For those of us accustomed to driving in the UK or Ireland, driving in France carries one or two surprises. There are plenty of small differences to catch you out.
Drive on the Right
Pay particular attention if driving along a country lane which is only wide enough for one car. When the road widens out, you must end up on the right!
Another place where extreme caution is needed is turning left across a dual carriageway. For some reason, many people get confused in this situation.
If you're renting a car, you'll be in a left-hand drive car which is the most suitable. If you're bringing your own (right-hand drive) car, it helps to have someone who can drive in the passenger seat as well, to give advice on when it is safe to pull out to overtake.
Right-hand drive cars must adjust their headlights using special devices called beam converters, to prevent them dazzling the drivers of oncoming cars. There are two types: one blocks out the bit of the beam that goes towards the left side of the road, the other uses a lens to deflect it towards the right.
In the past, all French cars had yellow headlights instead of white ones. This is no longer required. If you want, you can buy yellow headlamp bulbs, or you can paint special yellow paint on your headlamps. This will help you stand out less as a foreigner, but it is not legally required.
Priority on the Right
When approaching an unmarked road junction, you must give way to any traffic approaching from the right, even if it is from an apparently minor road. Nevertheless, when approaching a junction from a minor road it is always better to assume that drivers approaching from the left on the major road are unlikely to give way.
This rule about priority can be overridden by road signs.
The French do not generally use an upward-pointing arrow to mean straight on. Instead, they use a right-pointing arrow on the left side of the road, or a left-pointing arrow on the right side of the road. This takes a bit of getting used to.
Although French roads all bear numbers such as N10 or D232, they don't put these numbers on the direction signs, so you must navigate by following signs for a series of destinations, rather than by the number of the road.
As you enter a town, you will see a sign with the name of the town and a red border around it. As well as telling you the name of the town, this is a speed limit sign. The urban speed limit applies from here on. As you leave the town, there is a corresponding sign with a grey border and the name of the town crossed out. This means that the speed limit has reverted to the national rural limit.
A red circle around something on a sign means it is prohibited. This is used most often for a 'No Passing' sign: two cars side by side with a red circle around them. When you get to the end of the prohibition, you will see the same sign with the item crossed out by a grey bar and surrounded by a grey circle. This usage can be confusing: for example, in a large car park, a picture of a bus in a red circle means that buses are not allowed to park in that section. A black letter P with a red circle around it would mean 'No Parking'!
A yellow diamond on a white diamond sign means 'This is the main road'. Smaller roads entering from the right do not have priority. The converse is the yellow diamond on a white diamond with a diagonal bar 'crossing it out'. This means that this road is no longer the main one and that normal French rules of priority on the right apply.
Position of the lights
Traffic lights do not usually have a light facing you at the far side of the junction. As a result, if you are the first car, you may not be able to see the lights. Some, but not all, lights have a special little set of lights down low on the pole for the first car. It's a good idea always to stop a good distance back from the lights, so that you can see them properly. There often is no line to show you where to stop.
A flashing amber signal can mean two different things. If the amber of a normal Red/Amber/Green lights is flashing, it simply means that the traffic lights are not operating – either due to a malfunction or the fact that certain lights are turned off during off-peak hours.
The second meaning is when turning right at certain junctions, a separate, single flashing amber light is often used to indicate that drivers in the right hand lane may proceed 'with caution'.
Unlike the UK, pedestrian crossings do not stop all traffic to allow pedestrians to cross the road. When turning left or right at a crossroads, be aware that as the lights turn green for you, they also turn green for the pedestrians crossing the road into which you are turning – the pedestrians have priority in this case.
French speed limits are high enough that you should never need to exceed them, so keep within the limits! The speed limits are officially reduced when the road surface is wet.
|Type of Road||Max. Speed|
|Motorway||130km/h - 80mph||110km/h - 68mph|
|Dual Carriageways and roads|
with a central reservation
|110km/h - 68mph||100km/h - 62mph|
|Other roads||90km/h - 55mph||80km/h - 50mph|
|Built up areas||50km/h - 30mph||50km/h - 30mph|
Note: Electronic gizmos which detect radar speed traps are strictly illegal in France.
Petrol in French is essence. Diesel is 'Gazole'. In the rare case where the pump is manned by a French person who looks at you enquiringly and awaits your instructions, the handy phrase for 'fill it up please' is faites le plein, s'il vous plait, (pronounced 'fet luh plang seel voo play'). Unleaded petrol is sans plombe.
Petrol is significantly more expensive at service stations on motorways than in the ones just outside of towns. If you are going to fill an empty tank, it may be worth your while leaving the motorway at a town and finding a petrol station.
The cheapest places to buy petrol are generally the out-of-town hypermarkets. Look for signs with a petrol pump and Auchan / Leclerc / Carrefour / Casino written on them.
Beware of unmanned stations (usually late at night) that take credit cards only. They expect the French chip-cards, and won't accept other cards, even if they've got a chip in them.
Outside of towns, some roads which are not wide enough for two lanes in each direction are marked out in three lanes. Normally the middle lane is used for passing, and is clearly marked as to which side of the road it belongs to at any time. In some very rare cases, there are no such markings and either side of the road can use the middle lane for passing as long as it is clear.
When a French driver flashes their lights at you, it normally means 'Get out of my way'. On the other hand, if they flash their lights as they drive towards you along a seemingly deserted 'Route Nationale' out of town, first check your headlights and make sure you're on the right side of the road. If there is nothing wrong with your driving or car, it may well be that they are telling you there is a police speed trap ahead.
Motorway junctions do not necessarily follow the classic 'cloverleaf' design as seen in the UK. When leaving the motorway make sure you are in the correct lane well in advance and pay close attention to the speed limit signs… Frequently these will require you to slow to 90, 70 and even 50 km/h on approaching the exit; obey these limits, as hairpin bends on motorway exits are not unknown.
If, when driving along a motorway, you see a sign for an interchange with an arrow above the right hand lane pointing straight up - signalling the exit - unless you wish to take this exit, move across into the middle lane; on certain exits the right hand lane itself becomes the sliproad and you will be forced to leave the motorway unless you have moved across in time.
When approaching a toll station on a motorway, certain traffic lanes are reserved for credit card payments (these are marked with the symbol 'CB') – you cannot pay cash in these lanes. Other lanes may be reserved for holders of 'telebadges' – smart cards for regular users of the motorway. Make sure you get into the correct lane for your method of payment.
Many older French drivers were taught when French motorways were almost exclusively 2-lane affairs. They were taught that when overtaking on a motorway, you should signal to pull out (left indicator) and continue to signal until you have overtaken the slower vehicle, before cancelling your indicator and signalling right to pull back into the slower lane.
This makes things very awkward on 3-lane motorways, as you will quite often come across someone in the middle lane, overtaking a slower vehicle, but who is signalling as if they were about to pull out into the fast lane. This is now of course bad practice, but it is one you should be aware of as you are bound to run across it.
Parking in Towns
Some zones will be marked out on the road surface with the word 'Payant' – this is a pay and display zone and you must purchase a ticket. There are usually automated machines every 100 metres or so.
If you find an empty parking space but the zone is delimited by a solid white box on the road with an 'X' marked across the entire zone, the space is for loading and unloading only. Any car parked there is likely to be towed away.
With the Channel Tunnel opened, more and more British drivers are taking the plunge and making the trip to France. Don't be put off! With these instructions, you should have no problems.