Everything we know about driving in France – from speeding, tolls, ferries, Priority to the Right, roundabouts and driving in Paris.
2012 was a record breaking year for road deaths in France, the lowest since records began. Traffic police really have the bit between their teeth having identified speeding as the major factor.
With foreign motorists guilty of almost a quarter of offences – 50% in the summer – you are top of the list.
As well as 400 new unmarked speeding cameras, the latest wheeze is plainclothes Renault Megane police cars equipped with radar guns. In two months of operation 10,000 motorists have been caught. Fatal accidents were further reduced by 27% in March and 15% in April this year.
If you get caught
In the good old days, French police escorted you to a cashpoint. These days they keep hold of your documents while you go on your own. Police do not accept credit or debit cards. You must give them the exact amount in cash.
Speeding penalties come in three classes – three, four and five – depending on how far over the limit you are, and whether you are caught in town or on the open road/motorway.
Class three is for less than 20kph over a limit of 50kph. The fine is €68 cut to €45 for immediate payment.
Class four is for less than 20kph when the limit is 50kph, or – when the limit is over 50kph – in three 10kph bands: +20-30kph, 30-40kph and 40-50kph. The standard fine is €135 (reduced to €90 for immediate payment) but for the latter two categories you enter a grey area where the courts can get involved and your licence can be confiscated (for up to three years). If your licence is taken away, somebody else has to drive.
Note – ‘Every year,’ says the British Embassy in Paris, ‘the French authorities send us a large number of driving licences that have been confiscated after speeding offences.’ Meanwhile, the AA says, ‘Holders of EU driving licences exceeding the speed limit by more than 40kph will have their licences confiscated on the spot by police.’ The British Embassy forwards licences to the DVLA who send them back to the owner, or reissue, depending.
A class five offence is for doing 50kph+ on the open road/motorway, or more than 20kph in a 50kph zone. The fine is €1,500 (no reduction*), your licence can be taken away and your car confiscated. Get caught twice for a class five offence and the penalty is all the above plus a €3,750 fine and possibly three months in prison.
* we’ve heard lots of anecdotal evidence after Le Mans that the €1,500 fine is in fact reduced to €750 for immediate payment. Also, read this 2009 blog from Historic Racer on being caught speeding in France.
Don’t feel you have to drive with eyes anxiously scanning for Les Flics. The authorities maintain they are only after excessive speeders. The margin for error on radar traps is quite generous. Stationary radar is 5kph up to 100kph then 5%. Mobile radar is 10kph up to 100kph then 10%. Remember this is actual speed. Your speedo overestimates (by as much as 10%).
While we’re at it, radar detectors were outlawed last year (€30,000 fine, vehicle and device confiscation). This includes satnav systems where speed cameras are marked as ‘points of interest’. Campaigning organisation ‘40 millions d’Automobiliste’ has compiled this crowd-sourced map of what they consider to be sneaky speed camera locations. The fine for driving while using a mobile phone is €130.
The on again off again law that all drivers should have two approved breathalysers in the car is on again – even if the fine for not having them is suspended. But like everything else you need (see below) not having breathalysers could tip the balance in a confrontation with police. Since they are so cheap £5.99 for a two-pack from Halfords it’s sensible to stock up.
(BTW: The French drink drive limit is 50mg per 100ml of blood, significantly less than the UK level of 80mg. Read the Daily Mail/Transport Research Laboratory study into how much different kinds of people can drink before breaching the 50mg and 80mg limits.)
As well as a driving licence, V5C logbook and proof of insurance you need a GB badge (if there’s no EU logo on your numberplate), headlamp adaptors (unless your lights switch automatically), a warning triangle in case of breakdown and a hi-viz vest (kept within reach of the driver’s seat).
Advisory items include your MOT certificate to prove roadworthiness (especially for modified cars) and spare headlamp bulbs (and specs if you need them). Everything can be bought at the port, or on the boat.
There’s not much you can do about road tolls in France. It’s an issue when the 987km between Calais and Avignon costs €71.60 (check toll rates at mappy.com).
If you really hate paying tolls, check out this official map of the free autoroutes. Apart from the odd one here and there, in general the free roads are in the north west, on the peripheries and – particularly – the A16 from Calais and Dunkerque to the Belgian border. For those going to east France, or even south, consider heading this way, via Brussels and Luxembourg. It’s only 21km further to Nancy than the direct route, you avoid the €35.80 toll plus fuel in Luxembourg is the cheapest in western Europe. This week it’s €1.32/l petrol and €1.19/l diesel according to Dutch touring club @ANWBeuropa.
Note: the French Association of Road Operators publishes a list and map of motorways annotated with toll rates. It’s complicated and in French only but is useful for comparing toll rates on different routes. Click here.
An autoroute that used to be free the A63 between Bordeaux and the Spanish border has recently been taken into the paid network.. But it has been spruced up and is half price (€3.15) until the third lane opens at the end of the year.
The alternatives to autoroutes are the Route Nationale main roads. They can be glorious, but those not content to dawdle through towns and villages consign themselves to a travel time warp in which the scenery is the axles of successive HGVs and the conversation is limited to, ‘Can I overtake now?’
If you cannot save money on the motorways then you can at least save time by signing up for the SANEF Liber-T tag. It allows you to pass through the freeflow automated lanes and avoid the queues at the cash/card barriers. We were surprised to learn that 20,000 UK drivers now have the tags since the scheme launched last year. It costs €40 to set up (€20 refundable), is normally issued within a few days and you can use it to pay at VINCI car parks too. Be aware though that at peak times it’s not unknown for there to be queues in the auto lanes while the low tech lanes are empty…
Tolls also apply to infrastructure like bridges and tunnels. The famous Millau Viaduct on the A75 between Clermont-Ferrand and Montpellier is just €8.90 each way (and you can pay automatically with the SANEF tag). But the Frejus and Mont Blanc Tunnels are a shocking €40.90 each way and you have to pay manually. See our Traffic/Travel/Weather page for more.
Priority to the Right.
They say Priority to the Right is obsolete but they are only half right. Most traffic on main roads does indeed now have priority over junctions on the right but only because of the increasingly common yellow diamond priority signs (above).
In France they have priority zones, starting with a yellow diamond sign and ending with the same but crossed in black. If you have just passed a black crossed yellow diamond sign then any vehicles approaching from roads on your right – apart from car parks, private premises and dirt tracks – are entitled to pull out in front of you when it is safe to do so.
Never worry about going the wrong way around a roundabout. Road engineers feed you in the right direction.
Traditionally however cars pulling on to roundabouts had right of way. This is also steadily dying out as the almost ubiquitous ‘Cedez le Passage’ give-way signs on the approach to roundabouts make clear.
We’ve recently begun to conceive of Continental roundabouts merely as convenient places to U-turn (or turn left). Treat them like this, or be prepared to, and there’s no problem.
It’s business as usual for the time being at MyFerryLink despite a recent Competition Commission ruling that the Eurotunnel-backed operator was unfair competition to DFDS and P&O on the Dover Strait.
Otherwise, the big ferry news this year is Brittany Ferries starting a new route from Portsmouth to Le Havre to compete with the existing LD Lines/DFDS service.
The Brittany Ferries service is by high speed catamaran, sailing Thursday to Sunday. It takes 3h45, departing 07:00 from Portsmouth and returning at 12:30. Prices start at £139 each way for a car+2 passengers.
The DFDS/LD Lines service is by conventional ferry, sailing each way every day. The leg from Portsmouth is overnight, 23:00-08:00 while the return is 17:00-21:30. Five day returns start from £120 but for peak time sailings (with cabin) the price can be two or three times that.
Le Havre’s big claim to fame is being at the mouth of the River Seine which makes finding your way the 200km to Paris ultra simple. Just follow that river!
Driving in Paris.
The primary advice for driving in Paris is the same as for every other city: don’t believe the hype. Take it from us who have now driven in almost every major European city, the congestion is the same as everywhere else and so are the driving standards.
The advice here is really for regulars: Paris is changing for drivers. Satnavs will definitely not cope with the ever-expanding Paris-Plage city beach along the Seine in the summer while more and more streets are being reserved for public transport and taxis. Plus, new 30kph speed limits are proliferating.
Meanwhile, an EU crack down on air pollution will see the limit on the Peripherique ring road reduced from 80kmh to 70kmh ‘before the summer’ (and there are plans to reduce it even further to 50kmh…)
One thing you don’t have to worry about in Paris (or any other French city, for the time being) are low emission (LEZ) or congestion zones. Until next year at least, classic and vintage cars are still allowed in the city centre. Do it while you still can.
The days when it was significantly cheaper to refuel in France are long gone. @ANWBeuropa tweeted on Tuesday (18.6.13) that the average price of unleaded in France is €1.62/l and diesel €1.45/l.
That approximates to £1.39 and £1.24 respectively compared to the average UK price of petrol at £1.33 and diesel at £1.38 in May, according to the AA Fuel Price survey.
We’d be interested to hear about your experiences with French police or any other aspect of driving in France. Please leave your comments below.