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French Road Rules
At a Glance:
- Autoroutes allow you to reach your destination quickly, but the tolls can add up.
- Although French drivers ignore speed limits sometimes, you should be cautious as fines can be rather high.
- Clean-air stickers, or Crit’Air Vignettes, are required in Paris, Lyon, and Grenoble.
- A warning triangle and reflective safety vest are just two of the items you should keep in your car at all times if you don’t want to get fined.
Getting behind the wheel and hitting the French roads can be a great way to get to know France, from its mountains and lavender fields to the beautiful shores. Driving allows you to be flexible and learn more about your new home. That being said, there are many rules and laws you should abide by if you don’t want to get in trouble.
Scenery or Speed?
As in most countries, France offers different kinds of streets, from narrow single-track roads, many of which lead through historical towns and will make you wish that you had ditched your car and proceeded on foot, to big highways that allow for speedy travel. Most of them fall into one of the following categories:
- Autoroutes are marked with an A. These are big highways that allow you to drive fast but will require you to pay tolls. Find out more on the website of the French highway companies.
- Routes nationale, or national roads, are marked with an N. While it does not cost you anything to use them, the speed limit is lower than on the autoroutes.
- Routes départmentale are minor roads marked with a D. They are under departmental administration.
Along with the letter, the color of the road signs indicates which type of road you are on. Signs with a red background mean that you are on a major road, such as an autoroute. Yellow signs indicate roads of intermediate significance, and white signs are for minor or country roads.
Moreover, there are forest and mountain roads which can be poorly maintained and not exactly ideal for driving. All in all, autoroutes are the best choice if you are trying to get from A to B as quickly as possible. That being said, routes nationale can offer a more comfortable driving experience. You should choose them if you are not in a hurry and just like to enjoy the experience of driving.
Autoroute Tolls: Speed Comes at a Price
In France, highways are operated by different private companies and require you to pay tolls if you want to use them. Toll booths are usually located near the entrance or exit of a highway. While you may think that paying a toll here or there can’t hurt, especially if this means you will reach your destination sooner rather than later, the costs can quickly add up.
How much you will be required to pay depends on the points of entry and departure as well as the type of vehicle you are driving. You can calculate the tolls for a specific journey on the website of the French highway companies or you can look at specific tolls (only in French). You can pay with cash or credit card. There is also an automatic payment option for everyone who uses the motorway frequently.
Sticking to the Speed Limit
The speed limit depends largely on which type of road you find yourself on. On highways, for instance, you can drive up to 130 km/h, while the speed limit on urban highways is 110 km/h. You cannot drive faster than 90 km/h on all other roads and in towns you are required to slow down to 50 km/h.
If the weather or road conditions are bad, or the visibility is less than 50 m, the speed limit will be much lower. The same applies if you are driving a vehicle over 3.5 metric tons. Speeding may be rather common. Nonetheless, you should not overdo it since penalties and fines can be hefty, especially for drivers who are not French residents (yet).
Priorité à Droite
At intersections, you are supposed to yield to traffic coming from the right, unless stated otherwise. This is called priorité à droite and most common in the countryside as well as on minor city roads, but not as much on main roads. These are usually given a priority which is indicated by a yellow diamond-shaped sign.
You will also come across many roundabouts while driving in France. Unless otherwise specified, drivers inside the roundabout have to yield to incoming traffic. However, quite often, roundabouts will be marked with a triangular sign and the message Vous n’avez pas la priorité! (“You do not have the right of way”). In that case, incoming traffic will have to yield.
Penalties and Fines: What Not to Do
In most cases, if the offence you committed is not too serious, you can pay your fine in the following days. On the other hand, if you are facing the loss of your driver’s license or even a prison sentence on top of a fine, you will be asked to pay on the spot. The French police can collect fines of up to about 370 EUR, as well as confiscate your license and your vehicle.
The latter can be the result of any of the following offences:
- driving 40 km/h or more over the speed limit
- repeatedly driving under the influence
- driving without a license, or driving a vehicle not covered by your license
- driving without insurance
- hit and run
- refusing to pull over upon request
Crit’Air Vignettes: Keeping Pollution at a Minimum
At the beginning of 2017, clean-air stickers, so-called Crit’Air Vignettes, have been introduced in three French cities: Paris, Lyon, and Grenoble. Further cities will opt into this program in the future, with Lille, Bordeaux, and Strasbourg scheduled for the end of 2017. Every vehicle, including motorbikes, need to have such a sticker. This also affects foreign drivers, of course. The purpose of these stickers is to immediately identify the amount of pollution produced by your vehicle. If your car has a black sticker, for instance, meaning it is particularly polluting, it may be refused entrance to a certain part of the city.
You can, and should, buy these stickers from the official Crit’Air website, which will cost around 5 EUR. Some third-party websites are selling them as well but at three times the price. If your car does not have a Crit’air Vignette, you may face fines of between about 70 EUR and 140 EUR. You can find out your car’s emission standards from RAC.
Things to Keep in Your Car at All Times
When you are driving in France, there are certain items and documents you should have on you. These include driver’s license, proof of insurance, your ID or passport, and proof of ownership if you are driving your own car as opposed to a rental.
However, there are also some specific items you should always keep in your car; without them, you can be fined on the spot. They are:
- reflective safety jackets for each passenger (must be kept within easy reach)
- a warning triangle (for all vehicles with at least four wheels)
- headlamp beam deflectors or deflector stickers (for cars made for left-hand driving)
- breathalyser / alcohol tests
If you are riding a motorcycle, keep in mind that you and anyone who is riding with you will also need a proper helmet with reflective stickers or elements.
In Case of Emergency
If your car breaks down on one of the highways, you should call the emergency number 112 or use one of the orange emergency phones. These are located every 2 km along the road and will let you get in touch with the police or the responsible breakdown service. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to contact just any breakdown service but must rely on the one preferred by the private company maintaining the stretch of road you are on.
The charges for recovering a vehicle from a highway are fixed and revised every year. It depends on the weight of your car and on the time of day that you need assistance. For instance, the cost of recovery for a car of 1.8 t and under is about 124 EUR and 185 EUR between 18:00 and 08:00. For trucks, buses, and other vehicles over 3.5 t, the towing company will set a price for its service.
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