Driving in France

You feel you are up to the challenge of driving in France, a country where you do not necessarily speak the language or know the local customs. It is a great way to reduce your transportation costs and discover parts of the country that you may never otherwise see. Happily, unless you come from a left-side-drive country, for the most part you will find that it is like driving in almost all parts of the world; but there are a few differences of which it is important to be aware.

The first point to know when driving in France is that traffic lights change from green to orange to red very rapidly. If the green light goes out, and you can stop immediately without provoking a rear end collision, it is best to do so. You avoid the risk of being broad-sided by crossing traffic, and the possibility that a picture of your car and its license plate is taken, garnering you a costly fine for running a red light, which will eventually be charged to your credit card if you are driving a rented car.

Second, in traffic circles there are two sets of rules. With no signs to be seen before you enter the circle, cars on the right have the right of way. For example, you are in the Etoile circle that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and you see a car coming from the right, even from one of the side streets that feeds into the circle, hell-bent on a trajectory that crosses yours, bearing down on you as if you do not exist. That is because you do not exist, legally speaking, so swallow your pride, slow down, and let it pass first: it has the right of way. There really is a method to the apparent madness, and it usually works pretty well, except when the occasional uninformed visitor arrives from abroad.

On the other hand, if, before you enter the circle, you see a red-bordered triangular sign displaying three black arrows circularly chasing each other, that tells you that the cars in the circle have the right of way, and you have to yield until they pass, before entering the circle. Also be alert for point-down red-rimmed trianglular signs enclosing a white field: they mean that you have to cede the right of way (whether you are approaching a circle, or any intersection).

Many motorcyclists in France drive in a manner that appears calculated to inform other users of the road they are trespassing on their private domain. Weaving insanely in and out of different lanes is their routine practice, but they do much worse: if you are next to the passing lane, and you do not leave enough room for them to blast their way between you and the car in the passing lane, they will do one of many things to communicate their displeasure. Casting aspersions on your pedigree is one of their mildest responses. Kicking a leg out to let you know you how much more room they expected is more typical. Sometimes they will wrench the mirror on your door as they pass, to the point of breaking it. It has happened to me several times.

Whatever the provocation, resist the temptation to step on the accelerator to return the wretch to his or her maker, give the miscreant a wide berth, and avoid any entanglement. They do not abide by any rules known to man, and the police in France make no attempt to bring them into line, pretending that they can not be caught. Content yourself with the knowledge that motorcyclists constitute close to half of all traffic fatalities each year in France, even if they do not kill themselves fast enough to entirely eliminate their very serious threat to the life and limb of the rest of us.

While driving in France, be aware that there is no right turn on a red light, unless there is an orange arrow pointing to the right that is lit or flashes. In those cases you can turn, provided you do not interrupt the flow of traffic. Never cross a solid white line in the middle of the road. You can only pass another vehicle if the line that separates the two of you consists of dashes; and, when you see arrows on the pavement curving to the right, hurry up and finish overtaking the vehicle you are passing, because a solid line, no-passing stretch is coming up.

I drive a lot in Europe and North America. One of the big differences is that, over all, drivers in Northern Europe are more tolerant of each other, especially if you make the effort to communicate a conciliatory attitude. Faced with a friendly and respectful approach, many will cede their right of way to you. It may be because space is at a premium here in Europe and our streets are often small and over-loaded with traffic. Without some give and take, most of us are not going to arrive where we want any time soon. With it, traffic flows surprisingly smoothly and without much hysteria.

If, for example, you are approaching your exit and have not yet got into the exit lane, and there is a solid line of cars already in it, a smile, eye contact and sign language asking humble permission from one of those drivers to let you in will often be rewarded with a wave to proceed, or a flash of his lights, meaning the same thing. It is an entirely different story if you aggressively try to barge your way in. Incidents of road rage are rare in France, but they do happen when there is provocation.

Conversely, even when you have the right of way, think of letting one of the unfortunates trying to enter your trajectory from the right side slip in ahead of you. It will not cost you much in terms of reaching your own objective, and it will definitely help everyone get where they need to go.

Always watch the signs painted on the surface of the lane on which you are driving. An arrow pointing left at a 90° angle signals your lane will have to turn left when you reach the next intersection. The one to the right is the one to be in if it shows a straight arrow and that is your route. Avoid the lane on the right if there is an arrow pointing right at a right angle, unless you intend to turn right at the next intersection.

As in many countries, don’t be surprised if a vehicle from the opposite direction flashes its lights. The French fraternity of fellow drivers is warning you of the presence of police up ahead, monitoring traffic. If you are stopped by the police, be friendly and respectful to the officer, and do not manifest whatever inconvenience you may feel, even if you think it may entail missing your flight.

Most police officers in France will be cordial and indulgent with foreigners who display a conciliatory attitude toward them. Many understand a bit of English, and will listen to you, if you first show them the measure of respect that they expect. They have the authority to lock you up and figuratively toss away the key, so being polite and agreeable is not only wise—it is essential.


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