As a US driver, what should I watch out for driving in France?
September 7, 2017 12:22 PM   Subscribe

I will be driving a rental car in Provence and the Côte d'Azur with my family while on vacation. As a US driver, what should I know in particular about driving in France?

We will be driving on a Tuesday through Saturday in a couple of weeks, in the area between Avignon and Nice roughly. I've done some research already, so:

- I'll have an International Driving Permit
- I know right turns on red are prohibited unless otherwise signed
- I reserved an automatic transmission rental car a long while ago; I reserved it at the Avignon TGV Hertz in the hopes that as a larger outpost it'll be less likely to run out of automatic transmission cars
- I know there are tolls on French motorways -- I am a little hazy on the best way to pay these though? I have an American chipped credit card which I know from firsthand experience in the UK is verified by PIN on unmanned terminals (it's chip-and-signature at a manned terminal.)
- I'm obviously aware that speeds are in kilometers and fuel in liters. Speaking of speeds, it looks like there's quite a bit of automatic speeding enforcement so I'll be avoiding speeding.

I've read about priorité à droite and tried to remember what all the signs mean, but to be honest it sounds a little scary -- do drivers really pull out from a side street at a T junction without pausing?

What else should I know about driving in France and Provence/the Côte d'Azur in particular that I might not be aware of as someone who has really only ever driven in the US and Canada?
posted by andrewesque to Travel & Transportation around France (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Gas stations may not be manned and thus chip and pin becomes even more important.
posted by raccoon409 at 12:31 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Make sure you know what kind of fuel your car takes.
Drive the speed limit - There are traffic/speed cams on the highways.

You'll be fine, I didn't find it to be nearly as difficult as I'd imagined it might be.
posted by soplerfo at 12:38 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Priorité à droite is really important, my parents lived in France for 15 years. Dad would mutter/spew/yell "priorité à droite" as we drove along.Yes, drivers do and will pull out, because, priorité à droite! Continuously be aware of those coming from the right.

Do not be afraid to go around the roundabouts as many times as it takes to make your exit safely. I remember going around and around as we edged closer to the exit, this was in Paris, but some of the other cities also have bad traffic.

Also be really aware of motorcyclists, they weave in and out of traffic with lighting speed and often come out of nowhere.

On the gas station hint above, many of the gas stations are underneath buildings, it can be difficult to see them in your search. It may look like you're entering an underground parking area, but it is a full gas station.
posted by jennstra at 12:40 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

I can't drive manual so I always reserve an automatic when in Europe, and I've never had a problem with them running out.

I've driven enough times in France, specifically the South (as recently as last May) and I didn't find it that much different than driving in the US or Canada.

Speed limits are generally higher.

Crosswalks are like stop signs if there are pedestrians waiting (it should be the same in NA but I rarely see drivers respecting that rule in NA).

I was worried about roundabouts before my first time, but now that I've used them extensively, I wish they had them everywhere. They can be annoying if the traffic is bad though.

Smaller towns can have very narrow streets, so watch your mirrors.

In general, I'm a nervous driver, and I find it far less stressful to drive in Europe.
posted by exolstice at 12:44 PM on September 7, 2017

I found France pretty easy to drive in. Here's two minor tips:

It seems like common practice to signal before exiting a roundabout (there's a lot of roundabouts)
At the gas station: The words gazole and diesel both mean the same thing and are used interchangeably.
posted by aubilenon at 12:44 PM on September 7, 2017

Priorité à droite is important, but keep in mind that major roads often override that. Priority roads are indicated with a yellow diamond sign, while the same sign with a black bar through it indicates that you no longer have priority.

At many intersections you'll be reminded by a sign indicating, "Vous n'avez pas la priorité" (you don't have right-of-way), but not always.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:48 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

- I know there are tolls on French motorways

Not speeding is especially important on toll roads. They know when and where you entered the road, they know when you exited, and simple math allows them to give you your speeding ticket as you leave.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:18 PM on September 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

do drivers really pull out from a side street at a T junction without pausing?

Worth noting with driving anywhere other than the US - stop signs are the exception, Yield/Give way is much, much more common, so the average speed of slower moving traffic is higher (if that makes sense) because people don't have this 'stop and pause for 3 seconds' thing going on.

As a result, you have to look further ahead and plan a bit better. Cars tend to get on with it rather than the dumbed down 'stop start' method US signage encourages. However, once you get your head around this conceptual difference in cars coming on and off the side roads its easy enough to plan around, but if you're not aware of it, it can feel like cars are diving onto your road with wild abandon.
posted by Brockles at 1:25 PM on September 7, 2017

I'm going to disagree with people about how important priorité a droit is - it's important to be aware that it's a thing, certainly, but for majority of driving these days, there are priority signs overriding it. If you're in countryside villages and off the high street, then you might need to be aware people can/will pull out in front of you, but it's not like you're going to be doing 130km/h on an autoroute (or even 50km/h through the centre of a town) and have someone pull out of a side road in front of you. By and large, the 'main' road has priority over the side-road and there are plenty of signs to indicate this.

I don't know if hire cars come with Liber-T tags for toll roads, but if you can get one, it makes life a lot easier. Otherwise, it's really really useful to have a pocketful of change handy (like €20 or so if you're doing a long drive) if you're not confident your card is going to work.

Otherwise, compared to the US: yes, you can't turn right on a red, and be aware that on an autoroute, the outside (rightmost) lane is for slower vehicles and the inside (leftmost) lane is for fast vehicles.
posted by parm at 1:29 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

It may help you to understand the naming and signage conventions for roads. Limited access highways (the equivalent of interstates in the US) are named with either A or E and a number, like A6 or E8. The signs for these always have a blue background.

National roads (what used to be the main way to get around before the autoroutes) are numbered with N, like N65, and they have green backgrounds.

Departmental and city streets have white backgrounds.

On the highways, the directions will be given by the nearest city, rather than in cardinal directions. So if you're driving from Lyon to Marseilles, for example, you're not going to see a sign for A7 South, you're going to follow the signs for A7 Direction Marseilles. It helps to have an actual paper map handy. Michelin maps are top quality.
posted by Liesl at 1:32 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

It seems like common practice to signal before exiting a roundabout (there's a lot of roundabouts)

Yes, that's how they're used. The only thing wrong with the same roundabouts in the States is that drivers refuse to understand and accept this basic concept of operation.

Also, you enter a roundabout without pausing, unless you'll colide with a vehicle already in the roundabout. Now, I hear you saying: "But how do I know if that vehicle is continuing on around?" See Rule #1. Funny that.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:44 PM on September 7, 2017 [8 favorites]

Another Stateside difference, on the motorway, that whole over-and-undertaking thing (which I've asked about previously.)
posted by Rash at 1:54 PM on September 7, 2017

Get used to lots of roundabouts, and be sure to use your signal when exiting one.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:20 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

So, in the small sample of my family, we have not been in an at-fault accident for 20 years in the U.S., but we managed to get into two accidents in France and Germany (which is similar, from a driving standpoint). The first was while parking, the lots are very small, often sloped, the cars are close together and you're often dealing with an unfamiliar car/parking brake. So definitely take your time. It's easy to get agitated. The staff at our hotel ably parked our car after we scraped it, you might ask. The second accident came while entering one of those 7-way intersections. The green turn arrow did *not* mean that we could turn across oncoming traffic. So always, always be looking out for other cars even where they "shouldn't" be, and also try to follow other cars as much as possible.
posted by wnissen at 2:30 PM on September 7, 2017

Not France, but...I drove in Sweden a couple of weeks ago, where something like priorité a droit is a thing - uncontrolled intersections where you must yield to traffic on the right. I was worried about it, but I shouldn't have been. These intersections only occurred in places where you would be going very slow, slow enough to yield without a problem. Maybe France is different, but in Sweden it wasn't an issue.

Also, I see you are in NYC. You will not be fazed by the ubiquity of yield signs in Europe. Europeans treat yield signs more-or-less the same way that NYC drivers treat stop signs. Driving in Europe actually made me realize how silly it is to have stop signs everywhere where yield signs would do, at least if people actually knew what they meant.

Another nice European driving habit is that people tend to go quite fast on motorways, but quite slow on local streets, compared to USians. This makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. And the left lane is for passing; don't weave through traffic and hug the left lane like people do in the US.

The only times driving in Europe really fazed me were in old town centers in Portugal and Spain, and - at times - when parking. The best way to drive in the old town centers is to avoid it, which is usually easy enough. Park on the outskirts and walk.

It's obviously harder to avoid parking. I found parking spaces, especially in garages (but sometimes also in lots) are much smaller than in North America. The best way to deal with this is to get a small car, be very careful, and make sure you've got insurance. I'd advise buying insurance from the rental company if you're the sort of person to worry about these things. It's usually not the cheapest option, but I've read some horror stories about credit-card rental insurance so I think it's worth it for peace of mind.

Ask the rental company about tolls, they will tell you what to do. In Portugal, my rental came with a transponder; in Sweden they just added the toll for a tunnel to the cost when I settled up.
posted by breakin' the law at 3:04 PM on September 7, 2017

Oh, yeah, check the size for sure. You want the absolute smallest car that can work, especially in terms of width. Don't go by the categories, look at the hip room and cargo space (a cubic foot is roughly 30 liters) and compare it to a car you're familiar with. Our very nice AirBnB had a dedicated parking space (yay!) that was barely big enough to fit our Ford C-Max. The C-Max is all of 3 inches wider than a Prius, and we had to fold the mirrors in to physically be able to put it in the space.
posted by wnissen at 3:27 PM on September 7, 2017

Be very aware of speed limits. Highways often pass through small towns (no bypass) and so the speed limit can change with little warning, and is enforced by radar/speed camera. And they will hunt you down. We got a speeding ticket on our rental, my dad (who doesn't speak French) thought he paid it when we returned the car, then a month later I get a frantic call from him to translate the actual speeding ticket which arrived in the mail. (The payment to the rental agency was just a surcharge.) Fines are steep, better to avoid them in the first place.
posted by basalganglia at 3:30 PM on September 7, 2017

We just spent some time driving between Montélimar and Vals-les-Bains, not far from where you'll be. In general, I'd say that you'll get the hang of it pretty soon after you start driving and you adjust to how other people drive. You'll likely encounter many more roundabouts than you're used to, but they're intuitive and effective. Have a great time!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:36 PM on September 7, 2017

"Autres directions" is important. It means "everywhere else", and you see it a lot at crossroads and on roundabouts. If you don't see your route number or direction, then you follow "Autres directions" until you do.

Also, whilst googling for this I discovered that there are lower speed limits when it's wet.
posted by kjs4 at 4:39 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've been to the Avignon TGV station and it is still pretty small - you might want to further ensure they'll have an automatic if you need it.
posted by Dashy at 7:10 PM on September 7, 2017

There's a Wikitravel topic that covers signage and other details.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:27 PM on September 7, 2017

As a European driver who has driven a few thousand miles in the western US - both in cities and outside - these are my observations about driving in the US - may be another indicator of differences.

- people dawdle - how long can it take to move away from traffic lights

- perhaps related, people kinda seem to ignore changing traffic lights a lot more than that seems to happen in most of Europe, these people seem to invoke some kind of 'grace' period where it doesn't matter, that they were meant to stop?

- a bunch of people leave a lot, like more than a car length, of space in front of them pulling up to traffic lights. I have always attributed this to all the extra space you people have here

- a lot of HGV engines are really speed restricted in Europe, they can't go any faster

- parking spaces are ginormous here and part of the design of everything, not an afterthought

- related, there is a lot more parallel parking in Europe

- because there are a lot less cyclists I get the impression that cyclists on the road really freak out drivers and they leave a lot more space passing cyclists

- what everybody has said about yielding, roundabouts and right turning on red
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:36 PM on September 7, 2017

koahiatamadl, the extra space between cars at stops is to lessen the chance that if you are rear-ended you'll rear-end the car in front of you. Typically the person whose hood ends up in someone's trunk has to pay, even if they are victims of a chain reaction. Similarly, people are often slow starting from traffic lights to avoid being t-boned by someone pushing through the light at high speed. It is irritating to me as well.
posted by lhauser at 7:52 PM on September 7, 2017

Multi-lane roundabouts are not common in the US. The basic rule is that you stay in the outside/right-most lane if your exit is at or before 12 o'clock (approaching at 6 o'clock driving on the right) but enter into the inner lane if your exit is after that, cutting over to the outer lane safely (with a signal) before you approach your exit.
posted by holgate at 9:16 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

This has been mentioned, but I wanted to emphasize: Do not pass on the right. This is common on US highways when someone in the left lane is going slower than you like and you are in the lane to the right of them. You just pass them. In Europe(mostly, including France) this is not allowed and not done.
posted by Vispa Teresa at 9:59 PM on September 7, 2017

There is indeed a lower speed limit on motorways - some sections at least- when it rains. In the south - where months can pass without rain and conditions can be very slippy when it returns- there is good reason for that. But rain also provides an excuse for the police to rake in fine money from radar traps. So beware!
posted by rongorongo at 12:08 AM on September 8, 2017

Here in the states I was taught to stop no closer than being able to see the rear wheels of the car ahead of me.
posted by brujita at 12:42 AM on September 8, 2017

It seems like common practice to signal before exiting a roundabout (there's a lot of roundabouts)

It's law. Just like you use your signal before turning (that's what you're doing when you exit a roundabout).

It's also law to use your signal when entering a roundabout (you're turning/changing left) and when changing lanes inside one.

Priorité à droite is very important down south because the cities are smaller and there aren't as many big roads with newer signage.

References: I have a French driver's license and this is part of both the written and driving exams. I earned mine in Nice.
posted by fraula at 2:12 AM on September 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

People have covered the main points, but here's a couple relating to speed limits:

1. Speed limit on autoroutes is 130kph if it's dry, 110 if it's raining

2. If you are driving on a route nationale and you pass a town name sign (black letters on white background with red outline), that means the speed limit is now 50kph, unless there are speed limit signs that say otherwise. It was probably 90kph before, if you're driving on a single-carriageway road. I got caught out by this when I first moved to France; if you're driving through a small town at night when everyone's in bed, it's easy not to notice.
posted by altolinguistic at 3:59 AM on September 8, 2017

One thing I didn't see mentioned is default speed limits. Each type of road has its own default, and often, especially in cities, no speed limit is posted. You are supposed to know the default.

Highway (autoroute, tolls) - 130
Highway in the rain - 110
Nationale (2 lane highway with no tolls) - 110
Departementale (road name is D123) - 90
Within any city or town limit, once you pass the red and white sign with the town name - 50

Of course, a lower limit may be posted in which case you follow that. There will be a black and white circle with a diagonal line to indicate the end of the posted limit and the return to the default limit.
posted by ohio at 4:38 AM on September 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I do a lot of driving on the continent, but am a native UK driver.

Two things I'd definitely call out as different in France (even to other continental EU countries):

1. Around Paris especially there are thousands of moto riders with serious death-wishes, who weave in and out of traffic. If you're queuing in traffic, it's expected that you gravitate to either the left or right of your lane, to create a new 'third lane' between you and the car beside you. Watch the traffic around you to establish which side is preferred. Riders will then zip through the traffic in this 'third lane'. I think this practice is generally considered good courtesy for motorcycle riders everywhere - but in Paris especially they are very fast and very aggressive if you haven't left them their allotted space. Their speed means you should ALWAYS LOOK IN YOUR MIRROR before even inching forwards and DEFINITELY before changing lane.

2. I find French drivers the most aggressive on the continent in general. If you're in the outside lane, it isn't unusual to find someone zooming up behind you and tailgating you until you pull back into the flow of traffic. If they think you're especially dense about their desire to overtake you, they will turn on their left indicator, despite there not being any space for them to overtake you, to signal that they would very much like you to fuck off out of their way, thanks.

I could write a book on the vagaries of different continental driving styles.
posted by citands at 5:05 AM on September 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

To elaborate on the motorcycle courtesy, it is expected that car drivers stay to the right of the lane so motorcycles can pass by lane-splitting safely. This is true on motorways as well as on single lane roads.
posted by wile e at 8:02 AM on September 10, 2017

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