunny days prepare for a burst of glare as you exit the tunnel

Congestion

  • If traffic suddenly slows due to congestion you should switch on your hazard warning lights
  • If traffic comes to a complete halt, maintain a distance of at least five metres/15 feet from the vehicle in front of you and turn off your engine
  • Remain inside your vehicle
  • Tune in to traffic radio if there is a system

If Your Vehicle Breaks Down

  • Switch on the hazard warning lights
  • Park your vehicle in a lay-by, emergency lane/shoulder or as far to the nearside as possible and switch off the engine
  • Leave your vehicle by the passenger-side doors and put on a reflective jacket
  • Use an emergency telephone to notify the emergency services and follow any instructions they give you

If You Are Involved in a Collision

  • Switch on the hazard warning lights
  • Pull over and stop as far to the nearside of the road as possible
  • Switch off the engine
  • Leave your vehicle by the passenger-side doors and put on a reflective jacket
  • Use an emergency telephone to notify the emergency services and follow any instructions they give you
  • Look after your own safety first
  • If you are able, and it does not put you in any danger, provide assistance to any injured persons

In the Event of a Vehicle Fire

  • In the event of a fire in a tunnel don’t wait to be told what to do. Fire and smoke are fatal and conditions can become highly dangerous very quickly. Save your life and not your vehicle
  • Switch on your warning lights
  • Keep a good distance from the burning vehicle
  • Pull over and stop as far to the nearside on the road as possible
  • Switch off the engine and leave the key in the ignition
  • DO NOT attempt a U or K or 3 Point turn or to reverse back down the tunnel
  • Use an emergency telephone to notify the emergency services and follow any instructions they give you
  • Look after your own safety first
  • If you are able, and it does not put you in any danger, provide assistance to any injured persons

General

  • The minimum driving age is 18
  • Children under 12 years of age must sit in a special child seat if they are under 150cm tall
  • You may not sound your horn after dark
  • Headlights must be on in tunnels and should be on and dipped for regular driving during daylight hours
  • When passing do not cross a double white line
  • On the spot fines can be imposed, including for visiting drivers
  • At railway crossings signs may request that you switch off your engine to avoid traffic pollution. In German this reads ‘Für bessere luft-Motor Abstellen’ while in French it will read ‘Coupez le Moteur’
  • If you are involved in a collision or your vehicle breaks down on a secondary road you should place a triangular warning sign 50 metres/15 feet away from your vehicle. On highways this distance is 150 metres/45 feet
  • Radar detectors are prohibited in Switzerland whether in use or not
  • You may not use a GPS system which tells you where fixed speed cameras are – if you have such a system you must disable this feature

Seat Belts

Seat belts are compulsory for all occupants.

Priorities / Right of Way

Unless otherwise indicated by road signs, the right of way at a junction / intersection is given to the vehicle to the right.

Trams, police vehicles, ambulances, fire engines and buses have the right of way over passenger cars.

At a roundabout / road circle, vehicles already on the roundabout / road circle have right of way over vehicles waiting to join – visitors from the USA be wary!

On hills the car travelling uphill has priority over the one coming downhill. One exception is where road signs displaying a yellow posthorn (or trumpet) on a blue background indicate that postal buses have priority. A RED slash (\) going through such a sign indicates the end of the postal priority zone. Certain mountain postal roads are one way, as indicated by a WHITE rectangle placed below the BLUE rectangle/yellow horn sign.

Pedestrians generally have the right of way and are likely to step onto crossings, expecting traffic to stop.

Alcohol

You should never operate a motor vehicle after drinking alcohol.

The blood alcohol limit in Switzerland is 50mg per 100ml of blood. A lower limit of 10mg per 100ml applies to new drivers and professional drivers. The law is very strict and random testing is routinely carried out. Penalties include fines, loss of licence and imprisonment. If caught with a blood alcohol level over 80mg per 100 ml you will be banned for at least three months and receive a financial penalty or up to three years in prison. The amount of money you have to pay will depend on your financial situation.

Here are some common Germans words you will see when driving through Switzerland.

Detour

Diesel

Entrance

Exit

Forbidden

Four Lane Highway

Gasoline

Motor Oil

No Parking

One Way

Police

Umweg / Détour / Deviazione

Diesel

Eingang / Entrée / Entrata

Ausgang / Sortie / Uscita

Verboten / Interdiction / Proibito / Vietato

Landstrasse / Autobahn / Autoroute / Autostrada

Benzin / Essence / Benzina

Motor Oel / Huile de Moteur / Olio per Motore

Parken Verboten / Interdiction de Parquer / Vietato Parcheggiare

Einbahn / Sens Unique / Senso Unico

Polizei / Police / Polizia

General

Switzerland is in the unusual situation of being the home of three of Europe’s major languages. Whichever language group they belong to, the different Swiss communities have linguistic and cultural ties with one of their larger neighbours. The Swiss say they are held together by the desire to stay united. The general attitude is summed up in the formula “unity, but not uniformity”.

In 2015 253 people died on Swiss roads. The estimated road traffic death rate per 100,000 population is approximately 2.99 (based on 2014 figures).

In 2015, 58 pedestrians were killed, a third more than the previous year. One third of these were killed on zebra crossings.

Being Pulled Over by the Police

If the police want to pull you over on the Highway they will pull in front of you and flash “Stop Bitte” (Stop Please) on the top of their car on the Police sign. Then they pull over to the very wide shoulder and drive along that until they come to a pullout. Follow them until they stop.

Driving on Mountain Roads

The mountain roads are narrow, but perfectly maintained. They are not so narrow as to make your driving nervous, but they seem narrow because they are one lane in each direction usually with a wire fence just a foot in from each edge (to keep the animals in the fields), so there is no shoulder and no place to pull over. There are towns in Switzerland which are inaccessible by road, for example the resorts of Zermatt, Braunwald, Murren and Wengen are only accessible by train or tram. Cars are parked at the bottom of the mountain and public transport is available in the resort.

When Driving in Switzerland

Drive defensively and expect the unexpected!

Many incidents occur because people do not adhere to the rule of ‘yield to the right’. When you are not sure who has the right of way (e.g. at an intersection or junction), yield to the vehicles coming from your right.

Many Swiss drivers drive too close to the vehicle in front of them, particularly on the highway. This is the cause of frequent pile-ups, especially when there is rain or fog. Don’t forget that according to the law, you must be able to stop within the distance you can see to be clear or sight distance. At 120 km/h (highway speed limit), you need approximately 140 metres to come to a complete stop – only a fool breaks the 4 second rule!

Always Lock Your Vehicle

Always lock your car, even when leaving your vehicle unattended for a few seconds. Never place items of value in your car and then leave it unattended. You never know who is watching. If you have to leave something of value in your vehicle make sure it is in the trunk.

Never Leave Items on Display

Never leave anything to do with work in an unattended vehicle, industrial espionage is a thriving business! Always engage your steering lock before leaving your vehicle.

Drive With Your Windows Closed and Doors Locked

Always remove the key from the ignition when paying for fuel at a garage. Always drive with your doors locked and windows shut in areas with a tendency for stop / start driving – most car-jackings are opportunist in nature. Keep your doors locked and windows closed when driving through major city centers. In the event you are attacked follow the car-jackers’ instructions to the letter – it may save your life.

Parking Safely

Always try to park away from places that could hide potential attackers. If possible, avoid unattended parking lots and those situated away from main roads where the streets are likely to be quieter. When parking at night choose a well-lit area. You will be able to see your vehicle clearly and have a better chance of seeing anyone who is hanging around.

Keep People Informed

When traveling in a foreign country you should provide someone in your native office with an itinerary for your day so that they know where you plan to be at all times. You should also furnish them with your mobile telephone number and the number of each of your planned destinations.

Fatigue

Driver fatigue contributes to approximately 20% of road crashes, and although driving when fatigued may not be illegal, it can be just as dangerous as drunk driving! The two MAIN causes of fatigue are lack of quality sleep (sleep debt) and driving at times when you would normally be asleep. Drivers who get less than 6 hours sleep experience 4 time as many dangerous situations while driving. Getting enough sleep is essential to safety and you should aim to get 7 ½ continuous hours of sleep.

Ensure that you get a good night’s sleep before making any long journey. If you are tired, do not drive.

Speeding

You must always abide by the speed limit.

In towns and built up areas, slow down to 20mph/32kmh or below where appropriate – e.g. in heavily-built up areas or during school leaving times.

On rural roads, slow down for curves and avoid passing / overtaking.

Ensure that you maintain at least a four-second gap between your vehicle and the vehicle in front. This is your braking distance in a crisis.

Distractions

You should not eat or drink on the move, reaching over for a sandwich or opening a drink will distract your attention from the road.

Avoid in depth conversations with passengers, it is vital that you maintain your concentration on the road ahead.

Alcohol and Drug Use

You must never drive if you have consumed alcohol or taken illegal drugs. Always check the label of prescription drugs for fatigue related side-effects.

The evening before you drive you MUST NOT consume more than the legal limit of alcohol.

Eyesight

You must be able to read a number plate at 65 feet/20 metres and have a good field of vision (120 degrees) if you plan to drive.

Ensure that you have your eyes tested every two years or sooner if you feel your vision has deteriorated.

Stress

Never drive if you are highly stressed. This can affect your ability to concentrate.