Much like learning French, driving in France may seem a little daunting and complicated at first. Their famous priorité à droite (priority from the right) can still be a bit baffling as can the way some town signs suddenly disappear leaving you wondering if you’re heading in the right direction or not.
A few weeks ago we took several days off and drove over to the Dordogne - and then down to Perpignan - and into Spain. As we crossed the Spanish “border”, signs literally became double-dutch to us. It was therefore an interesting experience (long forgotten) to remember what it was like arriving in a foreign country - and not understanding the language.
Our train of thought continued to chug along as we imagined what it would be like living in Spain and needing to buy a car, exchange our UK driving licence for a Spanish one; or take a driving test. And we realized just how difficult it must be for many of you, arriving in France, and having to do all those things once you’re here - with perhaps little command of the French language and equally, little knowledge of what’s required.
France’s road network is very well developed and covers nearly a million kilometres, of which almost 8,000 kilometres are motorways operated by privately owned networks.
We’ve been driving in France for many years now and have always been impressed by the care and maintenance taken with toll roads. Yes, you may have to pay to use them, but they are extremely well managed, with excellent service stations and "aires de détente" (rest areas) situated at regular intervals.
Péages (toll booths) are paid per network. On entering a particular network you first take a ticket from the dispensing machine and pay when leaving that particular section. Payment can be done in cash (Euros) or by credit card (American Express works well) - either manually by driving up to a booth where there’s an attendant or automatically. Large overhead signs indicate which lane to take depending on your preferred method of payment.
We also strongly urge you to listen to the French 24-hour autoroute FM radio station on frequency 107.7 when driving on motorways (it covers the whole of the network). Traffic bulletins are given in English and vary between every half hour or less depending on the gravity of a situation or heavy flow of traffic.
Trunk roads in France are known as routes nationales. On roadsigns, they are indicated by a white number on a red background. Trunk road numbers are preceded by the letter N, for example N7, the old main road from St. Tropez to Menton. However the French do not use numbering so much as the British, and it is best to follow a destination, rather than a road number (as these sometimes change). Destinations via main trunk routes are indicated by the names of towns in white letters on a bright green background.
Sometimes you may see direction signs starting with the word Bis, in italics. These are the equivalent of the British "HR" (holiday route) itineraries, using less crowded main roads. Thus a sign saying "bis Lille" is an alternative route avoiding the main roads, and generally with less lorry traffic.
Almost all filling stations accept Visa and Mastercard; however take care with 24hr automatic pumps in supermarket forecourts and elsewhere. Many of these do not accept foreign credit cards, as they are set up for French smart cards, with their integrated chip and PIN number. If in doubt, make sure that you don't have to fill up in an emergency at an unmanned filling station at night or on Sundays.
Speed on most French motorways is limited to 130 km/hr (just over 80 mph) - even if you’re towing a caravan. In wet weather the speed is reduced to 110 km/hr. On dual carriageways, the limit is 110 km/hr, and on ordinary roads it is 90 km/hr. The standard speed limit in built-up areas is 50 kph (30mph), although this can be less (exceptions are most often 30 kph) and this will be indicated.
There tends to be a small tolerance over and above this - but we would advise against disrespecting the speed limits in France. A few years ago radar traps tended to be stationary and visible; nowadays, the motorway police are using more and more mobile radars, in unmarked cars. We’ve also noticed a serious crack down on speeding - and checking of car insurance papers. If caught, you may face an on-the-spot fine or - if you are more than 50 km/hr over the limit - an instant ban and impounding of your vehicle.
Police Speed Radar Devices
We would also advise against using (or even placing) a police speed radar device in your car. (They are prohibited in France). A few years ago a friend of ours was driving (quite within the speed limit) along a stretch of motorway in the south of France. Unfortunately for him, he completely forgot to remove the radar device from his dashboard.
As luck would have it, a flying patrol passed him, flagged him down, things became a little verbally heated, so they impounded his car, made him spend the night in jail and also handed him a hefty fine. His wife bailed him out. Rather bitterly he remarked that if he’d known they were going to do all this to him - he would have left the darn device working just for the hell of it.
Drink Driving & Random Tests
It’s always nice to go out for a lovely meal either with friends or family and celebrate the occasion by an aperitif, a couple of beers or bottle of wine. Wine is also available with meals in many French motorway service areas and so it’s tempting to partake of a glass or two. However, do remember that France has strict drink driving laws.
The French government launched a massive poster campaign between 26th July and 8th August this year against the dangers of drink driving “Celui qui conduit, c’est celui que ne boit pas” (he who drives - doesn’t drink). They also produced an informative online campaign, with three interactive games and alcohol free cocktail recipes.
You should also be aware that random tests are carried out on drivers, even when no accident or offence has taken place, on the order of the public prosecutor (since 1978) or on the initiative of police officers (since 1990). The spectacular increase in the number of random tests (from 2,7 million in 1990 to 6 million in 1994) reflects the stronger and serious mobilisation against drink driving, on rural roads especially.
The limit in France is only 0.5 milligrams of alcohol per litre of blood (the equivalent of two glasses of beer or one glass of wine) - stricter than in the UK where the limit is 0.8. So don’t be tempted, as around 16% of injury accidents and 36% of fatal accidents are alcohol related; in fact, don’t drink & drive at all.
In the event of a car accident, you must fill out a damage assessment form. You will find them in the glove compartment of your rental car or you may request it from your insurance company. It must be signed by the other party, and in the event of a dispute or a refusal to complete the form, you should immediately obtain a constat d'huissier. This is a written report from a bailiff (huissier).
In the event of a dispute, call the police so that they can make out an official report. In the event of an injury, call the SAMU (15) or the fire brigade (18). The police are only called out to accidents when someone is injured, a driver is under the influence of alcohol or the accidents impede traffic flow.
Other Road Users
On the whole, French driving has improved compared to a few years ago, with a noticeable improvement in courtesy and respect to other road users. Sadly we still come across a small minority who are completely reckless, ignoring the priorité de droite rule, disregarding speed limits, and jumping traffic lights.
You’ll also come across a high proportion of motorbikes, mopeds and scooters on the roads around the south of France as well as cyclists. However, these are no ordinary cyclists but dedicated riders who take their sport very seriously. Normally riding alone or in pairs, you will come across groups - especially at weekends and during the summer. Like the Tour de France, they sometimes travel with accompanying vehicles and side riders. This is especially true at competition time when the police are then involved to halt traffic to allow them passage.
Motorbikes are much loved in France too and are normally big, beautiful and carefully ridden. Not so with the noisy mopeds and scooters. Generally ridden by youngsters, they weave across the road, dart in between other vehicles or mindlessly stick to the middle of the road making overtaking impossible. Dangerous? Totally. Annoying? Absolutely.
Most minor roads are well maintained too and recently there’s been a flurry of activity in creating pretty decorative round-abouts where once traffic congestions and problematic priorité à droite occurred.
Pedestrians haven’t been forgotten either. We’ve noticed a number of communes laying down new tarmac pavements where none existed.
In general, motoring around the south of France is fairly straight-forward. Granted you may not be a happy bunny when stuck bumper to bumper on the Riviera during summer when roads are jam-packed, but once away from these bottlenecks and off down (or up) country roads, motoring can even be an enjoyable experience.
Driving and Owning a Car
Let’s look at what’s involved if you want to drive a car in France. First of all you must have the following documents with you:
- A driving licence;
- Registration document (Carte Grise) for vehicles;
- Insurance certificate (Carte Verte) and a green insurance sticker (Vignette) on the windscreen;
- Road test (Contrôle technique) certificate and sticker (Vignette) on the windscreen if the car is more than 4 years old.
If you are a EU national you do not have to exchange your current driving licence for a French one. However, if your driving licence has been issued outside of the EU, you are allowed to drive with your current driving licence for a period of approximately one year commencing on the date you arrived in France.
If your licence is lost (or stolen), go to the police closest to where it disappeared. You’ll receive a receipt which acts as a temporary permit valid for two months.
Like a number of other countries, France uses a points system for driving offences. Your licence starts with a credit of 12 points and offences may result in a deduction of points - possibly leading to total disqualification.
Vehicle Registration Document (Carte Grise)
The French vehicle registration document is called a Carte Grise. It contains various details about the vehicle, including the registration number and the registered owner. The carte grise is obtained from the local Préfecture.
If this gets stolen you must go to the police station and request a certificate. Then, you’ll need to take that along with proof of ID, proof of residence and the technical certificate to your Préfecture or Sous-Préfecture and apply for a replacement.
French law requires that you have at least third party cover (assurance au tiers). It is usual to use a French insurance company. You must carry a valid insurance certificate in the form of a green card (carte verte) whenever you are driving, with a corresponding green insurance sticker (vignette) clearly displayed on the windscreen.
Your insurer should also provide you with an accident report form (un constat). These forms are available in various languages, all with the same layout to facilitate comprehension, so ask for one in French and one in your own language. Keep them in your car.
French motor insurers offer a no-claims bonus (the maximum rate is 50%) and will generally honour existing discounts, although you may not get the same rate.
Therefore, if you already have a no-claims bonus, ask your present insurer for written proof of this.
The Green Dot
Instigated by the French government in August 1998 to combat the increase in air pollution , the pastille verte gives you the right to drive your car on days when pollution levels reach 3, regardless of your registration number. The green dot is obtained from the Préfecture, is free, does not need to be renewed annually and must be displayed on the windscreen of your vehicle.
Only non-polluting vehicles can carry the “green dot”, such as:
- Vehicles that run on gas or electricity;
- Petrol and diesel vehicles equipped by the manufactuerer with a catalytic converter or an equivalent system.