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Rules of the Road, French-Style

Driving in France is not for the faint hearted. Although the French do (thankfully) drive on the right side of the road, it still is a huge learning experience to adapt the relatively easy-going, law-obeying American driving style and concept of space to the ultra-aggressive, unforgiving driving style common here in France.

My First Urban Warhorse!

My French Urban Warhorse!

Take something as simple as vehicle space. When I drive in the US, I’m always amazed at how much room exists around the car. In general there is ample space on either side of the car, not to mention huge breakdown lanes on both sides of the road in case of any issues. Vehicles are also much wider, heavier and tend to be slower to respond, so that I sometimes feel as if I’m literally floating in a boat down the road. In comparison, many of the roads in France have little or no breakdown lane and, with the sheer number of winding streets and overpasses mashed into the urban landscape, it frequently feels like you’re a rat running through some sort of twisted concrete maze hoping to find the cheese of your final destination (preferably Roquefort)! Most French cars are also 5-speed, manual-shift compact vehicles1 ideally adapted for navigating through this geometrically restricted landscape, accelerating at breakneck speeds and also finding a parking spot in whatever space happens available.

Big Red Light, Little Red Light

Big Red Light, Little Red Light

There is also another very important element to add into this driving chaos that many Americans completely ignore: the motorcycle! I can’t describe how many two-wheeled vehicles there are in France whizzing around on all sides of your car at any conceivable moment. They range from noisy dirt bikes to supersonic Japanese cycles that can fly past you like a bullet at any instant! Do you remember learning to check your blind spot in driver’s ed? Well to avoid killing motorcyclists and the occasional recreational bike rider, you need to spend about half your driving time constantly looking over both shoulders and checking your side-view mirrors because most motorcyclists here have an irresistible impulsion to pass any and every moving vehicle they encounter at all costs! After a while driving with so many two-wheeled vehicles around becomes second nature as you develop excellent peripheral vision and learn to leave some space on the side of the car for passing bikers, but in the beginning it’s quite a harrowing experience!

One final factor to take into account when driving in France is psychology. As a general rule, once those cultivated, suave Frenchmen (and women) get behind the wheel of a car they become completely crazy! Maybe it’s because the French tend to baby their cars or have major issues with pent up aggression, but I’m always amazed at the amount of violence that is unleashed when two drivers accidentally cut each other off or even brush one and other’s bumpers (always tons of yelling, insults and the occasional fist fight)! I once saw a group of pedestrians literally tackle a crazy motorist because some tourist had accidentally scraped his car! In all seriousness, I have considered taking martial arts courses just to defend myself in case I ever get in an auto accident over here, and, during my daily commute, I’m always very thankful that it’s illegal to own guns!

Might is Right

Wrong Way!

Wrong Way!

A One Way Street!

Although driving rules in France are actually very similar to the US, there are still some mysterious French road signs and a few odd laws that make no sense to the neophyte American driver. I find that the most difficult French driving rule to learn is the famous “priorité à droite” (the person on the right always has the priority). In France, for historical reasons, there are a lot of obscure side streets that connect to the main street in every which way. If the side street isn’t explicitly marked with a stop or yield sign, then the car leaving the side street is actually legally allowed to impose himself in front of oncoming traffic on the main street (because, technically speaking, the car coming out of the side street is on the right)! This means that if you’re zooming down the main street at 70 km/h (~45 mph) then you are required to slam on your brakes when grandma slowly pulls out from her farm road in front of your car!

Put on the Brakes - Priorité à Droit!

Put on the Brakes - Priorité à Droit!

The Big Yellow Diamond!

The Big Yellow Diamond!

When I drive down a main street in France, I’m constantly scanning on my right side to see if any vehicle is going to randomly assert its legal privileges to cut me off. Fortunately, the French have devised two intuitive signs to help us - one has a big black X which obviously means that there’s a “priorité à droite” ahead (so look out for grandma) and another sign that has a big yellow diamond meaning that the main road has priority until you see another big yellow diamond sign with a black slash through it! Unless, of course, grandma doesn’t know about the yellow diamond sign you saw 2 kms earlier… (it’s all so straightforward).

A few other oddities to note about French roads and rules are as follows:

  • Almost all of the lines on French roads are white (even the middle line). If the middle line is solid white, it means no passing. And if it’s a dotted white, it means you can pass, but be careful of oncoming traffic unless, of course, the road is now a double lane, one-way road (which you may have no way of knowing until other drivers start honking and zooming by you)
  • French traffic lights are on the same level as the stop line, generally on a pole to the right of the passenger window. You might ask how the first car manages to see when it’s green? Well, to avoid straining drivers’ necks, all French traffic lights are also equipped with mini, redundant traffic lights at the car window level (see my earlier photo).  This makes it easy for the lead driver as well as any motorcyclists to see the lights.
  • Unless otherwise indicated, the speed limit is 50 km/h (~35 mph) in town and city centers, 70 km/h (~45 mph) on departmental (local) roads, 90 km/h (~55 mph) on the national roads and 130 km/h (~80 mph) on highways.  Needless to say, readjusting to the 55 mph highway speed limit back in the US can sometimes be difficult…

Watch Out for the Cops!

The Aliens are Coming!

The Aliens are Coming!

So how do the French patrol all this chaos? As I mentioned earlier, with generally no available breakdown lanes, it can become difficult for police to pull over any bad drivers. In fact, I have never seen a French cop turn on their lights and actually pull over a motorist! The preferred police method is to setup a roadblock and perform random vehicle checks. Unlike in the US, French police can stop and search your vehicle without any justification. Road stops are frequently setup on rotaries, intersections or toll booths, and random vehicles are chosen to be “controlled”, where the police will pull you over and check to ensure that your car has valid insurance, was recently inspected, all of the required safety features exist (such as the famous orange triangle and reflecting vest), and that your license, registration/title are all in order.

Speaking of “car papers”, in France the car’s registration and title is actually the same piece of paper, called “la carte grise”, and it’s required by law to always carry this when driving. Always having to remember to take “la carte grise” can be really annoying, especially because it’s a wide, bulky rectangle that doesn’t easily slip into your pants pocket. And it’s doubly aggravating because you can’t just leave it in the car; if the car is stolen with “la carte grise” in the glove compartment, then it becomes somewhat easy for the thief to just sign the title, pretend that the car was just legally sold (instead of stolen) and legally re-register it.

You Must be a Moron to Miss this Sign!

You Must be a Moron to Miss this Sign!

Just Watching the Traffic

Just Watching the Traffic

French traffic police also have dynamic road stops looking for a specific infractions such as not wearing a seatbelt, talking on the telephone or speeding. In fact, it’s quite common to see a French cop hiding in the bushes with specially equipped laser “radar” binoculars aimed at a fast section of the road. When a speeder is clocked, he then radios the car’s description and infraction to the waiting officers at an upcoming road checkpoint. The speeder is then pulled over and cited.

And, of course, there is the famous “vache à lait” (source of huge income) of the French road system, automatic speed camera radars. Permanently positioned in accident-prone locations, speed cameras take a photo of anyone driving too fast and then automatically send the scanned license plate information over a computer network for processing. A few days later, the owner of the car receives a ticket in the mail. Despite the fact that there are huge signs warning motorists of the automatic speed camera beforehand (to avoid any sudden braking), there are still tons of people who drive over the limit right in front of the radar!

Despite the fact that the French are ultra-aggressive, compared to my driving experiences in Boston or New York they’re actually not that bad.  In general, if you assert yourself just a bit, people will give you enough space to merge into traffic (unlike in Boston where you literally have to chisel through a wall of cars to change lanes).  And if you turn on your blinker way ahead of time and stick your hand out the window, you can also make it around the double-laned rotaries without being side-swiped.  And I must admit, as an American, it can still be quite a unique, thrilling experience darting around traffic with a stick shift in a vintage French car! 

Bonne chance et bonne route…

Links

“La Code de La Route” (Rules of the Road) according to Wikipedia.   I had a hard time finding a site that actually could list and explain French driving laws!

Driving in France PDF (US Embassy in Paris) - There are fourteen states that have signed some sort of strange accord with France to allow direct swapping of a US license for a French one.  Considering that a French license requires you to be at least 18 years of age and also to spend ~$2000 on drivers education classes as well as passing a very difficult written and road test, now I understand why all of the French exchange students I knew wanted to get their license in the US.  If you plan on living in France as an expat and are from one of the 14 lucky states, make sure you trade in your US license for a French one within the first year of your carte de séjour (otherwise you’ll have to take the French driving test!)…


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  1. the main reason behind the dominance of manual transmissions in Europe is because they are simply more fuel efficient []

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