Driving abroad

When you land in a foreign country, should you rent a car or stay in passenger mode and hire a driver? That may depend partly on where you are. The American Automobile Association reports that road accidents cause an estimated 1.17 million deaths per year worldwide-and that 70 percent of them occur in developing countries.

You should avoid using rental cars abroad unless the would-be driver "is extremely knowledgeable about the area, including the language and culture," advised David Solo, a security consultant for Houston-based Universal Weather & Aviation. Solo recommended hiring a professional driver and car rather than taking a taxi. He added that travelers should ensure that the service and driver are local, known by the crew and passengers or flight-service provider, or recommended by a trusted handling agent.

FlightWorks, an Atlanta charter company, uses ground-transportation providers recommended by Houston-based Air Security International (ASI) or a handling company providing service for the flight. "We allow crewmembers to rent and drive cars in countries that do not currently have any civilian or military unrest or a history of high crime rates and acts of aggression toward foreigners," said Larry Hecht, director of operations for FlightWorks.

ASI takes a similarly cautious approach. "As much as we might complain about crazy drivers here in the U.S., we've got nothing on foreign countries," company vice president Charles Leblanc said. "You've got some inherent risks in not understanding the culture and the rules of the road. For example, it is culturally accepted in many South American countries not to stop at a stoplight-you just take your foot off the accelerator, beep the horn a couple of times and go right through." In some countries, he said, drivers don't know or care that "sidewalks are for walking, not driving, or that one-way really means one-way."

In case of an accident, local customs can cause more problems. "Say you're driving and you hit a car carrying an adult female," said Leblanc. "She's not moving and you're compassionate, so you get out of your car [and attempt to check on her condition]. Whether the accident is your fault or not, in some countries you could end up surrounded by [a mob] who don't care that you're just trying to see if she's OK." It may be best to "drive away and get to the embassy," he suggested, because you may be considered automatically guilty and responsible.

If you'd rather not risk having to deal with such situations, you should consider hiring a driver from a company like ASI, which can arrange ground transportation in more than 400 cities. To ensure that the proper car service picks up the client, it vets all the providers it works with and tells clients exactly who will pick them up in what model and color car with what license plate number.

Leblanc doesn't want to give the impression that travelers should cower in their hotel rooms, just that they need to be careful. "We face risk when we step out the front door of the house," he said. "Mitigate that risk and enjoy the beauty of another country without risking your life."

If You Drive Yourself...

Review the Road Safety segment of the U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Sheets (www.travel.state.gov/travel) and background notes for countries in which you intend to drive (www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn). Know, too, that driving under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicants can sometimes result in severe criminal penalties. Check with embassies or consulates to learn about requirements for driver licenses, road permits and auto insurance (usembassy.state.gov).

Kidnapping Still a Problem

Kidnapping is a risk in many countries and is a principal reason travelers should hire background-checked drivers, according to Dan Johnson, senior chief of investigation and consulting at Air Security International Global's Kidnap and Ransom Response division. "Mexico is probably the fastest growing country for kidnapping," he said. Other high-risk countries include Colombia, several Middle Eastern countries and the Philippines.

Take basic precautions, Johnson said. Don't venture outside hotels at night, avoid taxis, don't imbibe enough alcohol to become impaired and thus an attractive target. "Travel in groups," he said. "Kidnappers go for the path of least resistance: travelers not able to defend themselves."

ASI Global also offers the following warnings and recommendations:

• Potential victims are most vulnerable when entering or leaving homes or offices, so observe surroundings at such times for possible surveillance.

• Never enter a car without ensuring that the rear seat is empty.

• Avoid acting in predictable patterns.

• If possible, exchange company cars or swap with coworkers occasionally.

• Know the location of police, hospital, military and government buildings.

• Avoid remote areas, especially after dark.

• Select well-traveled streets.

• Keep vehicles well maintained and doors and windows locked.

• Be alert to road conditions.

• Never pick up hitchhikers.

• Report suspicious activity.

For more information about how to safeguard against kidnapping, visit www.asiglobalresponse.com/downloads.asp.