Tips for Driving in France

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Driving in France can be a delight. Cruising down narrow country roads through vineyards or over hills of lavender is a wonderful way to experience the French countryside, and the only real way to see this part of France. Driving through the center of ancient cities, narrow hill towns, or busy Paris, however, is not an enjoyable, or advisable, experience. If your itinerary calls for reaching some out of the way places, go ahead and rent a car, but do your homework before you go. There are some important differences that you should prepare for when driving in France.

  • Headlights are required to be on at all times, even during the day.

  • Right turns at a red light are ILLEGAL. That’s right, you cannot turn right until the light is green. Be patient. However, at some intersections you may encounter a yellow light allowing a right turn yielding to traffic. If you don’t see this arrow or are unsure, wait until your light is green.

  • Instead of police patrols monitoring roads you will see speed cameras. It is best to always drive within the speed limit to avoid a surprise ticket when you get back home. Additionally, more and more areas are installing average speed cameras. These cameras record when you enter the area and when you leave, and based on the time between those two points average your speed. If it is above the legal limit, you can expect a ticket. Best to observe the post limit at all times.

  • Signs point towards cities or landmarks, not points on the compass. You won’t see exits to head north, south, east, or west, for example, but rather signs will point to the nearest town. Study the towns and landmarks along your route, or better yet, use a GPS.

  • Speaking of GPS, you likely don’t need to rent one with your car. It will be expensive, and won’t work as well as what you’re used to using on your phone app. Instead, sign up for an international cell phone plan with your carrier. The major carriers offer plans that charge a flat fee, approximately $10 per day, allowing you to use your normal message and data rates after that. Use this strategically for GPS on days when you need it, then leave your phone in airplane mode on other days when you don’t, and you won’t be charged. GPS is wonderful, but don’t place blind faith in it either. Towns or addresses can be named very similarly, and the GPS could direct you to areas where you shouldn’t be driving. Plan before you leave, then use it as a general guide.

  • International Driving Permits are recognized, but not required. Bring along your national Drivers License and passport, as these two documents are required.

  • If you have to pull over to the side of the road for any reason, make sure you wear a bright reflective safety jacket and place a hazard sign a safe distance behind your vehicle to warn other motorists approaching you. If you’re renting a car, make sure these two items are present or ask your rental company if they can provide them. Failure to produce them to law enforcement can result in fines.

  • You know them as traffic circles, but in France they’re also known as roundabouts. Meant to increase the flow of traffic through an intersection, as you simply need to give way, or yield, to any traffic already in the roundabout. You’ll become a pro at navigating them by the end of your trip, but a few tips to get you started:

    • Pick your lane prior to entering. Typically, a roundabout will have multiple exits, and prior to entering you will find signs that will guide you in to a specific lane in order to exit towards your desired destination. Simply place yourself in the desired lane, and follow the lane through the roundabout.

    • Give way to traffic from the right (already in the roundabout). A reminder of our first tip, make sure you look to your right when approaching the roundabout, as this is where traffic will be coming from. If you look left and don’t see any cars, you may pull into the roundabout to a terrible surprise of a collision from your right.

  • Use your hands for driving, and nothing else. This shouldn’t need to be said, but don’t have any other distractions while driving. Do not attempt to eat or drink, and most importantly of all, do not use your cell phone. Not only is it illegal to use a phone or any device while driving, it’s just stupid. Plus, it is now illegal to use a headset device while driving. All of these laws are meant to keep your focus on the road, where it should be.

  • This tip is simple: don’t drink and drive. The legal limit in France is lower than you’re likely used to: 0.05. Though the wine is world-class, be responsible and just don’t drink if you’re going to drive. Further, an unused breathalyzer kit is now required to be carried in your vehicle. Similar to the reflective vest and hazard triangle, ask your rental agency if this is provided in your car.

  • Parking in France is known as stationnement, and regulations vary depending on where you are. Make sure to read signs carefully to avoid fines. In general, look for blue markings on the road, known as blue zones, where parking is typically free if you display a parking disk on your dash. You can purchase parking disks from convenience shops, or ask your rental agency. If you see a sign that reads horodateur or stationnement payant you need to pay to park there. Look for a nearby vending machine to purchase a ticket, and place the ticket on your dash nearest the street.

Overall, there is no reason to be anxious or nervous about driving in France. Stay calm, drive safely and cautiously, do your research before you leave, and you will have a wonderful trip.