On a scale of 1 to 10, how crazy do you have to be to drive in France?
Conversely, I just read someone calling driving in France "an absolute delight". Are we even in the same country?
As with many things French, it depends.
Traveling in France by car can be abominable. But it can also be heavenly.
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) 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, with a spotlight on those 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.
But once you know these rules, driving in France will go from insane to 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.
French drivers can be quite 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.
But sometimes, they drive after drinking.
Unlike their British (or many other European) counterparts, drivers in France 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 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 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 taking its time reaching our shores, especially in rural areas, where it's not unusual to be passed by a high-speed line of cars rushing home from the café, after a lengthy apéro, to be in time for dinner.
Here's when you should avoid driving:
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. I have, on occasion, heard someone say, "I'm not drinking because I'm driving." You could hear a pin drop.
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, 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 most 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 will signal either a cyclone (can't be, not in France!) or a car passing you at high speed.
Whether it's Gallic rebelliousness or an ego-driven desire to show off, chances are you'll be tailgated if you stick carefully to the speed limit. Just ignore them. Down the road a bit, you'll probably see a policeman waving the speeder off the road. So satisfying.
Having made it through the worst, we are now left to face the everyday "bad things", the inconveniences rather than the dangerous habits.
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 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, 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...
Yes, you can pass even if there is a solid line in the middle of the road: just keep your two right tires on your side of the line. (Just for info, you can pass a cyclist on a solid line but not a farm tractor going five an hour.)
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 getting better!
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. When I cross a border into France, I'm often surprised that our roads are better.
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, by the way, 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, frequently punctuated by mega-malls and industrial areas.
But take a rural exit, ANY exit, on your France road trip and you may be 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.
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; we have 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, set rules govern their ingress or egress. But the rules aren't always the same. On some roundabouts, 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 once you're in the roundabout.
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 the right has right of way.
In fact, this is almost always the case, 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.
That "something" could be one of the following (but not exclusively):
Any one of these means YOU have priority, even when someone is merging from the right.
The priority sign is a yellow and white diamond sign. But if that diamond has a black diagonal line through it, then you do NOT have priority. Simple.
Priority on the right is one of those rules I call ridiculous.
It 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 80 or 90 kph. 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 from a tiny 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. Any exception would be signalled. Voilà!
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.
Your seat belt is compulsory, wherever you happen to be sitting. 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.
The first thing to check is whether your credit card or home 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 — 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 wish you'd rejected the upgrade.
A final note, and this is more for my American readers: 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 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. Search for a meter — you'll usually have to feed it but 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 look confused and 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.
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 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!)