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On a scale of 1 to 10, how crazy do you have to be to drive in France? That's one way to look at it.
Conversely, I just read someone calling driving in France "an absolute delight".
It depends. Clearly, travel in France by car can be abominable. But it can also be heavenly.
Much will depend on how much you know before you get behind the wheel.
First, I'm not a driving instructor or a cop, nor am I the world's best driver. I'm just your garden variety French motorist, and I'm not blind to my countrymen's (the worst offenders do tend to be men, according to insurance companies) road manners. I care about safety, yours and mine, so these tips on driving in France are 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 for driving in France as a tourist, with a spotlight on rules that are counter-intuitive at best, illogical, stupid, or at worst, even dangerous.
There aren't many of these bad eggs but those that do exist will leave you shaking your head.
Once you know these driving in France rules, though, driving in France will go from insane towards the "absolute delight" I've come to consider it.
I'm going to start with the worst of French driving, just to get it out of my system. If you survive this section, the next ones should be a breeze.
Some French drivers can be quite aggressive. They may speed regularly, or have lengthy phone conversations (that Gallic rebellious streak) while at the wheel. Speaking on your mobile is illegal, by the way, even with a hands-free kit.
But sometimes, especially after a good meal or an evening at the bar, people who are over the limit get behind the wheel. (Maximum limit: 50mg, or one drink. Between 50-80mg, you can be fined up to 135 €. )
The drunk driving in France law can be very strict. The French drink-driving blood alcohol limit is 50mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood. Sanctions and penalties : Drivers found with between 50mg and 80mg of alcohol in your blood can be fined € 135 (USD 147/£ 112). Beyond that, you're looking at a possible two years in prison and a fine of € 4500 (USD 4900/£ 3950).
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 grappa to wash 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. If they weren't through the tunnel by then, I'd hear the sirens scream by.
If you're wondering why I didn't call someone to report them, it's because the one time I did report a drunk truck driver weaving all over the autoroute, the police said to me, "And what do you want us to do about it?"
The notion of designated driver is still not as widespread as it should be, especially in my rural area, where high-speed passing is the norm after a hefty apéro time at the café, especially as the weekend nears.
Some times are worse than others:
While the rules for driving in France after you've been drinking are robust, it's worth noting that some 30% of fatal accidents on French roads are alcohol related, and three-quarters are caused by young men.
The good news is that these numbers are falling. I can't imagine what they were like before. To be fair, I do occasionally hear someone say, "I'm not drinking because I'm driving." You could hear a pin drop.
But this is my corner of rural France and I'm sure driving in Paris or other big cities is better...
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, and while you're driving through France, you're bound to spot a driver chattering away or trying to type out a message.
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.
For many French, that's a pinprick and not enough to sit up and take notice.
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 toodling along, minding the speed limit, when a gust of wind to your left (and sometimes to your right) will signal either a cyclone (can't be, not in France!) or a car passing you at such high speed it is almost out of sight by the time you recover.
Whether it's Gallic stubbornness or an ego-driven desire to show off, chances are you'll be tailgated if you stick carefully to the France speed limits. Just ignore the tailgaters. You'll probably soon see them by the side of the road, being ticketed. So satisfying.
Having made it through the worst French driving habits, we are now left to face the everyday "bad things", more inconvenient than dangerous.
Still, these are things that can make driving unpleasant, even a bit harrowing, but not necessarily life threatening. But, they're things you should be aware of:
A word about cyclists: along the road, you may see groups of anywhere from 2 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, please 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. Once you can pass, make sure you leave 1.5m (5ft) between you and the cyclists.
And please, don't cheer them on by honking. You'll surprise them and someone might fall off...
What if there's a solid line in the middle of the road? According to a gendarme friend of mine, just keep your two right tires on the right side of the solid line as you pass, with only your two left tires crossing the line. (Just for info, you can pass a cyclist on a solid line but not a farm tractor going five an hour.) I hope he's right because that's what I've been doing.
The good news is that there are plenty of sane people on the roads or we'd all be dead.
More good news: things are improving!
While there are regional differences, roads in my own region of eastern France – what used to be called the Rhône-Alpes – are beautifully maintained. Each year, the worst patches get resurfaced and lines redrawn.
But the REALLY GOOD NEWS is this: French roads cut through some of the most breathtakingly gorgeous countryside on the planet.
By the way, when I say countryside, I mean country roads, away from the motorways (or autoroutes, as they're called here). This is where you'll enjoy the best French road trips, surrounded by a bucolic beauty that belongs on postcards: spotless scenery, lovely villages and farms, majestic monuments, stunning castles.
It's all there, and driving is the best way to see it.
So there you have it: high-speed drivers, texting while driving, and drinking 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 state of teeth-chattering stress). Its ignorance will compound your risk － so it is absolutely essential that you learn some of our quirks.
Some driving requirements for France may be downright ridiculous, but you still need to know the rules.
France loves its roundabouts; we have about 60,000 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, set rules govern their ingress or egress. Usually, priority is given to the vehicle IN the roundabout – unless otherwise indicated.
Where you do NOT have priority, French road signs will be placed on your right as you approach the roundabout: "Vous n'avez pas la priorité", or, 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.
And there is one exception that trumps all exceptions: the scariest roundabout in France, the Place de l'Étoile in Paris, gives priority to those ENTERING the roundabout. That's right. Just plunge in, and anyone on your left (you're coming from the right) will stop. Maybe.
Don't skip over those words just because they're in French － this may be the most important driving rule you'll learn in this country.
Basically, it means this: anyone coming from your right has right of way, even if they're joining a main road from a tiny village track.
So it's simple. Assume people coming from your right have priority, UNLESS something says they don't, like:
Otherwise, assume traffic from your right has priority. Utterly ridiculous. If people obeyed this, they'd be coming to a stop every few seconds, fearfully checking all the little streets on their right.
But yes, be very vigilant. Unless you see the big yellow priority sign below on YOUR road, assume some slow-moving electric car can simply swerve onto your road, unanounced. Ridiculous, as far as I'm concerned.
And if that big yellow and white sign has a thick black diagonal line through it? It simply means you do NOT have priority.
This kind of rule may well work in Paris, when you're merging ten lanes of traffic onto the Place de l'Étoile but otherwise, it's nerve-wracking and in my humble opinion, 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 the legal 80 or 90 kph (it depends on the road – speed limits are signposted). You enter a lovely village so you slow down (speed limit drops to 50 the moment you pass the sign with the name of the village or town) when suddenly, someone driving at the speed of a snail pulls out from a nearly invisible alley on your right and cuts you off, giving you a split second to slam on your brakes. An alley!
That driver has priority.
This rule is just as confusing for us, not just for foreigners, by the way.
In a logical world, things would be the other way around: you would simply have priority on a main road, or on the bigger road. Any exception would be signalled.
But this is France.
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 someone is barrelling towards you and clearly has no intention of stopping, give them the benefit of the doubt, and stop.
Your seat belt is compulsory, wherever you happen to be sitting in the car. But that's just common sense.
You cannot text and drive. We've covered that.
If you happen to be driving here in winter, you'll need to take special care. There is a new winter tire/chain law. In some départements, between 1 November and 31 March, you must either have snow tires or carry chains in your car. (Here's the official French government page that describes it all – in French of course.)
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. Residents were allowed to drive in, but there was no sign that said so. So each time I drove into my village, I'd get yelled at and even insulted by tourists pointing to the 'no automobiles' sign.
If you're from Canada or the United States, beware the size of car you rent. The agent may think s/he is being helpful by offering you the bigger luxury car at the same price — careful. French roads are not designed for larger vehicles and many villages were not built for cars at all. Try getting your SUV stuck in a tiny medieval cobblestone alley with no room to turn around and you'll desperately wish you'd rejected the upgrade.
You probably know this, but as a reminder, most French cars have manual transmission. These days, rental agencies will usually stock an automatic or two but you'll pay extra, and because there are few, they might not have any when you need one. This, however, is slowly evolving and automatics are becoming increasingly available.
And finally, don't trust your GPS. I mean it. While I have visited the deepest and most delightful corners of France thanks to my GPS, I hadn't planned to. It's (usually) fine for streets in big cities, or for point-to-point rides along major roads. Anything else and expect your schedule to be shot to bits. I always add a backup, either Google Maps, or a reliable paper map of France.
If you don't have your own car, you'll have to rent one, but before you do, please read this piece about things you should know before renting a car in France.
If you're not ready to rent and just want a few tips, please read on.
Before you rent, first check is whether your credit card or home insurance covers your car hire. Rental prices can double once you add the insurance and who knows, you might already be covered by your credit cards or 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 figure out where...
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 can only clear 1m80, which is passable for a small automobile but anything slightly larger, including certain city SUVs, will not fit. Check before you start down the ramp! The height limit sign will usually be overhead or to your right.
If you park on the street, you may have to pay. Search for a meter — you'll usually have to feed it and it's often at the end of the street, or hidden from view.
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 ask for help...
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 the symbols 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, or over lunch, when drivers are, well, eating lunch. Other good times to be on the road are early morning (trucks, but few cars, and people haven't had wine yet) and after 7:30 pm, when truckers have stopped for the day and everyone else is home for supper.
Frankly, though, you'll rarely catch me on a motorway. I'd rather take my time in the gorgeous countryside.
France is a country of terrifically scenic roads, of achingly lovely villages, of soaring mountains and crystal lakes and to get to most of it, you'll need a car to head off beyond the autoroute. Just spend a little time reading up before you drive, and you'll be fine.
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, though, nothing beats the train!)