Driving In France
For First Timers
There are many differences between UK and French driving laws. If you are unfamiliar with French laws and driving requirements please check out one of the many websites that carry this information, e.g. the AA site below. Do not make assumptions! If you don't know, find out before you arrive because the Police and Gendarmes carry out spot checks, or "Contrôles" for which they do not need any reason to stop you. These will mainly be to check your papers but if they find anything not in order they are likely to start checking other things, such as that you are carrying required safety equipment, etc.
If stopped (and you may have done absolutely nothing wrong) do not remove any seat belts and do not get out of the car. Stop the engine, let the officer come to you and roll down your window. Keep your hands on the steering wheel until the officer indicates what he wants you to do. Be polite and respectful and do not crack jokes. All a bit dramatic, but you just want to get on your way as soon as possible and not give any reason, real or perceived, for further investigation. Unless you have been stopped for a specific traffic infraction, it is highly likely they just want to check your documentation. Have all the necessary documents all together and readily accessible. If you don't know for a fact what's required check it out at the AA website.
If you have committed an offence you will likely have to pay an on-the-spot fine and, depending on the severity, this can be high. As a tourist you will not have the benefit of paying later or by credit card - they will want cash and worst case can impound your car until you pay. Be aware that offences are cumulative, that is if you're stopped and fined for e.g. speeding and they subsequently find you haven't got a warning triangle they'll fine you again. And again for not having fluorescent vests. And so on! Of course all this can be avoided by having all the stuff you are required to carry, so do your homework and you'll have nothing to worry about.
None of the above should put you off! There are generally no problems but it is worth knowing what to expect and there's no excuse for ignorance in the eyes of the law. You will find all the information you need on the internet but do cross-reference and check things as there's a lot of conflicting "facts" out there.
If you travel on the (excellent) motorways it is very easy for your speed to creep up and of course you will back off as soon as you notice. So be aware you can be timed between péages (toll booths) and your average speed calculated. It's not common and unlikely to affect you but it has been known, especially where drivers significantly exceed the motorway speed limits.
Exceeding any speed limit by 50km/h (31 mph) or more can result in imprisonment, a huge fine and the vehicle being seized. This is not necessarily that fast, depending on the base limit - there's a place near us where the 90km/h road suddenly becomes 50 and a few meters further a 30km/h limit, so if you don't slow down very quickly you could still be travelling at over 80 (less than 50 mph!)
Some Specifics For Driving Locally
We obviously wouldn't tell you how to drive, but the country roads around are quiet and traffic-free and this can lull you into a sense of false security. Some locals drive too fast and often use the whole road so please be aware of this. They're pretty good at moving over when they see an oncoming vehicle but keep your wits about you!
The priority-to-the-right system operates extensively, even in villages and can be very confusing if you're not used to it. The locals are – and practise it all the time.
It's not unusual to come across a cow, sheep or deer in the road, let alone rabbits, cats and other small animals. At night there could be all sorts of other creatures, small and large, e.g. badgers, so take care.
If you are behind a tractor, milk transporter or other large vehicle, best just follow it at their own speed. They won't be going far and especially farm equipment will usually pull over to let you pass when it's safe to do so. Keep to the speed limits - it may be a quiet rural area but the gendarmes have nothing better to do than act as unofficial tax collectors. They have a habit of blitzing an area, then you won’t see one for months.
Unless you have no choice, do not cross a solid white line (on your side of the road) to overtake anything, no matter how slow moving and including bicycles.
“Stop” signs mean stop – your wheels have to stop turning. If you're caught breaching any of these there's an on-the-spot fine.
One last thing, many of the ditches beside roads are very deep and although the authorities do try to keep the verges cut it's sometimes impossible to see the ditches, so be wary pulling off the road. Generally, though, driving here is a real pleasure.
Road Sign Translations
Allumez vos lanternes - switch on your lights
Attention au feu - fire hazard
Attention travaux - road words
Chausee deformee - uneven surface
Fin d'interdiction de stationner - end of parking restrictions
Gravillons - loose chippings
Interdit aux pietons - no pedestrians
Rappel - repeat of (usually) speed sign
Route barree - road closed
Vouz n'avez pas le priorite - give way
In France it is illegal to be in possession of a radar detector, even if it is not fitted or being used and the French police can issue heavy on-the-spot fines (1500 Euros) and confiscate equipment if found. Best advice is to remove detectors and fittings from the vehicle before driving in France. GPS systems which show speed camera locations should be updated. New updates show 'danger zones' which may or may not include areas with cameras.