Driving tips

Our essential guide to the rules you need to know for a motoring holiday in France, plus our useful tips to make the journey easier

Our essential guide to the rules you need to know for a motoring holiday in France, plus our useful tips to make the journey easier

Did you know that it is the law to have a high-visibility jacket and warning triangle in your vehicle while driving in France? And that if you’re caught without either of these you could be subject to an on-the-spot fine of between €90 and €135? The rules of the road vary greatly between France and the UK so it pays to be well-prepared before you set off. Here’s our comprehensive guide to motoring in l’Hexagone.

Documentation

When driving in France it is obligatory to carry your driving licence, vehicle registration document (V5), certificate of motor insurance and a current MOT certificate. If your licence does not incorporate a photograph, ensure you carry your passport to validate the licence. If the vehicle is not registered in your name, carry a letter from the registered owner giving you permission to drive.

Be prepared

Since 1 July 2008, it has been obligatory for drivers of all vehicles to carry a fluorescent jacket. All vehicles travelling on French roads must have a yellow fluorescent jacket that can be put on if the driver has to get out in an emergency. The jacket must be carried in the passenger compartment, not in the boot, and must be readily accessible. Fines for non-compliance can exceed €100.

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• You must also carry a reflective warning triangle in the car in case you are involved in an accident.

• GB stickers are also compulsory unless the vehicle has Euro-plates (circle of 12 stars with the national identifier on blue background).

• British cars must also have headlamp converters to avoid dazzling the oncoming traffic. Don’t wait until it gets dark to put them on. If you are caught without them, even in the daytime, you could be fined by the police or your insurance could be invalidated.

• While it is not obligatory to carry a fire extinguisher or a first aid kit in the car, it may be useful to have them in case you are involved in an accident or need to help others.

Speed limits

In recent years French police have drastically clamped down on speeding. There are more than 1,000 fixed radar cameras on French roads, which are all forewarned. Around half a kilometre before each speed camera in France, there is a large, prominent sign, warning drivers they are approaching a speed camera. However, although the warning sign is prominent, the camera that follows is often hidden under a bridge, screened by a road barrier or roadside shrubbery. France recently announced that 800 new speed cameras will be in action by the end of 2010 in a bid to reduce the number of casualties from road accidents. To prevent drivers from braking suddenly when they first see a speed camera, warning signs will be introduced one or two kilometres before the cameras rather than the current 400 metres. Average speed cameras, which have been trialled on the A10 in Orl�ans since 2003, will also be introduced on France’s roads in 2011. In addition, there are also many more mobile cameras used by gendarmes to catch speeding motorists. These may be set up at the roadside, but increasingly unmarked cars are parked in lay-bys with speed cameras hidden inside. Speeding fines are on sliding scales, depending on how much above the local speed limit the car was travelling. Be aware also, that the fines are accompanied by a deduction of one or more points from the driving licence, again on a sliding scale. Do not forget that the speed limits imposed are in kilometres per hour and you should know the miles per hour equivalent. Remember, speeding and other traffic offences are subject to on-the-spot fines. Holders of EU licences who exceed the speed limit by more than 40km per hour, will have their licence confiscated on the spot by police. It is also possible to be caught out by the toll booths. The time is printed on the ticket, so if the times and distances add up to you having broken the speed limit, you will be fined by police on patrol.

Standard French speed limits

• Motorways: 130kph (80mph) in dry conditions; 110kph (68mph) when wet

• Dual carriageways: 110kph (68mph) in dry conditions; 100kph (62mph) when wet.

• Main roads: 90kph (56mph) in dry conditions; 80kph (50mph) when wet.

• In urban areas: 50kph (31mph).

Holders of EU driving licences exceeding the speed limit by more than 40km/h will have their licences confiscated on the spot by police.

Alcohol

Tolerances for blood-alcohol are lower in France than in the UK and the penalties for being over the limit are draconian. It is illegal to drive with an alcohol level of 0.5g per litre of blood and random breath tests are common. If you are found to be over the limit, the police will impose a hefty fine and may impound your car until it is paid. If you are on your own, you will not be able to get back to where you are staying and any insurance that would ordinarily get you home, will be invalidated. The best advice is always not to drink and drive, or to appoint a designated driver in your group.

Seatbelts

It is obligatory for passengers to wear seatbelts in both the front and the rear of the car. Failure to do so will result in a fine for the individual passenger responsible for the offence. The driver is responsible for ensuring all passengers under the age of 13 years old have the appropriate means of safety.

• Babies weighing up to 13kg/29lb (eg 0-9 months) must be seated in an infant seat, which is strapped in, facing backwards (if placed in front seat, de-activate second airbag system).

• Children weighing between 9kg/20lb and 18kg/40lb (eg 9 months to 4 years) must be seated in a child seat with harness.

• Children weighing between 15kg/33lb and 36kg/79lb (eg up to 10 years) must have a child seat or booster cushion with the car’s own seat belt.

• Children under the age of 10 are not permitted to sit on the front seats of vehicles, unless there are no rear seats or the rear seats are already occupied

If a driver coming towards you flashes his headlights it will usually mean there are police up ahead. However, if they do so at a junction, it will usually mean “I’m going first,” rather than “You go first”.

Fuel

There are large differences between the price of fuel at normal roadside petrol stations (including motorways) and at supermarkets. And whereas petrol and diesel used to be cheaper in France than in the UK, this is no longer the case – although with rapidly rising fuel costs it is difficult to keep track of cross-border fuel comparisons. Many supermarkets have 24-hour self-service petrol stations, but you need a credit card with a pin number to operate the pumps outside normal opening hours. The major supermarkets are usually well advertised on main roads approaching large towns, so for cheaper petrol and diesel (gazole) look out for signs to Carrefour, LeClerc, G�ant, Casino, Auchan, Super U, Intermarch� or Champion.

Credit/debit cards

Almost all petrol stations accept Visa and Mastercard; however take care with 24-hour automatic pumps in supermarket forecourts as some of the older ones still do not accept non-French cards.

Tolls

Many British drivers will not be used to the tolls (p�age in French) for motorways, and they can be an unexpected cost on a journey. However, they are straightforward to use. You enter through a barrier, which goes up once you take the ticket. Keep the ticket in a safe place – if you lose it, you’ll be charged the maximum fee for that stretch of road. When you come to the end of the toll section, or leave the motorway, pull up to the booth, present your ticket to the attendant and pay the fee that is shown on the screen. You can pay in cash or by credit card. On some toll roads you do not take a ticket at the start, you simply pay a fixed tariff when you reach the end. Most tolls have automatic barriers in which you throw the right change into a chute, which then raises the barrier. Be careful not to enter the lanes for the t�l�p�age – this is for locals who have a subscription.

Free motorways

Most autoroutes in France have substantial tolls. However, there are several French motorways that are free and others which are much cheaper than the rest. The A75 is very cheap, to encourage drivers to use this axis rather than the busy Rh�ne Valley. Around half the autoroute between Calais and Rouen is toll-free, as is the A84 between Caen and Rennes. The autoroute between Dunkirk and Lille is free, as is a major section of the A20 between Vierzon and Brive-la-Gaillarde.

Tunnels

There are many more tunnels in France than in the UK, and so you are much more likely to find that your journey involves travelling through them. The longest one in France is the Fr�jus road tunnel, which connects Modane in Savoie with Bardonecchia in Italy and is nearly 13 kilometres long.

Tips for tunnel travel

• On approaching a tunnel, check your fuel level. If it is low, fill up before entering.

• Tune your radio into the traffic radio station, if there is one. Its frequency may be advertised on signs prior to entering the tunnel.

• Turn your headlights on to a low beam and take off your sunglasses.

• Keep a safe distance between you and the vehicle in front of you.

• Keep to the speed limit.

• Never reverse or try to make a U-turn.

• Do not stop except in an emergency.

Use the internet

An invaluable website for route planning is www.mappy.fr. This site allows you to key in the start and finish of an itinerary, select any points you want to pass through, and choose the type of journey you prefer (the fastest route without motorway tolls, for example). It will provide a detailed itinerary with distances, road numbers, cost of tolls and an estimate of fuel costs – it also warns of the positions of all fixed radar cameras. A similar route-planning website is www.viamichelin.com

Beat the queues

It might seem obvious, but it is easy to get your timing wrong. For a strategic guide to the best times to travel, see www.bison-fute.equipement.gouv.fr. This excellent French government website has everything from a detailed summary for the coming weekend to a colour-coded road-traffic calendar highlighting dates to avoid. You can also check for planned roadworks.

In an emergency

If you break down or have an accident:

1. Immediate action Turn on your hazard lights and, if possible, pull over to the side of the road, out of the main thoroughfare. Make sure all passengers have left the vehicle, using the door closest to the hard shoulder. If you are on a motorway, make sure all passengers stay well away from the road and behind the safety barriers. Use your mobile phone or walk to the nearest emergency phone – these are located every two kilometres. On other roads, and if it is safe to do so, position your warning triangle (you are required by law to carry one in the car at all times) on the road 200 metres behind the car.

2. Notify the authorities If there is no emergency phone on the road you are on, call 112 from a phone box, mobile phone or landline. The emergency number is toll free. For breakdowns, call your European breakdown cover insurer, and have your location, policy number and vehicle details ready. You must notify the police, even if you have breakdown cover. No garage will come to recover you on a motorway without police permission.

3. Administer first aid

• Do not move the victims unless they are in imminent danger.

• Do not remove helmets from motorcyclists.

• Do not give victims food or drink.

• Do not remove clothes from burn victims.

Don’t forget:

• A valid full driving licence

• Vehicle registration and motor insurance certificates

• Passport

• Headlamp beam adjusters to suit driving on the right

• Warning triangle

• Reflective jacket

• GB sticker

• Snow chains must be fitted to vehicles using snow-covered roads in compliance with the specific road sign

• It is recommended that motorists ensure they are carrying a set of replacement bulbs for car headlights

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

France has stricter drink-driving laws than the UK (0.5g alcohol per litre of blood rather than 0.8g). Random breath tests are quite common- place in France. Don’t be tempted by that extra glass of ros�!

It is obligatory to wear seat belts, both front and rear, at all times

A yellow diamond sign indicates you have priority. The same sign with a black line through it means you do not have priority

Urban speed limits begin at the town or city sign, usually a white name panel with a red border, and the limit ends where the name panel has a diagonal red line through it.

Don’t dial 999! The national emergency number (for all services) is 112. Ambulance (SAMU) is 15, the police 17 and fire 18