Nick's Travel Tips
Driving in France
This is a collection of information about driving in France, based on what I have learned in driving some 5000 km in that country. It does not try to cover every French road law.
Starting with the most basic fact: France drives on the right-hand side of the road. If you normally drive on the left (as I do), this is terrifying for the first hour or so. For the first few days, concentration is needed to avoid drifting to the left. After that, it starts to be easy. The pedals are the same way round, so you brake and accelerate with the right foot, and change gear with the left. The gear lever is still in the centre of the car, with the same shift pattern. If you do not drive a European car, you will find that the controls on the steering column are the other way round: direction indicators on left, windscreen wipers on right. You may find yourself trying to indicate turns with the wipers.
One unusual quirk of French road rules: u-turns are not permitted anywhere. A three-point turn is OK, and you can go all the way around a roundabout.
To drive in France, you must have an International Driving Permit as well as your driving license, unless your driving license is issued by an EU country, or is in French. The car rental company may or may not ask to see your IDP, but the Police certainly will if you are involved in an accident or stopped for a routine check. The IDP is usually issued by motoring organisations: the AAA in the USA, or NRMA, RACV, etc., in Australia.
France has three classifications of roads.
Autoroutes are motorways: divided roads with two or three lanes in each direction, no at-grade intersections and limited access. Many of them are toll roads, which is indicated by the word "péage" (toll) on signs pointing to them. Usually you take a ticket from a machine as you enter a toll road. When you leave the toll road, look for a lane that does not have signs indicating that it takes only cards. Give the ticket to an attendant or put it into a machine, and pay the toll. Both will give change.
Routes nationales are main roads maintained by the national French government. Some of them (for example, in Brittany) are really to motorway standard. The great majority are to good two-lane standard.
Routes départémentales are less important roads maintained by the départément. They vary greatly in standard from really good wide roads to narrow winding mountain roads. Confusingly, the number usually changes when the road goes from one départément to another. In recent years, the national government has transferred a substantial number of routes nationales to the départéments, so that a road shown on your map as N57 may now be D9057 or (very pointed this) D57N.
There are many many speed cameras in France. France has zero tolerance for speeding. If you are caught exceeding a speed limit, even by only 1 km/h, a ticket will be sent to your rental company. The rental company will have to provide a sworn statement about who was responsible for the car, and will charge your credit card around €50 for their trouble. Then in due course, you will receive a ticket.
Don't do it! France has very strict drink driving laws. You are allowed a maximum of 0.5mg/ml of alcohol in your blood, so two glasses of wine with lunch can put you over the limit. Drink when you get home.
The default rule in France (in the absence of any road signs) is that drivers give way to the right. If you are approaching an intersection and another vehicle is approaching from your right, you must give way (yield) to the other vehicle. This rule can be varied by road signs.
Most autoroutes (motorways) in France have tolls, and these can add up to a substantial amount. You can get toll costs from ViaMichelin. There is always a free alternative to a toll autoroute, but it may take much longer to drive.
Usually when you enter a toll road, you take a ticket from a machine. This ticket shows where and when you entered the tollway. When you leave the tollway, the ticket is used to calculate the toll to be paid. There are four ways of paying a toll: Télépéage, Carte Bleu, cash to an attendant or cash to a machine. These are indicated at toll gates by these signs:
Télépéage is an electronic tag that has to be linked to a European bank account or card, so a tourist will not have one. Carte Bleu is the generic French term for a credit or debit card, but there is a strong possibility that a foreign card will not work. Therefore it is better to head for a staffed toll gate, indicated by the third symbol. Hand the ticket to the attendant, and the amount of toll will be shown on a display at driver's head level. Give money to the attendant, who will give change if necessary. Or go a gate with a machine, as described in the next paragraph.
Many toll plazas no longer have staffed gates. In this case, head for any gate that has a green arrow and is not marked as being reserved for Télépéage or Carte Bleu. Put the ticket into the obvious slot in the machine, and it will display the amount of the toll. Pay with notes and/or coin: the machine will give change if necessary. Gates reserved for tags or cards are shown like this:
There are a few stretches of autoroute that do not use tickets. They have toll plazas across the autoroute that collect a fixed toll. One example is the A8 along the Côte d'Azur, between Ventimiglia and Cannes, where there are two or three fixed tolls. You may find that there is only a basket to collect euro coins, and that no change is given.
If you have a credit card issued outside Europe, you will need to plan when to buy fuel. Automatic fuel pumps require a chip-and-PIN card that meets French requirements. The chip-and-PIN cards issued in Australia (and probably other countries) do not meet this requirement and operate as chip-and-sign in France, so people with such cards will have to buy where a person handles the purchase. You can usually pay a person for fuel at the fuel stations at aires, but maybe from only some of the pumps. For better value, buy from supermarkets as they usually have a person taking payment during the hours that the supermarket is open.
This all means that you will probably have difficulty in obtaining fuel on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, or over the lunch break on weekdays.
In France, all cars must carry a reflective red triangle and a reflective hi-vis vest. Check your rental car for these items before you drive off. They may be tucked away. The car I rented in 2011 had the red triangle under the luggage compartment floor (next to the spare tyre) and the hi-vis vest rolled up into a small package in the glove box.
If your car breaks down or is involved in an accident, and is not wholly off the road, you must place the reflective triangle on the road 50 to 100 metres behind the vehicle. If you are walking on the road, you should wear the hi-vis vest.
France has good signage telling you which road to take, but it follows French conventions. People from UK complain that the signs do not show road numbers (apart from autoroutes). People from USA complain that they do not show the compass point followed by the road. Instead, the signs show the places that the road will take you to. Quite logical, when you think about it.
Having mentioned roundabouts ... France is very fond of roundabouts (rotaries) for regulating traffic at intersections. They cause considerable anxiety to people from countries where they are seldom used, such as USA, especially when there are two lanes through the roundabout. Rick Steves recommends using the right lane, no matter which exit you want to take, but this is a recipe for disaster. This is what you should do.
Further information on roads signs used commonly in Europe is on this page.
Copyright © 2011-15 by Nick Booth. Please contact me if you have any comment.