Admittedly, I knew nothing about Finnish culture when I planned our Spring Break trip to Helsinki, Finland. I didn’t even really know that much about Finland, other than where it was roughly located in the world. So how and why did we choose Finland?
Simply put… cheap airfare.
Now, cheap is a relative term, but for my family of three to fly to Helsinki with checked baggage and assigned seats, we paid about $600 per person. That’s pretty cheap for Europe. We also had plenty of Marriott points which allowed us to book a week at an amazing hotel, an active prison up until 2002. And at the last minute, we decided to rent a car.
I normally like to read and prepare and plan, while still leaving an element of spontaneity for when we arrive. But I was so busy in the weeks leading up to Spring Break that the best I could was flip through a book I bought on Finland and google a few articles.
It turns out, we had an amazing trip despite my lack of preparation. But I did learn a few things about driving in Finland that I probably should have known before I got behind the wheel of our Opel Insignia. Hopefully, I didn’t offend too many Finns!
Driving in Finland
It’s easy to drive in Finland if you’re from the United States. You simply need a valid U.S. driver’s license when renting a car. And surprisingly, the rental car rates include more insurance than you would typically find for an American car rental.
The cars in Finland have the steering wheel on the left side of the car and Finns drive on the right side of the road. In fact, many rules for driving are the as in the U.S. The signs are pretty easy to follow. But there are a few cultural aspects to driving in Finland that you should know.
1. Go the speed limit.
In the US, the posted speed limit is more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule. Exceptions: when it’s a school zone, when driving in a construction zone, when the cops are nearby, and when there are speed cameras.
In Finland, there is a posted speed limit and that’s how fast you drive. Sometimes it feels painfully slow and sometimes it feels exhilarating! I was driving 120 on the open highway! Then I found out 120 kilometers per hour is roughly 75 mph. So not that big of a deal.
Again, knowing that you simply must or should drive the speed limit takes some of the stress out of driving.
2. The left lane is for passing.
This is not a uniquely Finnish rule. In fact, it’s how people are supposed to drive in the United States. But we all know people that ONLY drive in the passing lane (aka the fast lane) and they aren’t always the fastest drivers.
As with many European countries (and some Asian countries too), the left lane is for passing. You drive in the right lane and when approaching a slower vehicle, signal, go around, and then get back over. Simple. And you never feel “stuck” because everyone is driving in the correct lane.
3. No right turn on red.
It was probably on our second day that I casually asked my husband (after many right turns on red), “I wonder if you can make a right on red in Finland.” After a quick google search, we found out that you CANNOT.
While some might find that frustrating, it made driving very simple. At a red light, you stop. At a green light, you go. No judgment calls here.
4. Traffic lights are more informative.
This isn’t really a cultural thing. Just something that I’ve seen in other European countries that just seems to make sense. The traffic lights turn yellow (a very short yellow) before turning red. But what I love about their traffic lights is that they also turn yellow before turning green.
While the light is red, the yellow light will also illuminate letting you know that the light is about to turn green. Make it easy to get ready to go!
5. No stop signs, only yields.
I know stop signs exist because I did see at least one (that surprisingly said STOP). But at most intersections without traffic lights, there are no signs. At first, it was a little confusing (especially when you’re sharing the road with the light rail) but we quickly learned that you just approach an intersection with caution and go when it seems clear. And it surprisingly works.
6. Pedestrians have extreme right of way.
When you’re crossing the street in the U.S., you’re taking your life in your own hands. Even if pedestrians have the right of way, you must rely on drivers to adhere to that. No so in Finland.
People in Finland seem to walk a lot and there are crosswalks everywhere. Some of have signals for the pedestrians and some don’t. Regardless, pedestrians always have right of way.
What I mean is that if you see someone even thinking about getting ready to cross the street, you stop the car to let them pass. Likewise, pedestrians have that same expectation and will step out into the street without even looking. Admittedly, I found myself applying rapid braking when I realized I was approaching a pedestrian area.
7. No jaywalking please.
If you’ve been to New York or any city, you’re probably used to jaywalking. That can mean simply crossing in the middle of a street, or crossing at a crosswalk before the signal changes. In NYC, it’s pretty commonplace to wait until a street is clear and walk in the crosswalk, regardless of the signal. And once one person starts walking, everyone starts walking.
Not so in Finland. We didn’t really realize this until our last night there when we crossed against the light and saw a nice Finnish woman simply waiting for the signal to turn green on an essentially abandoned street.
When we were looking at a little book of Finnish culture at the airport before our departure, we found that this is a pet peeve of many Finns. Sorry!
8. Parking is confusing.
There are signs that indicate no parking (blue circle with a red line through it) and there are blue parking signs (with a large P). And that was about all we could figure out. If we parked in a garage, it was easy to pay at a machine using your license plate (located on your rental car key tag). But other times, we had no idea what we were doing.
There are handicapped designated spaces but other than that, it seems that there is a street parking and parking lots. And sometimes you pay and sometimes you don’t. And sometimes you just park on the sidewalk. When in Finland, just do what the Finns do.
9. No police anywhere.
Despite all the rules in place, both in the city as a pedestrian, or driving on the highway or congested streets, I didn’t see a single police officer or police car anywhere. But something must be working because Finland has a very low rate of traffic accident fatalities.
10. Watch for gravel.
When we picked up our rental car (we had a great experience with Alamo), they told us to inspect the car for any damage before we left. There was a normal amount of damage to be had because instead of salt, they use gravel on the roads in winter to provide traction. Since we visited in April, right on the cusp of the winter/spring transition, there was still plenty of gravel (and small mounds of dirty snow everywhere).
11. Check your tires.
We thought nothing of our tires as we drove everywhere in Southern Finland. We drove on the highway, We drove on cobblestone. And we drove in areas that specifically had signs for no studded tires. And we assumed the rumbling sounds were the result of us driving over gravel.
On the day we left, we looked down at the tires for reasons I can’t explain, and saw that they were studded. Whoops! Sorry, Finland!
If I had to sum up my driving experience in Finland, I’d say it was easy and stress free for one reason only. There are rules and in general, Finnish culture dictates that you…
Follow the rules.
This explains most of the things I learned about driving. By contrast, the United States seems like a big ball of chaos. Finns follow rules. The rules might be laws that we typically bend or they might be simple social rules. But the rules are there and are meant to be followed. As a result, our experience (when we figured out which rules to follow) was ordered, relaxing, and made us feel safe.