On a scale of 1 to 10, how crazy do you have to be to drive in France?
I just read someone calling driving in France "an absolute delight". Are we even in the same country?
We might be. As with many things French, it depends.
Traveling in France by car can be abominable. But it can also be heavenly. It just depends on where you are and what you know.
Let's be clear: I'm not a driving instructor, nor am I the world's best driver. I'm not a cop, or your driving instructor. I'm just your garden variety French driver, and I'm not blind to my countrymen's road manners. In fact, I'm appalled by them, and I care about safety, yours and mine. So I'm going to be brutally honest.
This is not full rundown of driving rules in France: it is a highlight of the absolute, must-know basics. I especially focus on those that are counter-intuitive at best, or illogical, stupid and even dangerous at worst.
There aren't many of them but those that do exist will leave you shaking your head.
I'm going to start with the worst of French driving, to get it out of the way. If you survive this section, the next ones should be a breeze.
French drivers are often aggressive. They regularly speed, and they have phone conversations (that Gallic rebellious streak). Speaking on your mobile is illegal, by the way, even with a hands-free kit.
Too often, the French don't see anything wrong with having a bottle (or two) of wine before, you know, driving.
French drivers, unlike their British (or many other European) counterparts, remain far too friendly with alcohol. I once sat on the Italian side of the Mont-Blanc Tunnel having lunch and watching a group of my compatriots at the next table: apéritifs, two bottles of wine for four people, and a cognac or grappa to wind it all down. Then, carefree as the wind (and just as unstable), they staggered out to the parking lot, each getting into his own car and heading to France.
I ordered an extra coffee and waited half an hour. They should be through the tunnel by then, I thought. And if not, I'd see the sirens scream by.
If you're wondering why I didn't call someone to report them, it's because there's no point. I once did report a drunk truck driver who was weaving all over the autoroute. The police said to me, "And what do you want us to do about it?" Really?
The notion of designated driver hasn't quite reached our shores, and it's not unusual, especially on country roads, to be passed by a high-speed line of cars rushing home from the café to make it in time for dinner.
The worst times are right after lunch, right after dinner, or on Friday and Saturday evenings. I live in a rural area and have long ago given up going out on weekend evenings after a few near misses. It is not rare on a Sunday morning to drive by a cordon by the side of the road, usually protecting a car that skidded off the road the night before.
While rules against drinking and driving are robust, it's worth noting that some 30% of fatal accidents on French roads are alcohol related, and three-quarters are caused by men. The good news is that these numbers are falling. I can't imagine what they were like before.
The notion that there might be something wrong with having a fight over the phone or responding to a text message while driving is slowly making its way here. Penalties are stiffening, and some drivers actually demonstrate guilt as they reach for their mobiles while steaming down the autoroute. Let's be real: 7 in 10 French drivers admit they've used their phones while driving.
In this case, women are more to blame than men.
Still, there's every chance that when you're at the wheel, you'll spot a driver chattering away or trying to type out a message.
For now, the penalty is a loss of points on a licence (in France you lose points when you're caught disobeying road rules) and a fine. A new law may include confiscation of your vehicle. And it's a good thing, too.
This may be the most disconcerting sight on French roads: with overhead cameras snapping your every move and radars at the ready, you'll be driving on a 130 kph autoroute (fast enough already, don't you think?) when a gust of wind to your left will signal either a cyclone (nope, doesn't happen) or a car passing you at 170 kph or more. This isn't rare － it's more the rule than the exception.
Whether it's Gallic rebelliousness or an ego-driven desire to show off, you'll notice an uncomfortable feeling if you stick to the speed limit － you'll be tailgated because yes, driving within the speed limit is somehow considered... boring.
On my local road (and on most normal roads), the limit is 80 kph. Most people go 90 kph, which is the old speed limit, but still acceptable on some roads, depending on the signs or local customs, so keep a sharp eye out. Trucks, especially heavily loaded ones, seem to think it's perfectly fine to whip by at well over 100 kph. On motorways, the limit is 130 kph in dry weather, 110 when its wet.
I have to shake my head in dismay. As a people, we pride ourselves on our intelligence. Yet get us behind the wheel of a car and we often proceed to prove the opposite.
Having made it through the worst, we are now left to face the everyday "bad things", the inconveniences rather than the deal breakers. These are things that can make driving unpleasant, even a bit harrowing but not usually life threatening.
Here are a few:
And cyclists, who deserve their own paragraph. At any time, on any day, when all these (mostly) men should be at work, you'll see groups of anywhere from two to 20 (mostly) men huffing and puffing their way up a mountain road steep enough to scare even a goat. Cycling is a national sport and you ignore that at your peril.
To pass, you have to wait until there is a safe place to pass the entire group, and that might be a long way uphill if there are many curves and they are going slowly. Just be patient. Cyclists are sacred. Once you can pass, make sure you leave 1.5m between you and the cyclists. And don't cheer them on by honking. You'll surprise them and someone might fall off...
Yes, you can pass even if there is a solid line in the middle of the road, in theory at least. A policeman once told me it was the safest way to pass and that they would look the other way.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that not everyone is in the "bad" or the "worst" categories. There are plenty of sane people on the roads or we'd all be dead.
More good news is that things are improving. There are fewer accidents on our roads, and, on occasion, I have even met drivers who behaved courteously.
But the REALLY GOOD NEWS is this: French roads cut through some of the most breathtakingly gorgeous countryside on the planet and for that reason alone, you should get yourself a car and drive around the countryside.
When I say countryside, I mean away from the motorways, or autoroutes, as they're called here. If you stay on them, you'll be treated to some nice scenery, punctuated by mega-malls and industrial areas.
But take a rural exit, ANY exit, on your France road trip and suddenly you'll be surrounded by bucolic beauty you thought you'd only find on postcards: spotless scenery, lovely villages and farms, majestic monuments. It's all there, and you can only see most of these sights if you drive (or in some way have wedged yourself into an automobile).
There's no doubt about it: a car is the absolute best way to get off the beaten track in France (to stay on the beaten track, nothing beats the train!)
So there you have it: high-speed drivers, texting while driving and drinking alcohol before getting behind the wheel are your main enemies on French roads, correct?
Wrong! Sometimes, it's the law itself that puts you in danger (or at least in a situation of teeth-chattering stress), and its ignorance will compound your risk － so it is absolutely essential that you learn some of our quirks. Many of them are rules you wouldn't guess in a million years because they are strange, illogical or downright ridiculous.
But you still need to know them.
France loves its roundabouts; it has about 30,000 of them, or about half the roundabouts in the world, not bad considering this bit of traffic equipment was "invented" in the UK, which has a modest 10,000...
In France, though, few set rules govern their ingress or egress. On some, you have priority, and on others you do not.
Where you do not have priority, there's usually a little sign up on the right that says: "Vous n'avez pas la priorité", You don't have priority. If you don't read French fast enough as you whip by, you may end up diving into a fast-moving maelstrom.
But for the sake of argument, NORMALLY, you have priority if you're entering from the right. But you can't help it: You'll look left, and if someone gets in before you, you'll let them go by. That's just the way it is, and it causes tremendous confusion because some people obey the law, and some don't.
My assumption is that I DON'T have the right of way － period. Just in case. And I don't care how many people are honking behind me.
I can't get into more careful detail because I've been driving in France for decades and still can't figure these out. (I've added some solid driving resources, along with rules and regulations, at the bottom of this page.)
Don't skip over this just because it's in French － it may be the most important rule you'll learn in this country. Basically, it means: anyone coming from the right has right of way.
This is ALWAYS the case. Except when there's a sign that says it's not.
So it's simple. Assume people coming from the right have priority, UNLESS something says they don't.
That something could be one of the following (but not exclusively):
If YOU have priority, then no one else does. Logical. The priority sign is a yellow and white diamond sign with a black line through it.
This is one of those rules I call "ridiculous". It may well work in Paris when you're merging eight lanes of traffic onto the Place de l'Étoile but otherwise, it's nerve-wracking and more dangerous than the dangers it was probably designed to avoid.
And if I insist on this one, it's because this is THE one that will probably cause you the most angst.
Here's how it plays out.
There you are, ambling carefree along your road at 80 or 90 kph (either is legal, depending on the road). You enter a lovely village so you slow down (speed limit is 50 the moment you pass the sign with the name of the village) when suddenly, someone driving at the speed of a snail pulls out of a tiny invisible alley on your right. An alley!
That driver has priority. In all fairness, though, that's only the case if it's a hard-surfaced road. Dirt roads don't count and you can toodle right along and ignore anyone on your right.
French roads are often narrower than you may be used to and have plenty of blind spots. Don't be surprised to see a bus hurtling towards you around a sharp mountainous bend. Don't worry, you are both in the right place. One of you may have to reverse — usually the smaller vehicle.
That also happens on hills. Usually, the vehicle going up has priority. Unless the vehicle coming down is larger, or is pulling a trailer, or is a tractor, or... you get the gist. If you can find a slight wedge off a particularly narrow road, pull off and wait for someone to pass you. Chances are they'll know the rules and you can just follow them.
Your seat belt is compulsory, wherever you happen to be sitting. But that's just common sense.
You cannot text and drive. That doesn't stop anyone from texting or talking on the phone but recently the stakes got higher. Heavy fines for this are now being discussed. (Less discussion, please, and higher fines. These people are scary!)
If you happen to be driving here in winter, you'll need to take special care. Some mountain areas will not allow you access without snow chains and winter tires. Roads have pull-offs where you can stop and put your chains on, but make sure you actually know how. I've struggled with new chains in sub-zero temperatures, my frozen fingers barely able to attach them.
We've just looked at the basic rules, but not everything is a rule. Some things are just useful to know, and others are things you may not have thought of.
I suggest you drive defensively, however in the right you may think you are, and remember, you're a foreigner, not a local who knows the usage rules for their towns and villages.
I once lived in a pedestrian-only medieval village. The only exception was for residents, but there was no sign telling anyone. So each time I drove into my village, I'd get stares and even insults from visitors pointing to the 'no automobiles' sign. No, no cars, except for those of us who live here...
The first thing to check is whether your insurance covers your car rental. Rental prices can double once you add the insurance and who knows, you might already be covered by your credit card or home insurance.
What I do is walk around the car and take a video of every little scratch with my phone. Most rental agencies are perfectly honest, but it gives me that extra confidence. You know, the 'just-in-case' factor.
Before you drive off, spend a few minutes becoming familiar with the car, the stick shift, the lights and windshield wipers. You don't want to wait until a downpour to look for them...
Beware the size of car you rent. The agent may think s/he is being kind by offering you the bigger luxury car at the same price — beware. French roads are not designed for larger vehicles and many villages are not designed for cars at all. Try getting stuck in a tiny medieval cobblestone alley with no room to turn around and you'll wish you'd turned down the upgrade.
A final note, and this is more for my American readers, most French cars have manual transmission. These days most rental agencies have an automatic or two but you'll pay extra, and because there are few, they might not be available.
How high is your car? I ask because many parking garages here are extremely low, and the sign that tells you how high they are is extremely tiny. I know this for a fact. Trust me; once you get stuck in a parking garage entrance, it is both costly and embarrassing to be rescued.
Some garages are limited to 1m80, which is passable for a regular automobile but anything slightly larger, including certain city SUVs, will not fit. Check before you start down the ramp!
If you park on the street, you may have to pay. Look around for a meter — you'll usually have to feed it. There are two main kinds: one that asks for your licence plate number, and one that asks for your money and gives you a ticket in return (you place it on your windshield). These machines are notoriously confusing for the French, let alone for foreigners. Locals will usually take pity on you if you look confused...
Every country has its motorway etiquette. Here's ours.
Each lane at a toll is marked (although the markings could be bigger...) Here's what they stand for:
Our motorways can be crowded with trucks and if you have a tiny car that wiggles in the wind, try to drive when trucks are off the road, either at night, or on Sundays, where only refrigerated trucks are allowed. It is such bliss...
The best times to be on the road are early morning (trucks, but few cars, and people haven't had wine yet); during lunch (everyone is busy eating), after 7:30 pm, when truckers have stopped for the day and everyone else is home for supper.
The worst times: just before lunch, when everyone is speeding home to eat; just before supper, for the same reason; on Friday and Saturday evenings, because drinking.
Frankly, though, you'll rarely catch me on a motorway. I'd rather take my time in the countryside. Driving in France may be a challenge, but the rewards far outweigh any of the factors above. This is a country of terribly scenic roads, of achingly lovely villages, of soaring mountains and crystal lakes and to get to most of it, you'll need a car. Just spend a little time reading up before you drive, and you'll be fine. Not to mention it's a trip I promise you'll remember...
—2 July 2020