Driving in France - An Introduction
Driving in France can be a great pleasure (endless quiet country roads) or sheer madness (ring roads & rush-hours in any big city). Although the French have had a notoriously bad accident record (around twice the number of fatal accidents per head of population in 2001 when compared with the UK or Japan) the government is making efforts to reduce the accident levels. For most people buying property for holiday purposes or making a permanent move it's more likely to be the quieter more rural parts of France they experience as drivers. However, wherever you drive some basic laws and common-sense tips apply:
- Front and rear seatbelt wearing is compulsory.
- Children under 10 are not allowed in the front. In the rear they must use a proper restraint system appropriate to their weight, which means a child seat if they weigh between 9 and 15 kg. Over this weight they can use seat belts with a booster cushion.
- By law you must carry a warning triangle.
- For a road side emergency approved reflective jackets must be kept in the car to be worn at the roadside day or night
- By law you must adjust the direction of your headlamp beams for driving on the right, either by using the stick-on adapters or (on more modern cars) by making an adjustment to the lights. Check your manual or consult your dealer if in doubt.
- Spare bulbs and fuses, first-aid kits and fire extinguishers are recommended but not a legal requirement.
- Drive on the right! (it's often after a few days or weeks of successful right-side driving that UK drivers "forget", especially when pulling out of drives or small side roads - if you think you might forget try using post it notes or other steering wheel reminders before you drive off. It's preferable than the other common reminder: a French driver heading for you with lights flashing, horn blaring and fists waving!
- Study the rules for priorities when entering and exiting roads, roundabouts, junctions etc; if in doubt give priority to the right. Come to a complete Stop at STOP signs
- Lights flashing on a motorway means I'm coming through; it's best just to quietly move over and don't let your ego get the better of you.
- Lights flashing on a country road may mean there's a police check ahead (it's illegal to flash these warnings).
- It is illegal to drive on side (parking) lights at any time, and you must use your headlamps when visibility is low. There are now moves afoot to make it compulsory to drive with your headlamps on ALL the time, including in bright, sunny weather.
- Motorcycles over 125cc must use dipped headlights during the day at all times.
- Carry your driving licence, insurance documents and car registration documents at all times. If you are a resident then carry your carte de séjour or passport. (Spot checks are quite common, even in country areas)
- If you break the rules you can expect to be fined if the gendarmes catch you out. Fines vary from around 30 euros to over 3,000 for serious speeding offences or more for drunken or reckless driving. Non-residents must pay in cash on the spot. Residents have 30 days to pay up.
- Expect the unexpected. In rural areas, where roads are quiet and long (and often well maintained) the French are in the habit of driving quite fast and often drive along the centre line until another car appears. This can be alarming if encountered as you round a bend! Don't let the lack of traffic lull you into a false sense of security.
- You don't need to pay any kind of road tax or display any kind of tax disc.
- Your car will need an official mechanical test (Controle Technique) every two years (for cars over fours years old). If your car fails this test, you'll be given a detailed list of items that need to be amended. If it passes, you'll be given a list of items that will need attention before the next controle technique.
- Speed Limits (the second figure indicating the reduced speed limit in rainy conditions).
- Motorways - 130/110 km/h (81/69 mph)
- Dual Carriageways - 110/100 km/h (69/62mph)
- Other roads - 90/80 km/h (56/50mph)
- Built-up areas/towns - 50 km/h (31mph) or as signposted
The above pointers are by no means exhaustive. Drivers spending any time in France should try to familiarise themselves with all the rules of the road, including traffic signals, signposting, road-markings, speed limits etc - a good place to start is by buying a copy of the "Code de la Route", the French highway code.
Take care and enjoy the drive!