Driving in France is something that you may feel apprehensive about...
...especially British drivers who are on the "wrong side" of the road, perhaps for the first time.
This page is one of the most popular on the site, I hope it is helpful to those looking for advice before making their first trip across the Channel - I'd welcome feedback, does it miss something important or is something not clear ? Please feel free to E-Mail me - also take a look at some of the other pages on places in France which give a bit of the "feel" of the areas I've visited.
First though, getting there. I usually use Brittany Ferries, you are in France as soon as you board and their ports are closest to holiday France. If you prefer a shorter crossing there is Eurotunnel the hassle-free way to travel to the continent with your car, choose Eurotunnel. Prices from just £44 per car, return. If you are travelling with a pet they stay with you in your car.
There are various items that you are required to carry in your car at all times in France. A new requirement starting 1 July 2012 is to have a single use breathalyser kit which will allow people to test themselves and to give them the means to test others if they suspect they are over the limit. I would suggest you carry at least two so that if one is used you still have one to show the police. Note that the alcohol limit in France is 0.5 grams per litre which is lower than that in the UK.
Drivers in France are already required to carry a warning triangle and a fluorescent safety vest. The vest should be carried inside the car and not the boot. Failure to have these in the car can lead to a fine of €90.
Other items required are a first aid kit, fire extinguisher and and spare bulbs for car lamps, lenses and reflectors.
Now to actually driving in France, the first thing to say is Don't Panic, it really is easier than you might fear. When you get there you will be in a line of traffic coming off the ferry or le Shuttle, so you will have someone to follow (if you haven't got someone close in front don't be afraid to let someone past you to give you a lead), which is particularly helpful when you come to your first roundabout as they seem to be the hardest thing to adjust to. The French were late in adopting them, but now they have embraced them in great numbers. The main difference to British ones is that there is frequently only one lane to join them even on dual carriageways so be prepared for traffic merging at the approach, also the locals don't signal as well as they might!
Before they adopted roundabouts there were some very complex junction layouts to avoid having them, I will admit to having finished up on the wrong side due to complexity - I've also seen French drivers do the same, so don't be afraid to slow right down until you can suss it out if you haven't got another vehicle to give you a lead.
The biggest danger is obviously that you may make the basic error of driving on the left ! There are several things to help you avoid this, the first is to try always to stop on the right hand side, whether for parking or a petrol station, that way you avoid putting yourself in a position where you might simply pull away and drive on the left. If you've got children with you they can be briefed to remind you when pulling away or emerging from junctions to "Drive on the right" - they love being able to tell Mum or Dad how to drive !
Out on the open road the French drive very close behind other traffic, you can't do anything other than leaving a bit more space in front of you and helping them to get by. Don't be tempted to speed to keep ahead of them, there are radar traps around and the fine is payable on the spot in cash or a French cheque, and aren't cheap, also Speed Cameras are becoming more common. French drivers will often flash their lights to warn oncoming traffic of a speed trap or checkpoint, a very brief flash as it is an offence to do so - don't be tempted to copy them, there is also often a motorcycle cop down the road to catch those that do.
Of course to avoid speeding you need to know what the limits are :-
In town :- 50kph
Out of town single carriageways:- dry 90kph, wet 80 kph
Out of town dual carriageways and non toll Autoroutes : dry 110, wet 90
Toll Autoroutes:- dry 130 kph, wet 110 kph.
Urban speed limits apply from where you pass the town name sign until you pass the name crossed through with a red diagonal line unless there are signs indicating a different limit. You will often see speed limit signs with Rappel underneath, these are reminder signs
It is worth remembering that out of town limits are lower when it is raining. In all cases these are the normal limits, there are many lower limits in force, sometimes just for specific types of vehicles such as lorries or caravans.
Overtaking is difficult in a right hand drive car, to do so it helps enormously to have another driver beside you who can help to see if it is clear to pull out to pass, it also helps to keep a bit further back than you would at home as you can see much more of the road ahead then. Another situation when vision can be restricted is joining a major road from a slip road, when it can be hard to see a gap in the traffic. Again a "co driver" can often help. A point, French slip roads end in a Give Way line (Cedez le passage) you, or a vehicle in front, may have to stop and wait for a gap, even joining an Autoroute.
Talking of Autoroutes, they are generally toll roads, there are two types of toll systems, Peage in French, the first is that your take a ticket from a machine as you join and then hand it to the attendant when you come off it and you then pay according to the distance and class of vehicle - they will accept Credit Cards, cash, and in many cases foreign notes such a US dollars and British ten pound notes. The second involves toll barriers across the road at intervals, these have "auto" lanes for those with the right change to throw the correct amount - shown on the signs as you approach - into baskets. Get that right and you can keep moving - but it's hard to do with a right hand drive car, though I have managed it on my own it once again helps to have a front seat passenger and/or electric windows!
Some of the signs approaching tolls are :-
From left to right: Take a ticket from the machine, advance warning of a toll, lane with a cashier, lane for credit cards (British ones do NOT work as they haven't as yet got the "chip" that French ones have), lane for CARS only with the right money (in coins).
A peculiarity, for us Brits, is Priorité à Droite - priority to the right. This means that traffic joining from the right has priority over traffic on the main road. In general it is confined to country lanes and in town centres and is indicated by signs :-
Indicates you are approaching a "priorite à droite" junction, it may be a T junction rather than a crossroad.
Indicates you have the right of way at the next junction, again it may not actually be a crossroad.
Indicates that the road you are on has priority until you reach..
which indicates you do not have priority, usually giving a distance to the junction where you have to stop or give way. It is worth remembering should you ever be daring enough to use the Boulevard Péripherique around Paris is that it is Priorité à droite, traffic joining has right of way and it can come fast from the slip roads. I find it best to stay in the second lane of the four, but driving there isn't advisable for foreigners who aren't familiar with the French style of driving.
In town, unless you can see a Give Way line across a side road it it best to assume that cars may suddenly emerge and, if turning left, stop across the road in front of you. It does have advantages as it tends to slow urban traffic down but you do need to keep your wits about you.
Continuing with road signs some direction signs can cause confusion. The one a lot of people get confused by is as below:
Signs like this, with one on each side of a road at a junction, seemingly directing traffic to go left and right, actually mean that you should use the road between the two signs. In towns you will often see direction signs with the narrative " Tout Directions", literally this means "All directions", in other words it is the route through traffic should take unless there is a sign to your route at that junction. Direction signs in France give much less precedence to road numbers than in the UK, the best way of finding your route is to list in advance the prefectures (county towns) and sous-prefectures on your route as these are well signed from a considerable distance, they are indicated on maps with a P or SP by the name.
Traffic lights are slightly different in France, the first point you will soon notice is that they don't have repeater lights across the junction, just the one post with the main lights as the top and small repeaters at about a car drivers eye level. The second point is that they do not have a red and amber phase, going straight from Red to Green. Where there are filters or similar the lights will be something like this:
As you can see the arrows appear on all three lights not just an extra green. These lights can be hard to spot due to the small size of the icon. Another variation is:
The Flashing Amber means that you can proceed with caution to make the turn as indicated by the arrow, you have to give way to traffic and pedestrians in so doing. However a flashing amber at the bottom such as this :
means that you can proceed, but with extra caution, it is the norm for temporary lights at road works etc but can also be found at other particularly difficult locations.
Pedestrian crossings used to be largely ignored by the French, however the law changed in 2001 and it is now mandatory to stop for pedestrians. A peculiarity is that when you are turning at a lights controlled junction you have to give way to the pedestrians who are crossing the road you are turning into, their lights will be in their favour. The laws relating to pedestrian crossings have again been tightened recently, take care until you are used to how they work in practice.
The great thing about driving in France, away from Paris and the île de France, is that there is far less traffic than in England, you can find yourself enjoying the drive !! However the accident rate is much higher in France than in Britain, you need to take care and drive defensively.
Drinking and driving :- the French alcohol limit is lower than in the UK, it is best to assume that you cannot have any alcohol before driving.
This page is obviously not exhaustive, it is only intended to give very basic information. The place to find out more and get all the reliable information you need is on sécurité routière, a French government web site which is obviously in French. All road signs used are illustrated on Signalisation Routière, in general the road signs are the same as those in Britain but there are some variations and detail differences.
This article is a very brief guide, it is the individual driver's responsibility to make sure that they know and understand the relevant laws and to drive with due care and attention.
This site was last updated 09-02-2012
Photos not otherwise credited are ©2001/2002 S G J Huddy. Other photos are included with permission of the copyright holders.