Since those two closest calls of my life, minutes apart, the true symbolic and psychological significance of overtaking in Europe has become clear. My Munich friend—the one who thinks the Olympics will blow up—puts it this way: "When you pass a European driver, you tell him that he's frail and weak and near-sighted, and that his wife is having an affair with the butcher. And of course you're telling him that his car's a joke, just like him."
How else to explain the peculiar peck order that has developed, based on price and horsepower? According to Franz Spelman, who lives in Munich but drives all over the Continent, "A 304 Peugeot is never supposed to pass a 100 Audi. The Audi is supposed to yield immediately to a BMW 2000, even if this happens on a mountain road where passing is suicidal. And if you come up behind a Porsche 911 or a Ferrari Dino or a Lamborghini—well, just don't pass him or something awful might happen."
For a concrete example of what Spelman meant, consider a lonely stretch of country road L499, serpentining through dense forests between the villages of Mechernich and Satzvey. It is just after midnight, and Herfried Ahrens, owner of a chain of department stores, is driving briskly in his powerful Mercedes 280SL. A car approaches from the rear, all headlights flashing, and passes Ahrens on a curve. The merchant notices that the passing car is an Opel Commodore, 60 hp weaker and $3,000 cheaper than his Mercedes, so he flicks up his own bright lights, stomps on the accelerator and passes the Opel. This happens four or five times, at speeds up to 90 mph, until finally the two drivers stop and climb from their cars for a more intimate confrontation. Six shots later, the driver of the Opel, a bricklayer, is dead.
In Germany, no one was either disturbed or surprised that Herfried Ahrens was cleared of all charges. An Opel Commodore does not pass a Mercedes 280SL, und das ist das.
Indeed, the best possible advice for an American driver in Europe would be never to pass—except that if one never passes, then one must be passed, and other problems will ensue. You can be driving 50 mph along a German Autobahn and incur the wrath of a speeder simply because you don't cower all the way over to the shoulder when he hurtles by, and he may cut you off sharply just to show his contempt. Or you may be climbing up a steep succession of mountain switchbacks with a European driver tailgating you and flashing his lights menacingly, demanding that you pull over and let him pass even though there's nothing but sheer cliff on your right. This happened recently to an American driver, and he tapped his horn twice out of pure frustration. Thirty minutes later he came to an intersection where an Austrian highway policeman and the impatient motorist were waiting to charge him with illegal use of the horn. He paid a fine.
One may or may not agree with Dickens' Mr. Bumble that "the law is a ass," but certainly European law is at least—well, different. In fairness it must be pointed out that it is next to impossible to wind up in a European jail on a driving charge; such matters are almost invariably handled on a less punitive basis (but if you're hell-bent on going to jail in Europe, try bribing a policeman or calling him a Fascist pig or driving drunk).
Once inside the jail, however, one has gone through the looking glass. Habeas corpus is unknown. Should you be unfortunate enough to become involved in a fatal accident in Spain, for example, you may languish for months while the police make a leisurely and thorough investigation. Don't bother to call your lawyer; the Miranda Decision is inapplicable.
In the courtroom one also must be prepared for a surprise, especially if the courtroom is in Switzerland. A laborer in Geneva found himself hauled into court for failing to yield the right of way—a month earlier in another city. Entirely on the unsupported testimony of the complainant, the man was fined $18. Enraged, he took the case to an appeals court, which, equally enraged, quadrupled the fine and tacked on costs.
A Swiss national—let us call the poor fellow Good Driver Schweik—was cruising along a one-way street when he came to a barely moving car ahead. He pulled out to pass, and the slow car moved squarely in front of him. This went on for several blocks, until finally Good Driver Schweik made an especially determined move, whereupon the slower car rammed him.
The rammer stormed out of his car and proclaimed in rustic Schweizerdeutsch, "I've been driving for 27 years!"