Driving, Dutch-style

Yesterday was a long distance day, and my husband, who likes to drive, did all of it, in about four hours.

our trusty steed
our trusty steed

His driving scares me. Not all the time: just now and then, and I got to thinking today about the cultural differences in driving behavior.

I’m sure there are lots of examples, but I’ll just use two of them here: tailgating and passing.


Lots of Dutch people, including my husband, do this. If they’re in the left lane, moving faster than the right lane, they do not want to slow down under any circumstances.

So Dutch Person (who could be either male or female) is in the left lane, passing lots of cars and trucks that are in the right lane. No problem.

Now another car moves into the left lane in front of Dutch Person, perhaps to pass another car that is going more slowly, or to pass a truck. It passes that car, but does not immediately move back into the right lane. Perhaps there’s another truck not far ahead, and the driver decides to stay in the left lane to pass that one too.

Dutch Person is most decidedly not happy. Instead of slowing down and matching the other driver’s speed, he tailgates. It’s as if he takes it as a challenge: how close can I get to this car in front of me before scaring the bejeezus out of him enough to get him to move into the right lane, even if he ends up squeezed between two slow-moving trucks?

a view over a highway with a few cars passing by

Which, of course, the slower driver does, often in a rather wobbly way, since he’s been so startled by the sight of Dutch Person’s car looming up so close in the rearview mirror. Dutch Person can now speed up again and go merrily on his way.

This terrifies me when my particular Dutch person does it. I have visions of the car in front of us suddenly braking for an animal in the road and us meeting a horrifying, fiery end.

I should point out, though, that my particular Dutch person doesn’t do it nearly as much or follow as closely as he used to, or at least not when I’m in the car. Thank goodness! I don’t think my heart could take the strain.

Tailgating is illegal in Holland, but, nevertheless, lots of Dutch people do it routinely.

Passing on the right

What never ceases to amaze me, though, is that while they readily break that law, they will never ever deal with the problem by passing the slower car on the right. That just isn’t done.

So while it’s okay to break one law by tailgating, it’s absolutely taboo to break the other law by passing on the right.

As I already noted, Dutch people never do this. Americans do, all the time. Although it is illegal, as far as I know, it’s become routine to do it anyway. And tailgating is taboo.

(I know there are Americans who will read this and think “Now wait a minute, people tailgate terribly here too!” Believe me, you haven’t experienced tailgating until you experience it in the Netherlands!)

So why is this? One culture chooses to flout law #1 and obey law #2, while another culture obeys law #1 and flouts law #2. Is it something else about their culture that leads them to make these choices? Some culturally-determined personality trait?

Or perhaps it’s genetic: the gene that makes Dutch people so tall, on average, also endows them with nerves of steel.

Either way, no matter how long I live in Holland, I will never be able to assimilate to such an extent that I can tailgate like that.


  • Farrah

    August 21, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Interesting! We’ve been here almost a year and I honestly thought that the driving here has been much, much better than in the US- esp. with the tailgating. But then again, we won’t drive in the left lane. Also we’re originally from Detroit so maybe that’s my frame of reference 🙂

  • Melanie

    August 21, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    =D this made me laugh Rachel! I’m a French Canadian and we tailgate like the Dutch seem to be doing. And passing to the right is toootally taboo. Now I live in California, US and it’s like you say. How funny.
    ps: I’m new here, just found you through twitter!

  • Rachel Heller

    August 22, 2013 at 9:47 am

    Farrah, maybe Detroit is different? I’ve never driven there; mostly only the east and west coast of the US.

    Arjen, do you mean bicycling? Hmm. Maybe the fact that the Dutch do so much bicycling makes them more aggressive in general? They are, when they bicycle, very aggressive…

    Melanie, glad you “meet you”!

  • An

    August 22, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    I think Belgians are much worse when it comes to tailgating. They (I should say ‘we’ as I am Belgian myself) are quite aggressive behind the wheel, I think. But passing on the right is taboo here too (but I have to admit that I do it sometimes when someone lingers on the middle or left lane)

    • Rachel Heller

      August 22, 2013 at 7:52 pm

      Worse than Dutch people? Or just as bad? It’s hard to imagine it could be worse unless they actually come so close that they bump into you to urge you out of the lane!

      Anyway, despite their tendency to emphasize the differences between them, and to make fun of each other, there are mostly similarities, I find, between the Dutch and the Flemish. I don’t know about the French-speaking part of Belgium.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Sarah (Expat-Mom)

    August 26, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Gave me a good laugh for the day. Thank you! I shared your post since I hear Germans often mocking Dutch driving, but apparently they have more in common then they thought:)

      • Marcus

        April 1, 2015 at 9:48 pm

        Germans think that the Dutchs are not able to drive. Really, many people hate to see them on German Autobahn, as they do not drive like Germans want them to 🙂 Germans do not understand how they drive and why Dutch drivers do what they do (or not do). So that’s the reason why they are bad drivers for us.
        And there are many jokes about how Dutchs drive. For example: Having a yellow numbershield on your car means that you passed the exam for your drivers licence after the 3rd trial or even later 🙂 The presend after passing the test is a caravan 🙂 And “NL” at the Car means “never learned” insted of the countrie’s name 🙂
        What I like most, is that Dutch people are able to laugh about that jokes, too and (with exeptation of the topic “football”) we like the Dutchs somehow 🙂

        And yes: Belgians drive like the devil in person! In Brussels one could think everybody there attended driving school in hell:)


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