Driving in Switzerland

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When it comes to traffic accidents, Switzerland is one of the safest countries in the world, Nevertheless, participating in traffic is always a dangerous activity, especially when the rules and customs differ from what you are used to in your previous residences. In case of Switzerland, it can also become quite expensive, if you don’t stick to the rules. I have taken on the task of summing up some of the typical features of Swiss traffic laws.

Obviously, this list is incomplete and may contain errors. You cannot derive any rights from it. For diplomats, employees of certain international companies and, for example, CERN, some rules do not apply. Since every residential road user is required to know the local traffic rules, I invite you to look up everything you doubt. Feedback is more than welcome.

Basic rules

  • You have to drive on the right and overtake on the left.
  • Motor vehicle drivers are obliged to pay extra attention to weak road users, such as pedestrians, cyclists, but especially to children, the elderly and the disabled.
  • Daytime running light or low beam is mandatory in daytime. In tunnels, or in poor visibility, low beam is mandatory.
  • On intersections all traffic from the right has priority, bicycles included, unless indicated otherwise.
  • Within urban areas, buses, that indicate that they want to leave a stop, have priority.
  • Pedestrians have priority at dedicated crossings, but expect priority everywhere.
  • Children younger than 12 or shorter than 1.5 meters, must be transported in an approved, well-fitting seat.
  • For drivers of vehicles (including cyclists) it is not permitted to hold a mobile phone or similar device while driving.
  • If a traffic jam occurs on motorways or motorways, drivers are obliged to clear a central passage for emergency services. This means that drivers must drive to the right or left as much as possible, so that there is sufficient space in the center for emergency vehicles.
  • Only a warning triangle is mandatory to have in your car. In Switzerland, a medical kit, a fluorescent jacket and a fire extinguisher are not required by law, but of course strongly recommended, also because neighboring countries do have this obligation.
  • On Swiss highways, the Swiss toll sticker is mandatory. It is valid from 1 December until 31 January. Stickers for a day, a week or a month do not exist. It costs Chf 40,-

Pedestrians

  • If there is no footpath, pedestrians must walk on the left-hand side of the road.
  • In poor visibility or in the dark, pedestrians must wear reflective clothing or a safety vest.

Alcohol and drugs

  • The maximum permitted blood alcohol level is 0.5 promille.
  • This percentage is 0.01 for novice drivers (license < 3 years).
  • Traces of drugs in the blood are not allowed.

Parking.

  • Parking against the driving direction of the roadside is prohibited.
  • In blue zones you can park for free, using a parking disc (for sale at every gas station).
  • When parking on a slope, you are obliged to use the parking brake and to secure the car extra. For example, by leaving the car in the lowest gear and/or turning a wheel against the curb or otherwise blocking the wheels.

Passing oncoming traffic.

  • On narrow and/or mountain roads, heavy traffic, like busses and lorries, always has priority. Ascending traffic has priority over descending traffic. 
  • On narrow roads, with equivalent vehicles, the vehicle closest to a wider or passing area, must divert.
  • In case of an obstacle, such as a pole or stone edge (often intentionally placed to slow down traffic), the person on whose side the obstacle is located must give priority.
  • At an equivalent intersection, two, oncoming, left-turning cars must not pass around each other, but pass in front of each other.

Environmental zones.

  • The Canton of Geneva has introduced an environmental zone (périmètre de circulation différenciée) in a number of municipalities from 15 January 2020.
  • When the environmental zone is active, only vehicles with a valid environmental sticker (macaron Stick’Air) are allowed in the zone. This also applies to vehicles with a foreign registration.
  • If the increased driving bans are activated, public transport is free throughout the canton.
  • The Macaron Stick’Air can be purchased in Geneva at the Office Cantonal des Véhicules and at many gas stations for Chf 5,-. You need to bring your vehicle registration document.

Roundabouts.

  • If you enter a roundabout, you must give priority to those who are already on the roundabout, unless otherwise indicated.
  • When you leave the roundabout are you obliged to use your right indicator.
  • If you want to turn left, you can indicate direction to the left before entering the roundabout. However, this is not mandatory.
  • Since the roundabout is considered a straight road in traffic law, it is not possible (and very confusing), to drive on the roundabout, or leaving the roundabout, with a left indicator on.

Maximum speed.

  • Speed limits in urban zones is 50, however, a limit of 30 is increasingly common.
  • Outside urban zones, the limit is 80, on motorways the limit is 100 km/h.
  • On the highway the limit is 120 km/h.
  • For any vehicle with a trailer, the maximum permitted speed is 80 km/h.
  • Radar detection equipment in the car is prohibited.
  • Significant speeding violations are dealt with strictly. Fines are very high and the amount depends on your income. Often, you will have to hand in your license for several months. Significant speeding violations are: over 25 km too fast on a 30/50/60 road, over 30 km too fast on a motorway, over 35 km too fast on a highway.

Winter.

  • Drivers are obliged to clear all windows of a car from snow and ice before they drive off. 
  • Any snow on the roof must be removed.
  • It is forbidden to run the engine while clearing the windows.
  • Contrary to popular belief, having winter tyres is not obligated by law in Switzerland. The definition of winter tyres is also not laid down by law.
  • In case your car is not well equipped for the actual weather circumstances, you can be fined for holding up traffic or being held liable in the event of an accident. This can be caused by insufficient grip due to worn or incorrect tyres.
  • Not all winter tyres have a profile that secures better grip in snow. Some have only a rubber composition that adheres better to the road surface in cold weather. Ask a specialist for advice.
  • Using snow chains is obligated when so indicated. It is advised to have them in the car when driving up the mountains. They should be mounted on at least two of the driven wheels. Check your manual to see on which wheels the chains should be mounted. Having AWD, 4WD or 4X4 is mostly not an excuse for not using chains. This depends heavily on the system, the tyres and the driver. Most accidents in the Alps happen with overconfident drivers in SUV’s or off-road vehicles. 

Accidents.

  • Always have a European accident report in your car and complete it in case of a collision.
  • Set up the warning triangle at least 50 metres in front of the scene of the accident – where speeds are higher, even 100 metres in front.
  • According to road traffic law, animals are generally considered “property”. So as in the case of property damage, you must notify the party suffering the damage (e.g. the owner of the cat). If you have a collision with a wild animal you must first of all notify the cantonal gamekeeper. What if you can’t contact the animal’s owner or the gamekeeper? In this case, you should inform the police. Failure to report the incident will result in a fine.  
  • In case you hit a parked car, leaving a note will not do. This can be considered a hit-and-run and result in a big fine. Make an effort in finding the owner of the car and/or call the police.

Car registration.

  • To register your vehicle in Switzerland, you need to request license plates from the Automobile Service in your canton. If you buy your car from a garage, they will request the plates for you and take care of all the necessary procedures. You still need to provide a certain number of documents, however, any car sold within the European Community and that meets EU standards is automatically in accordance with Swiss law and can be imported without modification. Other vehicles, such as American cars, must undergo a specific inspection and conform to Swiss standards.
  • To obtain a vehicle registration you need.: Insurance certificate (available from your insurance provider). New vehicles: test report form from importer or customs. Used vehicles: vehicle registration document of the previous owner. Foreign nationals: residence permit when obtaining plates for the first time. Tax valuation or exemption for cars manufactured abroad. Customs duty must be paid on cars manufactured abroad. 
  • If you buy a second car, you can obtain interchangeable plates from your Automobile Service. This allows you to drive two or more cars under the same insurance plan and on a single set of plates. Take note, however, that only the car with the set of plates is roadworthy: the other car has to wait its turn in the garage.
  • To register your vehicle, the Automobile Service of your canton has to conduct a technical inspection. Each new car must undergo a technical inspection by the Automobile Service. Cars are subject to the inspection every three years (this period can be reduced  for older vehicles), except for new cars that do not require subsequent inspections for five years. The Automobile Service is often running behind in certain cantons, so your car could actually be summoned several months after the deadline. Of course, nothing is stopping you from asking the Automobile Service to advance the inspection date. If you want to sell your car, a good technical report is a badge of quality that is highly appreciated by the Swiss, who are rather skeptical by nature.
  • All cars registered in Switzerland must also pass an anti-pollution test every two years (every year for older cars). If you are stopped by the police and your pollution control maintenance record is not in order, you will be fined.

Bicycles

  • Bicycle helmets are not mandatory as long as the bicycle does not exceed 20 km/h.
  • The bicycle must have a white reflector in the front and a red one on the back. Both at least 10 cm² in size and orange reflectors on the pedals.
  • In the dark and with poor visibility, bicycles must be fitted with lamps. The light on the front of the bicycle must be white or yellow and red at the back.
  • The bicycle must be equipped with effective brakes. A bell is not required.
  • Children under the age of 6 are only allowed to cycle on public roads, only under the supervision of someone 16 or older.
  • The minimum age for riding a standard electric bicycle is 14 years. Children from 14 to 16 years old need a special category M driving license to ride an electric bicycle.
  • Cyclists may not overtake a row of stationary vehicles. They are also not allowed to slalom between stationary vehicles.
  • Persons older than 16 years can take a child if it is in a child seat and the legs are sufficiently protected.
  • Cyclists must use a cycle path or lane.

Driving licenses.

  • If your driver’s license is in a language not recognized by the Swiss authorities (English, French, German or Italian) you will need to carry either an International Driver’s license or an International Driving Permit (IDP), which includes a translation of your driving license. 
  • If you will be living in Switzerland for more than a year, you will need to convert your foreign driving licenses to a Swiss license before the end of the first 12 months. Some nationalities will be able to convert their license without taking any test at all, others will need to take the practical driving test, and some will need to take both a theory test and a practical driving test, depending on your nationality and country’s agreements with Switzerland.
  • Bear in mind that applications can take some time to process so don’t leave it to the last moment. If you don’t get a Swiss driver’s license within a year your foreign driver’s license will become invalid and you will be unable to drive in Switzerland.
  • Each canton has its own traffic office (Office Cantonal des Véhicules) for dealing with driving licenses. When exchanging your driver’s license the following paperwork needs to be submitted: application form, original foreign driver’s license (with translation, if applicable), certificate from a registered optician, two colour passport-sized photos and proof of residency and/or visa.
  • An eye test is mandatory, before you apply for a Swiss license. The results of the test are confirmed on the application form by the optometrist. 

Written by Michiel van Lith

 

 

2 comments

  1. Thank you very much! I have been living in Geneva for a long time but I have learnt many new things!

    Best,

    Maria Verastegui-Walters

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

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