Tips & differences for driving in Canada vs Europe, UK and U.S.
As you are preparing for your Canadian road trip, it is good to know some differences in driving in Western Canada. Despite some similarities between American and European driving, there are still many things that are not so common or easily understandable.
Driving basics in Canada
- Unlike other countries which used to be under British rule or part of Commonwealth, vehicles in Canada drive on the right side of the road.
- Canada has a metric system – kilometers & meters compared to its southern neighbor the USA, where they use the imperial system (miles and yards).
- Colors and designs of road signs are similar to those used in the USA.
- The language on the road signs in Canada is in English except for Quebec where it is in French.
- Road signs in national parks (which are governed by the federal government) are in English and French as Canada is a bilingual country.
- Visitors outside of North America who want to drive a vehicle in Canada have to have their International Driving License. US driving licenses are valid in Canada.
- Drivers must always yield to pedestrians. This rule also applies to Europe, but not many drivers obey. It is strongly enforced in Canada.
What are the main differences for international visitors to drive in Canada?
Americans will only find minor differences but for Europeans with high quality, well maintained extensive road network, some things might be surprising.
No tolls or stickers
In western Canada (Alberta and British Columbia) there is no toll road. All highways are free of charge and you don’t have to buy road tolls like in Europe. When you enter National Parks in Canada, then you will have to buy a pass when entering the park.
The highway speed limit is 110km/h. The speed limit through National Parks in the Rockies is 90km/h. Depending on the police officer, it is tolerable to drive 5-10 km above the speed limit on the highway but I am not suggesting you should do that.
The speed limit is the same for most vehicles. Don’t get surprised when you drive 110km/h on a highway and a big truck with trailer will be passing by you going 115km/h. It is allowed for trucks to drive in the left lane on a highway, unlike in Europe.
Rent the best vehicle for your Canadian Rockies trip.
Traffic Lights in Western Canada
Traffic lights have two main differences.
- The actual traffic light in some provinces is attached vertically instead horizontally. In Saskatchewan and Alberta, it’s horizontal. British Columbia and American states south of the border attach their traffic lights vertically as it is common in Europe. Personally, I’ve never understood why Prairie Provinces have them vertically.
- The location of the traffic light pole is different, it is on the opposite side of the intersection. In Europe, it is located where cars stop right above the stop line. Having it on the other side of the intersection has an advantage. Even the drivers in the first and second row of cars at the intersection can easily see the lights without crouching down.
Quality and lighting of Canadian roads
Roads in Western Canada are wider compared to lane width in Europe. The overall quality of the surface is a different topic. Canadian roads have numerous cracks mainly on the prairies and in the mountains. Roads in British Columbia have better quality compared to Alberta.
Night visibility in Canada might be one of the worst. They don’t use many reflective elements along the road or on the median. It is quite ok in cities where there are a lot of street lights. But once you drive outside the city, then you have to be alert.
Red lights turns and stop signs
These two points differ the most from European rules. If you stop a vehicle on the red light and want to turn right, you can proceed once you give way any vehicle and pedestrian that has right of way. This might be the smartest rule on how to proceed through the intersection.
However, a 4-way stop rule is the complete opposite to the smart red light turning rule. 4-way stop intersections must be the stupidest rule ever invented. Mostly in residential areas on the 4 road intersection, everybody has a stop sign.
Anyway, the rule to proceed is first come first go. In case two cars arrive at the same time, the right-hand rule applies. Rules for uncontrolled intersection applies.
Filling up at the gas station
This is another big difference to European drivers’ experience. Gas stations have only one hose for gas (petrol) and one for diesel. They are selling three grades of gasoline which are flowing through one hose. With this, there is no point to fill up with the best grade as it will get diluted with lower grades.
Fuel grades start at 87 octanes then 89 to 91. Some gas stations sell super special 94 octane which is still one octane less than lowest European grade of 95.
Smile campervans have 40% less Fuel consumption than an average campervan
Another part of the story is fueling and paying for fuel
Almost all gas stations require to pre-authorize payment before fueling. That means you have to use your credit or debit card and type the PIN before you start to fuel. Not many places allow you to fill and then pay. And once you start fueling, you can’t lock the lever in the position and wait till it fills up the tank. You have to hold the lever until you are done.
Good thing is, the fuel is very cheaper compared to Europe (but more expensive than in States).
Contrary to Europe, where you need to pay a fee to use the toilet, Canadian toilets are free.
Distances, mobile coverage, and direction
Canada is the second biggest country in the world, and you will see it once you leave your first town. In Europe, there is usually 1-5km of fields between villages but Canada is a bit different. The closest villages can be 20 or 30 kilometers away. One example: when you drive from Calgary to Banff, around 120km away, you will only pass one town on the way. It will be Canmore 100km from Calgary.
It is easy to run out of fuel
As an example, if you drive in the Canadian Rockies from Lake Louise to Jasper (230km), there is only one gas station (80km from Lake Louise). If you forget to fill up your tank and your range is less than 230km (which is half a tank of a small car), you may need to return or you might run out of gas.
Southern areas along the US borders have really good mobile coverage. Along the highways and in the flat provinces you will have a good connection. Once you reach the mountains in Alberta or British Columbia though, mobile coverage is good only in towns and along the main roads. Even the famous scenic road Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper has almost no coverage. It is worth to download offline maps when driving in the Canadian mountains.
In North America, people like to use a compass, as this is probably the only explanation why they use cardinal direction (East, West, North, South) instead of places direction. Most of the road signs tell you to follow west or north instead on Vancouver or Edmonton, especially in the cities and on the highways.
One last specialty of driving in Canada. Don’t be surprised if you see a cyclist riding a bike on the highway shoulder along with cars going 110km/h. Some might think it’s dangerous but it’s 100% legal.
These are the biggest differences which you can encounter driving on Canadian roads compared to European and American roads. Hope this will help you to drive safe and be tolerant on your road trip through Canada.
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