Rules of the route: France’s New Driving Laws

As drivers throughout France face a police crackdown, Ben McPartland has the information you need to stay on the right side of the law on your holidays this summer

The thousands of British motorists heading across the Channel will now need to take extra care after the French government introduced earlier this year tougher driving regulations and stiffer penalties for any law-breakers.

Police already had the power to hand out heavy on-the-spot fines for anyone breaking the speed limit, but this has now been extended to other offences.

Driving while watching a DVD would seem folly to most motorists anyway, but a fine of €1,500 should dissuade anyone who might otherwise be tempted to watch Cyrano de Bergerac on their journey to the Dordogne.

GPS navigators with devices warning of the location of speed cameras (radars in France) are forbidden and anyone caught with one will face a €1,500 penalty – enough to swallow up your holiday budget and ruin the trip in one go. Any motorist using their mobile phone will now be subject to a €135 fine, while the penalty for driving on the autoroute hard shoulder has risen from €35 to €135. And from 1 July, 2012, it will be compulsory for drivers to carry a self-testing breathalyser kit in their car at all times. Remember too that the French drink-drive limit of 50mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood is much lower than the 80mg in the UK.

Jean-Yves Sala�n, head of the Association Pr�vention Routi�re (the main French road safety organisation), said: “It is important that tourists drive carefully, not just for their own safety but also because of a recent European Union directive that has been adopted which now means it is possible for one EU member state to prosecute foreign nationals who have been caught committing driving offences.”

In 2011 speed camera fines generated €630 million for the government, which earlier this year announced that a further 500 cameras were going up around the country. Statistics released in March by French motoring magazine Autoplus revealed that 13 million offences were spotted on speed cameras last year; the busiest was on the A41 near Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, between Annecy and Geneva, which flashed an average of 462 times a day. Cameras on the A6 from Paris to Lyon and the A7 from Lyon to Marseille also made it to the top five. Dordogne, a favourite with many British tourists, was among the areas with the fewest number of speeding offences caught on camera.

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The French government has dismissed criticism that the new cameras and the latest raft of fines are too repressive and simply a money-making ploy. The authorities insist the main aim is to improve road safety. They are determined to reduce the number of deaths on the country’s roads and are concerned that 2011 did not see a significant reduction in fatalities. Around 4,000 people lost their lives, virtually the same as in 2010. Although driving in France is clearly much safer than 40 years ago, when there were 17,000 fatalities in one year, President Nicolas Sarkozy had vowed to get the number below 3,000.

M. Sala�n insisted that the new laws should not deter motorists from coming to France but advised them to do a little research before heading off this summer. “They need to inform themselves of the rules of the road in France, which are slightly different to those of our neighbours. And don’t forget that on the road each country has its own driving culture and customs. That’s why it is important to be extra careful when driving for the first time in a foreign country.”

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Rules to Remember

1. Remember the obvious: Make sure to have your driving licence, and vehicle registration and insurance documents with you in the car at all time.

2. Remember the not-so-obvious: Fluorescent vests – these need to be kept handy at all time (ie, not in the boot) in case you break down, and must be worn immediately you get out of the vehicle. If you are hiring a car, check that the company provides jackets.

Warning triangle – this can be kept in the boot but needs to be placed at least 50 metres behind the car if you break down.

Spare bulbs – You must have spare car light bulbs in the car at all times.

Headlamp converters – Your car’s beam pattern must be suitable for driving on the right, which means getting a converter kit or having the beam adjusted, depending on the make of car.

3. Speed limits – Unless road signs show otherwise, the limits are 130km/h (80mph) on autoroutes (reduced to 110km/h (68mph) in bad weather), 90km/h (56mph) on national roads and 50km/h (31mph) in towns.

4. Priority to the right – Although it’s less common nowadays, this rule still applies in some towns and rural areas, and gives drivers pulling out from the right priority over those already on the road. So watch out when coming up to a side junction.

5. Stop! – Stop means just that and failure to halt before the sign can result in an on-the-spot fine.

Check your speed

Many British tourists planning to drive through France look on the trip with relish rather than anxiety, partly because of the relative pleasure of travelling on the French autoroutes compared with their British equivalents.

By and large the autoroutes in France are quiet, free of road works and, apart from certain weekends and black spots, avoid the seasonal tailbacks that blight Britain’s motorways. But when the sun is shining, some drivers succumb to temptation and break the speed limit to reach their g�te or campsite as soon as possible.

Photographer and writer Neill Watson was heading to the South of France with a friend when they were pulled over by the police just south of Paris, along with dozens of other motorists who had been caught by a mobile speed camera.

“You can easily get suckered into going too fast. With blue skies above and the road ahead empty, the speed just can creep up and up,” Neill said. The speed dial crept up so far it resulted in an eye-watering €750 on-the-spot fine. The police officer simply gave them directions to an ATM in the nearest town and told them to return with the money tout de suite. Neill’s friend, who was at the wheel, was also banned from driving in France for three months.

“I was well aware of the fact that France had on-the-spot fines, but was unprepared for the amount,” Neill said. “The police are very strict. The main thing drivers need to remember is not to think you are immune from the law because you are driving a British car. They will not turn a blind eye.”