Driving (and Parking) in France

The TruckWe’ve now put over 1,600 km on our leased Peugeot Partner, and in doing so I have learned quite a bit about driving in France.

If you’ve never driven in France, the most important thing to note is that, at least from my experience, it’s safe to ignore the travel guidebook warnings about crazy French driving (for example, “The vaunted French logic and clarity breaks down completely on the asphalt,” The South of France by Cadogan). Drivers here are just like drivers anywhere, and driving the streets and highways of France is much like driving the streets and highways of Canada. Indeed if anything I would characterize French driving as more sensible and predictable than I’m used to in the U.S. and Canada.

There are, after all, only so many ways to operate a vehicle, and I’ve found that, at least so far, the same prudence exercised at home is fine here. There are some procedural differences that need paying attention to, of course, but cars still have four wheels and one driver, and things work basically the same way here as you’re used to at home.

I’ve made note of some of the more interesting of these procedural differences.

Most obvious are the speed limits, particularly on the autoroutes — controlled access highways akin to the 401 in Canada or the interstates in the USA. The maximum speed on the autoroutes is 130 km/hour (that’s 80 miles/hour). By Canadian standards, that’s awfully quick, and it’s taken a week for me to get used to driving a vehicle going that fast.

By and large, drivers seem to stick to that speed limit or below; at least I haven’t been passed by anyone going any faster yet.

Amazingly, trucks are limited to what appears to be about 90 km/hour — and they stick to this religiously. On the 401 in Ontario it’s the trucks that set the pace, and it’s not unusual to be caught in an 18-wheeler sandwich, or to have a large transport pull up behind you in the middle lane and flash its lights to get you to move over.

On the autoroutes here, trucks — to this point in my experience without exception — amble along at a gentle 90 km/hour in the right hand lane. It’s wonderful for we car drivers.

I’ve noticed that how drivers use turn signals when passing on the autoroutes is different than I’m used to from Canadian practice: rather than signalling a lane change to the passing lane, then turning off the signal until changing lanes back, the signal is left on for the entire duration of the pass, similar to how one would pass on a two-lane road in Canada. I still can’t get used to this, but I’m trying my best to adjust, resisting my urge to shut off the signal halfway through.

There is an excellent network of highway rest stops along the autoroutes, and we stopped at several on the route from Paris south to Aniane. These range from single “toilet and parking” rest stops to full-fledged restaurant, gas station, playground and dog-walking rest stops. They were all clean and well-outfitted and the assumption seemed to be that you were going to provision a picnic for you and your car mates, so most rest stops had a store with a full range of sandwiches, meats, cheeses, and high-tech coffee makers capable of generating almost any beverage. This was all a welcome change from the Tim Horton’s, Mcdonalds and Wendys that have taken over the rest stops from Montreal west to Toronto.

Something else that gets mentioned by the travel guidebooks is the “daunting roundabouts.” Although once more common in Canada, these have gradually given way to stoplight-driven intersections or cloverleafs in much of the country, to the point where many Canadian drivers rarely encounter them. By contrast, it’s rare to encounter a traffic light at all when driving outside of the downtown core of cities here — almost every intersection is controlled by a roundabout, and the process of leaving a highway and entering a town often involves navigating three or four.

The “daunting” part of roundabouts, as far as the guidebooks are concerned, regards who has the right of way. I can’t understand how there is any confusion at all about this: every single roundabout I’ve encountered has been clearly signed with “cédez le passage” and a standard, familiar “yield” sign. This is simple, and it all makes so much sense — and makes traffic flow so much more smoothly — that it’s hard to imagine any other way.

Apparently at one time there was a competing “the person entering the road from the right has right-of-way” system in play, and that may be the source of the confusion. As near as I can tell that system is no longer in use, although this may simply be because I’ve been ignoring it.

I had an idea, again well-ingrained from repeated guidebook reading, that parking in France, especially downtown, would be a problem. Again, the opposite has proven true: we’ve found ample parking in the downtowns of Orléans, Clermont-Ferrand and Montpellier. Montpellier alone claims 12,000 underground spots.

Parking is cheap too; we’ve never paid more than 3 euros to park, and this for spots that in Boston would bring a fee of $30 or $40 for the same amount of time. And parking is well-signed: as soon as you hit the downtown you start to notice “P” signs, and often these are electronic signs that include the number of open spaces.

One thing the guidebooks do have right is that it’s more expensive to fill up the tank here. We’ve paid between 0.97 euro and 1.08 euros per litre for the “gazole” (diesel) our truck takes, which, at about $1.60 Canadian, is almost twice what we’d pay at home. Of course we’re driving a much more fuel efficient vehicle here, and that reduces our real driving costs to the point where we’re really not paying double what we’d pay at home to move around.

Perhaps the greatest difference we’ve noticed in a different philosophy in highway directional signage. In Canada the focus of signage is on what road you’re on: you can’t drive for very long on any road in Canada without seeing a prominent signs saying “401” or “Rte. 2.” Here the focus is on telling you where you’re heading, and the route number is much smaller and often left out completely.

Last night, for example, to get home from a trip we took west, we had to follow signs for Narbonne, then Béziers, and finally Montpellier. We were seldom conscious of the actual route number we were on, or the route number we were looking for; we simply felt our way from city to city.

Regardless of the signage, we made our way.

Because the Partner looks more like a truck than a car, Oliver is very insistent that we call it a truck and not a car. Indeed every time I say something like “we’ll take the car to get there” he immediately corrects me with “truck!”

I’ve a backlog of blog posts ready to go, so I’ve got get in the truck and follow the signs to Gignac and Clermont-Hérault now so I can get so WiFi and upload them.

More as we motor on.


Kevin O's picture
Kevin O on April 27, 2005 - 02:47 Permalink

It’s interesting to read your thoughts on driving in France especially since I’ve just finished clicking off 25K kms through the US and Mexico. Of surprising note was the speed and number of trucks on i81 which goes roughly in a NE-SW direction through the heartland of the Eastern states. We saw litterally dozens of wrecked semis and evidence of some hundred or more that had been cleaned up shortly before we passed their mishapen locations — some clearly involved deaths. The cause? Well it seemed they just don’t slow down from their usual 80mph or so (uh, huh, that’s the truck speed on that route) even with four or six inches of snow on the ground. That snow was probably the same system that dumped on PEI as we were leaving.

Mexico is quite another story. Snow not being an issue they improvise :) Sometimes the shoulder of the road is slightly under the edge of the pavement, with no guardrails, and a several hundred meter cliff going down at a dizzying angle. Mexican drivers are quite facinating for their odd use of singals (which you soon learn) and for their obvious skill at keeping their vehicles completely within the lines on their narrow lanes. Only ten percent of the mileage on their highways is equipt with any kind of shoulder, and those that exist are usually just a tire-width.

Topes (speed bumps) exist in the millions (again, that’s literal) and at least on the Pacific coast are encountered about every four or five minutes of driving. Every town has two, many have seven or more. They can be so big as to scrape the bottom of the vehicle as you creep over them, and some are little more than rough pavement — but you don’t know in advance so stopping is crucial. Heaven forbid that you miss one (I’d a couple of close calls), and it is hardly comforting that in the Norther states virtually every Tope has a sign but the signage decreases to warning about 90% of them as you drive further South. (the main reason for topes is economic development — it gives them a chance to swarm you with all manner of goods for sale, but there are good uses too which account for about 1 in 1000 of the cursed things. Gas prices are about the same in Mexico and Canada but I got about half the mileage out of a litre because of all the stop-and-go (I think it was working out to be around 54% of my usuall mileage and then I somehow lost the data when some slips must have fallen out of the rig.

And on the topic of driving, a trip on a city or rural bus is a “must experience” thing. These guys are facinating for their ability to maneuver huge machines with only centimeters of room to spare, at full speed. I read “courageous to a fault” in a Mexico guide book; no truer words have ever been written!

France sounds rather halcionic (sp?) by comparison. Right side or left over there? Right isn’t it?

high-5 to Olly

Yow!'s picture
Yow! on August 25, 2006 - 08:32 Permalink

Good one on how guidebooks unnecessarily confuse English-speaking folks about driving in France. Indeed, what is confusing about seeing a roundabout with a big yield sign in front of it? Especially since yield signs are the same in the US, UK and France!

I suspect the source of the confusion is the common assimilation of France to Paris and that of French roundabouts to the Place de l’