Destinations Magazine

10 Rules of the Road to Know for Driving in France

By Allisonlounes @parisunraveled
French Alps

Photo Credit: Pineapple XVI, via Flickr, Creative Commons Licence

If you plan on driving while you’re living in France, you may want to be careful when you first get on the road.

While French drivers drive on the right, like North American drivers, the similarities practically end there.

Here are ten things you should know about driving in France before taking the wheel:

1) Stop lights are at the street corners, not above the intersections.

In France, drivers pull up all the way to traffic lights, and can even stop beyond them sometimes.

2) The police can stop you at any time and ask for your papers, regardless of whether you’ve done something wrong.

Police stops are legal and not uncommon in France, especially in the Paris area, where there’s a lot of traffic. While police cars rarely patrol the roads or hide along the highways to stop speeders (they have radars for that), they can and will set up traffic stops and stop random cars.

These checks can consist of anything from making sure you have your driver’s licence (with a certified translation, if it’s an international licence not in French) to ensuring that you have the required gear in your car. If you don’t, it’s a ticket.

3) There are radars posted along the highways, and you can get a ticket in the mail later.

Police radars along highways are controversial in the U.S., but they’re widely used all over France. Boxes along the side of the road will take a picture of your car if you are speeding, and send it to the licence plate’s registered address a few days later. Presumably, if you rent a car in France, you will be on the hook for any fines.

While many older GPS systems have a beeping noise that will alert you to an upcoming radar, these became illegal in 2012, and software upgrades were supposed to eliminate this feature. No word on whether or not people actually stopped using this feature.

Another important point to note is that these radars are often intentionally placed in tricky spots. Because the speed limit is reduced when you’re driving through small towns, for example, there will often be a radar right as you’re leaving the town for the open road. You’ll think the speed limit has gone back up, but the machine will flash you right before you get to where the speed limit ACTUALLY increases.

If you drive in the country, be wary of this technique, and don’t increase your speed until you see a new speed limit sign.

4) Most cars in France are stick shifts.

Before you go to France, you should know that most cars are manual shift, and it’s very difficult to find an automatic car at most rental places. If you do need one, you should reserve weeks in advance, and plan to pay extra. They’re also very expensive. And while it’s increasingly untrue, most French people still hold onto the notion that sticks are more efficient than automatic cars, and are hesitant to drive them.

The “road rule” aspect of #4 is this: Technically, you’re not authorized to drive a manual car unless you took your driving test on one. If you take your driving test on an automatic car, you can only drive automatic cars, and this is indicated on your French driver’s licence.

Of course, if you’re a tourist or a student, you don’t need a French driver’s licence. But you should contact your car rental place to verify what documents they need from you before they let you rent a car, as they may want proof that you can actually drive a stick shift.

5) The French use turn signals systematically.

Americans have a tendency to be a bit lax on turn signal usage, but not the French. Perhaps this is a result of a very difficult driving test where any mistake is seen as an excuse for failing the student, but it’s generally true that French drivers tell you what they’re going to do, even if it’s (slightly) illegal.

6) The left lane is for passing only.

In the US, near-universal car ownership, lack of public transportation, and lots of traffic mean that highways are often at capacity. As a result, American drivers tend to stick to a lane once they’ve chosen it.

Not so in France.

With the exception of rush hour and high traffic times (the beginning and end of any vacation period), the French are meticulous about staying to the right, and never drive more than a few hundred meters in the passing lane.

7) If someone flashes their highbeams at you, they’re asking you to move into the right lane.

If you do try to drive in the passing lane, expect a lot of cars to get really annoyed with you. To express their annoyance, and ask you to merge right, drivers will flash their highbeams.

This is a not-so-subtle warning to get over to the right, NOW, or risk being tailgated until you do.

8) Don’t be afraid to block traffic.

The French may be sticklers about turn signals, but they’re also not about to let anyone cut them off.

That’s why, if the light says they can go, they go – even if it’s nowhere.

It’s not uncommon in France – especially in the congested Paris area – to sit at a light for two or three changes, unable to go straight across because a line of cars, or even a bus, is blocking the intersection. The French don’t worry about letting others pass through, or even if they’re going to get anywhere during this light. They just want to make sure you’re not going to get ahead of them.

So be aggressive. While it may not technically be allowed to sit in the center of the intersection, you’re going to have to pull up and force your way through if you want to go anywhere.

And don’t be afraid to use your horn.

9) You must have a safety kit and breathalyzer in your car at all times.

There are a number of rules regulating what each driver needs to have in their car. Among the required items is a safety kit, with a triangle and a reflective vest, and a disposable breathalyzer test. The safety kit should come with the rental car, in theory, and a breathalyzer can usually be purchased for under 2€ in any bazar (knick-knack store) or 1€ store.

If you’re a tourist, not having these items will probably not result in a fine, but you never know. Ask the car rental place about the safety kit, and pick up an inexpensive breathalyzer just to be sure.

10) No turns on red.

There’s no such thing as a “right turn on red” in France, and if you try, you could get snagged by a radar. Unfortunately, the French also seem to like putting traffic lights at every single intersection, especially in the Paris area.

So if you’re driving in France, you’ll undoubtedly spend a lot of time sitting at traffic lights. While you’re doing so, make sure to observe those around you, and make a mental note of other French rules of the road!

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