In this year of the XXth Olympic Games, you will not find American diplomatic officials in much of a joking mood. Says an attach� in Berne, "On the record, we have to talk about how skilled and courteous the European drivers are, but that's pure bull. Europeans are horrible drivers, ghastly. They're turning the Continent into an abattoir. Now comes the Olympics, and a zillion Americans have decided to bring over their own cars or fly to Europe and then rent a car and drive to Munich, and not a one of them with the slightest idea of the realities. Why, Hertz had 14 of its renters killed last year, when there weren't any Olympics."
"Fourteen killed in Europe?"
"Fourteen killed in Switzerland," he said.
If you are frightened by the accident statistics released in Washington, then consider some statistics from Europe. France kills about 15,000 per year, averaging 13.4 deaths per 100 million driven miles. One rainy Gallic afternoon, Travel Writer Temple Fielding witnessed four separate fatal accidents. West Germany lags only slightly, with about 14,000 deaths annually, or 12.5 fatalities per 100 million driven miles. In sharp contrast, the U.S. figure dropped below 5.0 last year. Statistically, you are almost three times as likely to die on the highway in France and 2� times as likely in Germany, and the figures are not much lower for other European countries.
Europeans are well aware of the problem, but they just don't know what to do about it. Sometimes stringent measures are taken. In Segovia, Spain, Writer Richard Oulahan was involved in a traffic jam caused by a parade of 45 or 50 little Spanish cars driving slowly past a priest. The Father was sprinkling each car with holy water and blessing it, and as Oulahan commented later, "They needed that blessing and all the luck they could conjure up, because Spain may be the most hazardous country in Western Europe for motorists."
Spain's preeminence is debatable, and others with nationalistic pride are quick to debate it. "If I were a young man just starting out," says a French hotelier, "I'd do one of two things: open an auto-repair shop or a mortuary."
Belgians, by common consent, are among the worst drivers, perhaps because for years they were not required to take a road test to get a driver's license. One American swears that he was cruising along a Belgian highway at 80 mph and was passed by a hearse.
Nor are the Italians out of the com petition. A Bolognese bookseller speaks proudly of his country: "Where else can you neck your girl friend, eat a slice of mortadella and get into an incidente orribile at the same time?"
Professional Chauffeur Noel Maria nominates his native Portugal for the world's-worst trophy. "I am driving all over Europe," he says, "but my beautiful Portugal I am hating to driving the most. I prefair driving anyplace than this place!"
"Why has European driving deteriorated so markedly?" you ask.