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Driving Through France - Stay Safe and Legal Driving In France

By Jeff Seems

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Summary: Driving in France can be a breeze - especially in rural areas. Jeff Seems offers a helpful rundown of legal requirements, safety concerns and other basic advice.

Driving in France - Safety & Legal Tips

I don't know what information you get if you fly in from, for example, the USA or Australia, but if you come by ferry from England you get all kinds of dire warnings about essential things you need when driving through France.

To be honest, a lot of it is either misleading or just plain wrong. I suspect some of it is intended to persuade you to buy stuff at highly inflated prices at the ferry port shopping area!

Perhaps I'm being overly cynical but let's look at the facts and some of the other driving laws in France.

If you are driving in France, whether it's your own or a hire car, you must have a warning triangle. Many cars have these built into the boot lid (trunk for our American friends), but check. From 1st July 2008 you must also have a reflective jacket. If you have a right-hand drive car the headlamps must either have "beam bender" type stickers applied or, on more modern vehicles, have their headlamps adjusted for driving on the right. If you are driving a foreign car in France it must have a sticker showing its country of origin on the rear - unless it is a modern EU license plate which already carries identification.

Incidentally, also from 1st July 2008 you must have a reflective jacket if you are cycling at night in a rural area.

Seat belts, front and rear, are compulsory if fitted. Children under 10 are not allowed in the front seats. Even in the back they must have a child seat if between 9 and 15kg. If you're on a motorcycle, crash helmets are required at all times. I know sometimes you see a French rider without one, but trust me -- they're breaking the law.

Fire extinguishers, first-aid kits and spare bulbs may be a good idea but they are NOT a legal requirements for driving through France.

So what about documents?

You must have your driving licence, vehicle registration document and a certificate of motor insurance. It's not a legal requirement to have fully comprehensive insurance but probably advisable. Your insurance cover will vary depending on where you're coming from so it's just as well to check with your insurer before coming.

If you do not have a photo license then you must carry your passport at all times. It might avoid unnecessary complications if you carry it anyway as some police look oddly at any license that's not French!

Speed Limits?

In built up areas the speed limit is 50kph. On major roads it's 110kph (90kph if it's raining) and on motorways it's 130kph (110kph if it's raining).

But sometimes it seems like they're out to get you!

It's common to see 40kph or slower in built up areas, particularly near schools or hospitals. You can be cruising along a motorway quite comfortably at 110kph or more and suddenly the limit will drop to 90 for no apparent reason and then go back up to 130kph. The golden rule is to keep your eyes open. No excuse will work and there are lots of speed cameras. If you get caught by a manned radar trap you'll get an on the spot fine.

By the way, most motoring fines in France are given on the spot. You can contest it afterwards but not at the time. Make sure you get a receipt - better yet, when driving through France don't do anything that will get you caught!

Drinking and Driving in France?

Don't. The legal limit in France is 0.05 percent. You'll get a fine, you may even get imprisoned. Just because you see an old French car weaving down some rural back road doesn't make it legal. It's the fastest and easiest way to wreck your holiday, why take the risk?

Anything else?

You'll often see signs with RAPPEL on them. This means "remember", as in "remember it's still a 50kph limit". You might see "Acoutement Non Stabilise" which is a warning of soft or unstable verges. There's "Allumez vos phares" - turn on your headlights and "Arret interdit" - no stopping. There's also STOP which means... stop. I asked a French friend why they use the English word. He thinks it's because it's fewer letters than the French and therefore can be made bigger on the sign. I don't know the truth of that.

You'll also notice big yellow diamonds - particularly in towns. This means you have right of way. At first this seems a bit odd - especially if you're on a main road - why wouldn't you have right of way?

Well it used to be that when driving through France you had to give way to the right in ALL situations. If someone was going down a main road and someone came in from a dirt track on the right, the one on the dirt track would have right of way. Fortunately, this is disappearing but still exists in a few places. The yellow diamond gives you right of way, but just be careful, especially in rural areas. Sometimes older drivers forget they don't have right of way anymore.

Roundabouts work just like anywhere else, except of course if you're English because the priority is from the left, not the right.

One other thing about general driving in France on rural roads. If there isn't enough width for two vehicles don't expect the French to stop or pull in to a convenient gateway. All they'll do is drive with two wheels on the verge, often without losing speed! You have two choices, do the same or pull over and stop. If you don't know the road or the state of the verge it's often safer just to get as far out of the way as you can!

Fuel shouldn't be a problem unless your car runs LPG. You'll frequently find this at autoroute (motorway) services, but it's also where the fuel is most expensive. In rural areas you may find it hard to get. You will also find a lot of automated petrol stations that can be a bit fussy over the credit card they accept. Some of them won't even take one of my French cards.

By the way, Petrol (or gas) is "essence". Diesel is "Gazole". Don't ask for "petrole", that's parafin.

So there you have it. A quick run down of driving through France. If you normally drive on the right and you've never done it before, don't worry, just take your time. Concentrate particularly when you're coming out of junctions, petrol stations and shopping areas, that seems to be when we're most likely to forget we're driving on the left.

Apart from that, driving in France is a breeze. Big cities can get snarled up, of course, but compared to the UK there's next to no traffic in rural areas and driving can once again be something you enjoy rather than something you have to do to get to work!

About the Author

Jeff Seems is an Englishman living and working in France. He is author of The French Property Buyer's Guide, the must-have book for anyone considering buying property in France.

Jeff's invaluable book is available online. Click here to visit his Website.

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First Published: Aug 09, 2008

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