If you like cars, Switzerland can seem like a bit of a tease. It offers some of the greatest driving roads in the world, but you can literally be thrown in jail for speeding, even on highways. Traffic rules are strictly enforced. If you stick to the road rules and especially the speed limits, the back roads/mountain roads will still be a blast to drive on, while making sure you are not fined or arrested. Driving can be a good way of seeing the country and the vista from some mountain roads makes it worth the cost and hassle.
Don't Think You'll Speed Undeterred
If you get fined but not stopped (e.g. caught by a speed camera) the police will send you the fine even if you live abroad.
In Switzerland, speeding is not a violation of a traffic code but a Legal Offence, if you fail to comply there is a good chance that an international rogatory will be issued and you have to go to court in your home country. This is enforced by most countries, including all of Europe, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many countries in South America and Asia. Failure to comply can result in a warrant being issued for your arrest by your home country.
To use the motorways (known as Autobahn(en), autoroute(s), or autostrada/e, depending on where you are) and expressways (de: Autostrasse(n), fr: semi-autoroute(s), it: semiautostrada/e; often with oncoming traffic), with green signs and white characters, vehicles under 3500 kg (7,716 lb) weight need to buy a vignette, a sticker which costs 40 Fr. that allows you to use the motorways as much as you like for the entire year (more precisely, from 1 December of the preceding year to 31 January of the following, so a 2009 vignette is valid from 1 December 2008 until 31 January 2010). Trailers must have a separate vignette.
Avoiding the motorways and expressways in order to save the toll price is generally futile; the amount is well worth it, even if you are only transiting. Otherwise, you will likely spend several times more driving through roundabouts and random uninteresting villages. Failure to possess a valid vignette is punishable by a 200 Fr. fine and a requirement to purchase a vignette immediately (total fine of 240 Fr.). Sharing vignettes is, of course, illegal and subject to the same fines as not having one. It actually must be irretrievably attached to the windscreen, otherwise you will be fined the same way like you would for omitting it. Rentals should have the vignette already paid for that vehicle, but ask to be sure.
Vehicles larger than 3,500 kg (7,716 lb) have to pay a special toll assessed through special on-board units that is applied for all roads, not just the motorways.
Swiss road signs follow international norms (Vienna 1968), however some of them are Swiss-specific. Motorways and expressways are indicated by green signs with white characters. Principal roads are indicated with blue signs and white characters, while for minor roads the signs are white with black characters.
Speed limits: 120 km/h (75 mph) on motorways, 100 km/h on expressways (de: Autostrasse(n), fr: semi-autoroute(s), it: semiautostrada/e; often with oncoming traffic), 80 km/h (50 mph) on normal, principal roads outside of villages and towns and often inside tunnels, and a generally valid 50 km/h (31 mph) limit inside villages and towns and often only indicated by the name of the village, or town respectively.
Moreover, some roads are limited to 30 km/h (19 mph) or even to 20 km/h (12 mph) in built-up areas, where you can meet playing children in the street, and to 70 km/h outside built-up areas. Vehicles unable to travel at 80 km/h or faster are not permitted on the motorways or expressways.
Expect the speed limits to change frequently on any road, including motorways; cruise control won't be a big help in Switzerland. Most speed limits are only signposted once, so pay attention. Missing a sign will not be accepted as an excuse by the police, and fines are hefty. As a driver you are expected to focus your attention fully on the road, so don't get distracted by the beautiful landscape, or anything else for that matter. Whilst driving "a wee bit too fast" is common on motorways, people tend to stick pretty closely to the other speed limits. If stopped by the police, expect to pay your fine on the spot.
In Switzerland, traffic laws (SR/RS 741.01 Strassenvekehrsgesetz (SVG) / Loi fédérale sur la circulation routière (LCR) / Legge federale sulla circolazione stradale (LCStr) are part of the VII. Title of the Swiss Internal Law.
Strictly comply to the traffic regulations (SR/RS 741.11 Verkehrsregelnverordnung (VRV)/Ordonnance sur les règles de la circulation routière (OCR)/Ordinanza sulle norme della circolazione stradale (ONC)) and the traffic signs (SR/RS 741.21 Signalisationsverordnung (SSV)/Ordonnance sur la signalisation routière (OSR)/Ordinanza sulla segnaletica stradale (OSStr))! And learn them before you come to Switzerland, not knowing them is no excuse to the police and other road users.
Take care, since traffic rules are frequently checked and strictly applied. And traffic fines are hefty!
Here is a small selection possibly important to visitors:
Do never cross or drive over a solid, unbroken security line (white or yellow), particularly not double security lines (they separate directions on roads with three or more lanes, e.g. on expressways). They are there for your and others safety and can be considered as gross violations of traffic rules!
U-turns, voluntarily stopping, or even parking, or driving backwards in tunnels are strictly prohibited (like everywhere in Europe) and can be considered as gross violations of traffic rules!
In Switzerland, speeding is not a violation of a traffic code but a legal offence. If you fail to comply there is a good chance that an international rogatory will be issued and you have to go to court in your home country. This is enforced by most countries, including all of Europe, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many countries in South America and Asia. Failure to comply can result in a warrant being issued for your arrest by your home country.
A punishment of one or up to four years imprisonment will be sentenced to anyone who, by deliberately violating elementary traffic rules, takes into consideration the high risk of an accident involving seriously injured people or a victim of death, in particular by a high degree of disregard for the maximum permitted speed, daring overtaking, or participation in an unauthorized race with motor vehicles.
Switzerland has also banned all GPS appliances with built-in speed cameras databases as they are equipped with "radar detectors". According to some GPS navigator producers, it is advised to remove the Swiss radar database while driving in the country as the police may give you a fine and impound your device even if it is turned off and placed in the trunk of your vehicle!
The blood alcohol concentration limit is 0.05%. As in every country, do not drink and drive, as you will lose your license for several months if you are cited and a heavy fine may be imposed.
Motorists in Switzerland are required to switch on their headlights or daytime running lights while driving during the day.
Driving is on the right side of the road everywhere in Switzerland, just like in most of Europe.
The priority to right rule exists everywhere in Switzerland on any road, if not indicated otherwise, i.e. that at intersections, priority is given to the driver on the right except when driving on a road with right of way indicated by a principal road (de: Hauptstrasse, fr: route principale, it: strada principale) sign: yellow diamond on white background (see pictogram no. 3.03, or no. 3.04 respectively). The priority to right rule is also valid, of course, for any kind of transport means authorized to use carriageways, such as bicycles, mopeds, motorbikes, horses, and carriages.
When merging into traffic circles (roundabouts) respect the road signs, which indicate that priority is given to the vehicles already in the roundabout.
Indicate each time you change your direction or lane, and always overtake on the left, including on motorways. When overtaking never cross an unbroken centre line, particularly on mountain roads; they are in place for your and everybody's safety and not to aggravate you! Don't forget to indicate at the beginning and end of the overtaking manoeuvre.
You are not allowed to pass trams at a tram stop, if there is no passenger island on which pedestrians can wait. Moving trams must be overtaken on the right, if they drive in the middle of the road.
If a pedestrian wants to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing (yellow stripes on the road), then any vehicle approaching must stop and give priority to the pedestrians. This is a general law valid anywhere in Switzerland, but especially applicable for tram stops. Do not stop on a pedestrian crossing, even during rush hours.
You must always immediately give way to police, fire engines, ambulances, and customs even if you have to violate some traffic rules, such as moving on to sideways. But be careful to other traffic users!
You must always give way to public transport buses pulling out as they have priority.
At traffic lights and railway crossings, you must switch off your engines ("Für bessere Luft - Motor abstellen!", "Coupez le moteur!") to avoid traffic pollution. And of course during cargo handling! Expect rude remarks by locals, if you let run your engine when you get off from your car. You can also easily get fined for it.
On all car journeys in Switzerland you are required by law to wear a seat belt on both the front and back seats. Children younger than 12 years old or smaller than 150 cm must be secured by officially approved child safety seats, and are allowed to be transported on the back seats only.
Fines and penalties
Some examples of fines by failing to follow traffic rules (a small selection of the SR 471.031 Ordnungsbussenverordnung (OBV) / Ordonnance sur les amendes d'ordre (OAO) / Ordinanza concernente le multe disciplinari (OMD)):
|Driving licence not produced||20|
|Exceeding the valid parking period||< 2h||40|
|2h < t < 4h||60|
|4h < t < 10h||100|
|On pedestrian crossings||parking||120|
|even during rush hours||60|
|Ignoring pedestrian's right of way on pedestrian crossings||140|
|On bicycle lanes||parking||120|
|On the yellow stripe before pedestrian crossings||parking||120|
|Not adjusting snow chains when requested||100|
|Not following directions given by arrows either printed on roads, produced by sign posts, or indicated by traffic lights||100|
|Driving on prohibited roads||100|
|Driving on bus lanes or tram tracks||60|
|Not stopping correctly at stop signs||60|
|Ignoring traffic lights (red light, and direction indications)||250|
|Ignoring flashing (yellow) traffic lights (ignoring give way or stop signs)||250|
|Using of mobile phones without speakerphone||100|
|Not using seat belts by any passenger||60|
|Unsecured children aged below 12 (special seat for children)||60|
|Not using indicators||100|
|Misuse of indicators||40|
|Not cancelling indicators after manoeuvre||100|
|Running engine of a standing car in order to unnecessarily pre-heat the car (in winter) or to let run the A/C (in summer)||60|
|Unnecessarily running engine of a standing car||60|
|More passengers than allowed||60|
|Dirty licence plates||60|
|Driving with unsuitable tires||100|
|Driving too fast (minus the measurement uncertainty)||within cities, towns and villages (speed limit: 50 km/h)||
1-5 km/h: 40 6-10 km/h: 120 11-15 km/h: 250 above 15 km/h: due process of law
|outside of cities, towns, and villages (speed limit: 80 km/h), or on expressways (standard speed limit: 100 km/h)||
1-5 km/h: 40 6-10 km/h: 100 11-15 km/h: 160 16-20 km/h: 240 above 20 km/h: due process of law
|on motorways (standard speed limit: 120 km/h)||
1-5 km/h: 20 6-10 km/h: 60 11-15 km/h: 120 16-20 km/h: 180 21-25 km/h: 260 above 25 km/h: due process of law
|due process of law will lead to very hefty fines based on your personal wealth and can include prison and confiscation of your car! Excessive speeding is considered as a criminal act.|
Tips for mountain roads:
- Don't cross solid, unbroken security lines. They are deliberately placed for your and others' safety!
- Honk if you're on a narrow road, which is too small for a normal two-lane road (i.e. lacking of a white middle line), and you can't see around the bend; required by law!
- The bright yellow Postal Bus always has priority. You can hear it approaching by means of its distinctive three tone horn. This is most relevant on hairpin bends. If you see a PostAuto, or even much better, hear it approaching a bend, hold back (before the bend!) and let it pass, their drivers count on your considerate driving!
- Firstly, heavy vehicles (buses, trucks) have priority over light vehicles. Secondly, the vehicle going uphill has priority over the vehicle coming downhill.
- Don't even think about driving as fast as the locals: they know every bend, you don't.
- In general, drive at a speed which allows you to stop within half the distance you can see – it is even a law for narrow roads! – in order to be safe; and drive so that you would be happy to meet yourself coming the other way!
- During winter, although most vehicles are equipped with winter tires (not to be mismatched with all-season tires or even summer tires; winter tires have at least a tread depth of 4mm and are made of different rubber), it may be required to apply tire chains to the wheels of your car if driving in an area with snow on the road. Cars rented in Switzerland are routinely supplied with tire chains, but ask. Some mountain roads, towns and villages may require chains. Illustrated signs showing snow chains will be posted at the beginning of the route. If chains are requested, winter tires are not sufficient at all! Failure to obey may incur a fine. Service stations located on these routes may provide a chain installation service, for a fee. It's worth the expense, since an inexperienced driver can be tortured for an hour or more, sometimes in terrible weather, learning to mount tire chains.
- Don't assume all roads are open; higher altitude moutain passes (e.g. Gotthard, Furka, Grimsel, Oberalp, and others) will be closed for part or all of the winter. Check that a mountain road or pass is open before driving, or you may encounter a red multilingual "CLOSED" sign at the beginning of the route.
Roads for drivers
The roads in Switzerland are mostly excellent and in great condition - however beware that during the winter season most of the mountain passes are closed. Even without driving fast and risking hefty fines, the views are breathtaking and well-worth the drive and rather expensive gas. The hair-pin turns make it hard to go overly fast anyway. Some of the roads stand out:
- Some passes in Central Switzerland:
- 1 Gotthard Pass 2,106 m (6,909 ft). The still quite frequented pass road Gotthardstrasse, replaced since 1980 by a tunnel between Göschenen (UR) and Airolo (TI), is still worth travelling. The view down the southern Val Leventina from top and from approximate the middle of the south ramp is enchanting.
- 2 Furka Pass 2,429 m (7,969 ft). The long road Furkapassstrasse, known from a old James Bond movie, starts from Realp, west of Andermatt, with a quite steep ascent, followed by a long scenic drive on the ridge of the Klein Furkahorn before arriving in Gletsch, where it forks, either, further down the Goms, or up again towards the Grimsel Pass.
- 3 Grimsel Pass 2,164 m (7,100 ft). Connects the most upper part of the Valais, the Goms, with Meiringen in the Haslital. Great views towards the majestic Bernese Alps and valleys.
- 4 Susten Pass 2,224 m (7,297 ft). Connects the Haslital with Göschenen in the upper Reuss Valley.
- 5 Bernina Pass. Connects the Upper Engadine through the Val Bernina on the north side over the pass with the Val Poschiavo and Tirano, Italy, on the south. Worth going either for the views of Bernina range of the Swiss Alps, or the Diavolezza ski area, or, of course, hiking in any of the many surroundings. If you don't feel like driving, check out the world-famous and even more scenic Bernina Express railway connection.
- 6 Flüela Pass 2,383 m (7,818 ft). A not overly frequented pass road between Davos and Susch in the Lower Engadine. At the top, you can give the engine a break and take a short walk in the surroundings.
- Right at the Switzerland border is one of the world's most popular roads (together with e.g. Großglockner in the nearby Austria, or Transfăgărășan in Romania), also among the cyclists:
- 7 Stelvio Pass 2,757 m (9,045 ft), Italy. Be prepared for 48 hairpin turns.
- It can be accessed either via South Tyrol, or the highest pass in Switzerland - 8 Umbrail Pass, from Engadin valley, Santa Maria.
As Switzerland is very mountainous and has a comprehensive railway network (see Rail travel in Switzerland), it is possible - and often both faster and cheaper - to load your car onto a train. This is called "Autoverlad" in Swiss Standard German and the SBB website walks you through the process.