Driving in France (from the BMWCC Magazine)

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Driving in France (from the BMWCC Magazine)

Post by Guest » Thu 31 Jul, 2008 16:45


We have all heard the tales about how driving in France is dangerous, with the odd story from returning British tourists of ill-mannered French drivers who will stop at nothing to overtake les Rosbifs, particularly in situations deemed to be dangerous. Such tales usually give one the impression that our French cousins are auditioning for a remake of ‘Death Race 2000’ or similar, but are matters really so bad?

I have been living in France for four years, and regularly driving in that beautiful country for about forty. I freely admit to being a Francophile, but believe I can give an objective opinion on the French, as seen from behind a steering wheel.

The biggest difference between the British and French is that of speed – we are accustomed to maintaining position in a slow-moving queue of traffic, the other drivers seeming to believe that being overtaken is a personal insult. It therefore follows that anyone who does so is obviously a maniac, and that such actions should therefore be prevented if possible, usually by following the next vehicle too closely to permit overtaking.

The French, on the other hand, like to drive at a decent speed, and regard overtaking as a normal procedure. They do, however, have an unfortunate habit of cutting their safety margin to the minimum, but when doing so the other drivers show a level of co-operation which is unheard of in the UK.

It is therefore easy to understand the horror stories of those who have just made their first journey to France. With experience, however, one realises that most French drivers do not have a death wish.

Although the French casualty rate is roughly twice as high as the UK, I would not suggest that the British are better drivers – quite the reverse – but of course the French drive faster, so increasing the severity of their mistakes. Even so, they kill half the number of pedestrians than in the UK, even though some years ago half these deaths took place on pedestrian crossings!

On the subject of pedestrian crossings, remember that the French tend to sprinkle them like confetti – even 30 mph is really too fast to react to the often poorly marked and faded crossings you will find in most villages. In a low car such as a Z3 it can be even more difficult. Do not worry about the reaction such low speeds may provoke from the driver behind you, and do not allow yourself to be pressured into driving faster.

You will see quite a lot of small two-door cars, cruising noisily at their maximum of 30 mph by courtesy of an engine which was obviously intended for a cement mixer. View them with great suspicion, as these cars may be driven without a licence, and are favoured by those who have been banned from driving. In the absence of a licence, there is not real sanction against these being driven by the intoxicated or unqualified. They are also becoming favoured, as an alternative to small motorcycles, by parents who wish their children to become adults!

Some estimates claim that three million French drivers have never taken a test, the penalty for which can include a £10,000 fine and a year in jail! When discovered, the miscreant is given a choice of facing the law, or learning to drive properly, the fees being paid by the state. If the test is neither taken nor passed, the law will take over, but after passing the cost is repaid at the rate of one Euro per day, the initial expense being met by revenue from ‘Safety’ cameras.

Another bad habit is the strong drink and driving culture, particularly amongst older drivers, which remains alive in spite of severe penalties for a level of alcohol which would not result in prosecution in the UK. It is quite common to see drivers, including the police, enjoying a glass of wine during their morning break, while some truck drivers, fresh from their 44 tonne camion, will often consume a litre of red wine with their lunch!

Tailgating used to be a real problem, but is not such a regular occurrence since it was made a serious offence. Its most popular application is to be found just before overtaking, when the typical French driver will do his best to lock onto the rear bumper of the car in front, while positioned half a car width to the offside. The best answer, of course, is to actively encourage the driver to overtake – acceleration will simply prompt a repeat of the performance a few miles along the road. However, if being tailgated while observing a 50 kph (30 mph) speed limit, particularly by a small white van etc, it will do no harm to be prepared, and to out-accelerate the offender at the end of the speed limit. If it later catches you up, let it go – again, do not race with the locals, for they know no fear!

In spite of such considerations, I feel safer when driving amongst the French than during a trip through the UK, at far lower speeds.
One reason for this is the French preoccupation with overtaking – this means that they are paying attention to the traffic conditions, rather than using a mobile phone, or checking that their satellite navigation system is telling them where they know they already are.

Another aid to maintaining one’s attention on driving is the virtual absence of the various ‘Safety’ devices now so common in the UK. While speed humps can sometimes be found, they are of the correct (sine wave) profile, and I have yet to experience the peculiarly British fashion for crude strips of tarmac, which effectively limit speeds to walking pace. The mid-lane bumps one often finds in built-up areas, apparently designed to rip the sump off any car which straddles them while doing nothing to the 4X4 or white van brigades, are unknown in France.

Many of the autoroutes are peage (toll) roads, where one usually collects a ticket on entry to the road, and are charged at the exit. Do not try to pay in cash, which is a cumbersome process leaving us with a pocketful of change, but use your UK credit card – a quick and easy process. Some cards need to be ‘unlocked’ for use in Europe, and it is worth checking this before departure.

Some minor peage stations are unmanned after about five pm, and will accept either cash or le Card du Credit - just insert your ticket into the LH slot, and your credit card into the RH slot. The machine will swallow the ticket, and return the credit card.

In the same way, most major Stations de Peage have avenues for Cartes du Credit or Carte Bleu, where a credit card can be used in the same manner.

In general, if the Peage booths are not unduly busy, the quickest way through is to use the manned/womanned avenues denoted by a green arrow, but in busy areas just drive into a credit card or Carte Bleu avenue. If driving alone, the drivers behind you will realise your situation, but a smile and a wave does no harm. In such conditions I use a long stick with a bulldog clip at its end, which holds my credit card and the current autoroute ticket, and poke it towards the peage operator – when the Z3 roof is up, it must look like some kind of artificial arm!

The lower numbers of speed ‘Safety’ cameras are another welcome change, the relatively few fixed cameras being at fatal accident scenes, and preceded by huge signs, while the cameras are large enough to climb inside! There can be no excuses for being ‘on camera.’
If the absence of these ‘Aids’ to safety gives one a feeling of liberation and relaxation, the presence of life-size, black-painted steel figures, each representing a road death, certainly concentrates one’s mind on the task in hand.

One sometimes sees the Gendarmerie operating a laser speed camera – looking similar to a pair of huge binoculars mounted on a tripod. These are generally used at accident black spots on the Routes Nationales, and in built-up areas, often a convenient distance from a bar or restaurant! Hand-held lasers are not used at all.

If stopped for speeding, do not expect any sympathy from les Gendarmes, who generally dislike the way in which foreign tourists – particularly the British – seem unable to appreciate that France, like the UK, has laws which should be at least slightly obeyed. The British, apparently, are the worst offenders, and will soon be targeted, along with the Swiss and Italians. Those who attain 150+ mph on the autoroute after le Mans, for example, will soon provide examples when their UK driving licences are be suspended for offences in France. Bend the law, but do not destroy it.

The French government seems to have the refreshing attitude that cars are a social necessity, not an evil. Although the government does not have a large income from motorists, the quality of roads has continued to improve – except in 50 kph (30 mph) zones, where often-hideous surfaces are used as a form of speed limiting! This seems to work, for the French obey urban speed limits with greater care then the British.

In the same way, French drivers display a far greater sympathy for cyclists, perhaps a result of their long-standing love affair with pedal power. You will encounter cyclists all over France, particularly on the mountain passes used during le Tour de France. Do not, however, overtake them without being sure that the road ahead is clear, and give them adequate clearance (the law requires 1.4 metres) – too many car drivers neglect this simple rule, much to their chagrin when the cyclist catches up with them!

Traffic lights are rather dim, but have repeater lights at a level where they can be easily seen from a low car, and make a straight change from red to green, so preventing any ‘Amber Gamblers.’ Outside peak hours, you will sometimes see a continuous flashing amber light, which means ‘Proceed with caution,’ and should be treated with great care.

Roundabouts can be exciting, as the French seldom indicate, sometimes making it difficult to guess if the car entering a Roulade two exits way on your left is going to take the first exit, or suddenly lean on its door handles and pass in front of you! At least the French do not use many painted circle-type mini roundabouts, which most UK drivers will drive across, even when another car is circumnavigating it correctly.

A real problem is keeping an eye open for the inevitable Priorité a Droit junctions, from which – if on one’s right – it is possible that a car may pull out. Look out for the triangular ‘X’ signs. For a people who worship at the shrine of logic, this seems an odd aberration indeed, until one realises that WE should give way to traffic at a junction on our right.

While most French drivers do not push the principle too far, there are always a few who do! What should happen is that traffic from one’s left should slow down and give way to us to pull out – we should not assume priorite and pull out in front of traffic approaching from out left.
The best advice is to expect others to assume priorité, but not to do so yourself unless conditions are obviously safe.

A similar consideration applies to overtaking, but by keeping a good distance from the next vehicle, using your mirrors and the view ahead which you will have up the inside, there should be few problems. Do not, however, attempt to race with the locals!

Probably the only real danger you will meet when driving in France will come from children, for fourteen-year-olds are permitted to ride small motorcycles, without the benefit of training, licensing, insurance or registration. They will overtake along the outside of a queue of traffic turning left, emerge from blind junctions at their full 30 mph, and do all the other stupid things trainee riders are warned about – even the French drivers are afraid of them! At least you will hear them coming, for it is considered de rigeur to fit the noisiest expansion chamber available, and to constantly tweak the throttle to get the little engine on the boil before its centrifugal clutch is fully engaged.

I have always regarded this as being a system designed to ensure the survival of the fittest, but the Road Safety Minister is on record as stating that the tolerance of this problem must end. The machines must be registered by the end of this year, after which I foresee a normal legislative system being enforced – thank goodness!

Signposting is generally excellent, but be prepared for a small difference – a sign pointing left on the right hand side of the road means ‘Straight On,’ while a similar sign on the left hand side means ‘Left.’ Nowhere will you find the familiar ‘Upwards’ sign meaning ‘Straight On.’ While you decipher this, the French may become impatient, so try to make it second nature.
The French like to sound their horns if they meet an undecisive driver, but do not interpret this as an ill-mannered action, as do so many British drivers – it is simply a reminder to do something, and is not (as in the UK) taken or intended as an emotional reaction.

So – do not think that driving in France is a hazardous occupation, but neither is it just like driving in the UK, or even Germany. Meet the French drivers on their own terms, make allowances for their habits, and you will find that they are competent but injudicious, courteous yet intolerant, and law-abiding yet anarchical. They may play by different rules, but they are not that much different from you.
Last edited by Guest on Sun 08 Feb, 2009 13:57, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by ChrisXL » Thu 31 Jul, 2008 17:09

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Post by fury_dice » Fri 01 Aug, 2008 11:21

Thanks for the post :) Although a fairly regular visitor over the last fifteen years, there were points in there that I had either forgotten or just hadn't considered. Off there for two weeks next week - not in the 'Z' unfortunately - so will be bearing the advice in mind.
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Post by Blaize » Thu 11 Jun, 2009 21:27

Great write up Mike

I drive in France a lot and it has given me a refreshing insite to perhaps a lot of misinterpretaions I may have had

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