Peewee Herman signIt’s entirely possible to vacation in France without a car. High-speed trains connect the big cities as fast as planes, and even the slower trains are faster than going by car. And inside any big city, a car is more of a hassle than anything—parking is nigh impossible.

A car is useful only if you want to get out into the countryside, for example, to go from village to village, or to get out into the garrigue. Even if you plan to bike, it’s important to know the rules of the road, which aren’t at all like in the U.S.

priorite a droite
Priority to the car on the right. Be careful!

Possibly the most important, or the thing the least like the U.S. is priorité à droite. When in doubt, priority is to the car on the right. There are no four-way stops. A triangular sign (point up), bordered in red, with a black X means at the next intersection, you have to stop for any cars coming from the right. Look out; sometimes the next intersection is with an alley you barely see, and the locals will plow right into you because they know they have the right of way. In case of an accident, fault is easy to determine—the car dented on its right side is wrong.

White line for stop
This intersection has both a stop line and a stop sign…rare.

The French hate stop signs. Instead, they paint a heavy white line at intersections where you are supposed to stop. So you have to watch the pavement as well as the signs.

A dashed line across the road means yield. (Actually, they often interpret it as ‘I see a car coming, so I’m gunning it to cut in front.’ So you’ll probably have to slam on the brakes a lot.) It can be a dashed line instead of a solid stop line like above, which basically means you can do a rolling stop. Or it can be where you merge into traffic.

prepare to stop passing
Arrows mean the passing lane is near the end.

As in the U.S., a dashed center line means you can pass and a solid line means no passing. Sometimes, they have a solid line where there is a long sight line, just because the road curves a bit. And sometimes, they have a dashed line where you can’t see oncoming cars. Lesson: just because it’s a dashed line, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to pass. And beware of passing stuff like tractors and bikes where there’s a solid line because you can get a ticket if a cop sees you. Also: they put curved arrows when the dotted lines are about to end, meaning it’s too late to start to pass.

Speaking of cops, they rarely pull you over. Instead, they sit in their cars or hide in the bushes with radars that take a picture of you speeding by. The picture is mailed to you (or to the car rental place, which will then just bill your credit card). No sweet-talking your way out of it. With special binoculars, they can get you from over a kilometer away. They do have traffic stops, where they check every car or every fourth car or whatever, to check for drunk drivers. They are strict: the limit is 0.5, which is about one glass of wine. When you go to wine country, you’re going to need a designated driver (called le capitain). The French are very sharp at spying cops in hiding and will flash their headlights when there’s a speed trap or traffic stop ahead (or for other reasons, like an accident, or a mess on the road—whatever the reason, it’s best to slow down).

There are radar signs on the highways, which indicate a fixed radar lurks ahead. They, too, take pictures of speeders.

Speed limits, unless indicated otherwise are (in kilometers per hour):

50 in towns of any size—as soon as you get to the sign that marks the town limit, you have to slow down to 50. Watch out, because there could be signs limiting the speed further, like to 30.

City limit leaving
Leaving the city limit (it’s not a “no Carassonne” sign)

80 out of town on any road (tiny track between vineyards, county road, national highway). Sometimes the speed will be limited to 70, but that will be indicated with a sign. Beware: the speed limit changed July 1 to 80 kph from 90.

110 where indicated on national highways that have two lanes in each direction, divided by a median (just because you have two lanes doesn’t automatically mean you can go faster).

130 on autoroutes, except when it’s raining and then it’s 110 (and yes, they do check).

A triangular road sign with a heavy black arrow, intersected by a thinner line means a crossroads is ahead.

A diamond-shaped yellow sign bordered in white means you have priority. Same sign with a black line through it means you no longer have priority (so look out for the black X or the arrow with a line through it, which warns you of intersections where you don’t have priority…but they don’t always mark these intersections).

A circular sign bordered in red with a white center means cars aren’t allowed. Not the same as a do not enter sign, where you would simply be going the wrong way on a one-way street.

A triangular sign with three curving arrows making a circle means slow down for a roundabout ahead.

Céder le passage = yield. Usually with a triangular sign, white bordered in red, with the point down.

A sign with a red circle and a red car on the left and a black car on the right means no passing.

A blue sign with arrows pointing up and down, with one in black (or white) and the other in white (or red) means the road is narrow and the car in the direction of the bigger arrow has right of way.

A round sign with a blue center and a red border with a red line through it means no parking. The sign on the right, above, means you need one of those little hour-cards that you can buy at a bureau de tabac. You set the time you arrived. Same sign with an X means no stopping.

A round sign with a black line through means end of something. A sign like that with the number 70, for example, means end of the 70 kph speed zone, i.e., 80 kph.

A square blue sign with a P means parking. If it has a little meter in the corner, it means you have to find the meter (someplace on the street, it might be two blocks away) and pay and put the ticket on your dashboard so the meter readers can see it.

A square blue sign with a kind of a T, where the T is in red, means dead end.Traffic circle ahead

Signs for highways with the city names on green backgrounds mean they are free highways.

The same kinds of signs with blue backgrounds mean tollroads.

The same town signs on white background mean departmental roads.

Roads are numbered like this:

D123 (I’m making up numbers here) with yellow background means a departmental road. Like a county road. Small, lots of stops. Usually, the bigger the number the smaller the road.

N123 with a red background is a national highway. Can be 1, 2 or 3 digits.

A12 with a red background is an autoroute, usually toll, but some stretches may be free. (1 or 2 digits)

E3 with a red background is a European highway. This just means you can follow the same road across borders and perhaps not get lost because the national numbering systems aren’t the same. (1 or 2 digits)

Sortie means exit. The exit signs are an oval with the autoroute sign (two parallel lines converging in perspective) and a little arrow coming out of the right line, along with the number of the exit.

A kind of double white X on a blue background, with the points of the X connected to each other by curved lines, means a junction of two autoroutes.

At the tollbooths, do not go in the ones marked with a T (usually an orange T). Those are for people who have the RFID tags, like EZ Pass. A blue or white sign that says CB means credit cards (Cartes Bancaires). A green sign, usually with a kind of outline of a person in profile leaning out a window, or with a bunch of circles (for coins), means you can pay in cash, to an attendant.

A curved arrow painted on the ground means merge in the direction of the arrow. So if you’re getting onto the highway, it’ll point to the left, meaning the entry ramp is ending and you need to move over. Or if three lanes turn into two, it’ll point to the right, meaning the left lane is about to disappear. Sometimes these turn up where there’s road construction.

Aire = rest stop. Watch out: some have gas/food and some are just with toilets and picnic tables. They are marked.

Vehicles exiting
I love those exclamation points.

Péage = toll.

Rocade = peripherique = ring road that goes around the town.

Sortie de camions = truck exit/entrance (caution for slow trucks)

Piétons = pedestrians

Attention! Nids de poules en formation = beware! Hens’ nests (potholes) forming. This is on the road to Carcassonne and I giggle every time I see it. The road has been repaved and now is as smooth as a baby’s bottom, but the sign remains.

My favorite, though, is the top sign, which reminds me of “PeeWee’s Big Adventure,” where PeeWee is in the truck with Large Marge.

I just don’t have time today to write. This is a repost of one of my earliest entries, updated with the new speed limit. I hope it’s useful.

I am up to my ears in baking. We are having a gigantic party this weekend. I’ll give the rundown next week. This is not the moment to bake–it’s the canicule–heat wave, and yes, related to canine, but it’s because of a constellation, Big Dog, whose brightest star, Sirius, rises and sets with the sun during the hottest part of the year). We have mostly been spared–highs around 34 Celsius, or 93 Fahrenheit, but that’s hot enough when you don’t have air conditioning.

Any driving tips to add? Questions? How are you dealing with the heat? Bon weekend!


39 thoughts on “Driving in France

    1. Good point. I was thinking of people coming from outside Europe and renting a car, which should have those inside.
      Filters on headlights? I remember the funky yellow headlights that phased out in the ’90s. I guess they are already on cars bought here.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Good luck with the party and all the baking in the heat – which can never stop me either! Beautiful mild day yesterday where I happily weeded beds and stayed away from the laptop. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Those street sign translations are helpful!! Somehow we have managed to figure them out when needed but I’m sending this post to my husband. And pinning to my travel France board. Can’t wait to hear about the party!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some things, like the ones for parking, are kind of obvious in practice, if not because of the sign–if nobody has parked on a street, you think twice before parking there.


  3. Oh my word, those are complicated, and some are counterintuitive to what I’ve learned in the U.S. A couple of years ago I rented a car for the week near Giverny. It’s a good thing I didn’t know all the rules or I might have passed on that experience altogether! It’s hot here in Texas, so the dogs and I dart across our courtyard into the other part of the house without spending too much time outside until after the sun sets. Even then it can be brutal. Here’s to a wonderful weekend and a great party!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The rule (that isn’t always) about giving way to traffic from the right, stumps me and appears to be a local thing that ‘works’ inside town and villages. Basically one just has to take care at every junction that has no white paint on it. Our village has one such where those on the main straight road give way to the road joining it from behind a huge hedge! A visitor, even a French, visitor must beware!
    Keep Cool!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a priority on the right on a major road in a village near town. It is marked with a sign–the sign I photographed. Still, when I slow to look down the narrow road that has priority, I get honked at and yelled at by cars behind me (almost always with not-local plates). I guess they didn’t see the sign. But they would be glad not to be plowed into, since they would be at fault.


  5. I hope the weekend goes well for you … I am sure your guest will appreciate your suffrage in the kitchen when you whip out all those exquisite baked delights for their delectation. As for the driving … I remember the post first time round – all I have to add is that driving on this side of the pond when you are used to Europe is no picnic either!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. You can get used to anything, I suppose, but French rules do take some effort. As we’re close to Switzerland, we often adapt to slightly different sets of rules: green and blue for highway vs. motorway are reversed (!) and fixed radars are everywhere. They also film you at intersections in case you run the red. In France, the signs I hate are just red circles with something inside – no line crossing through – which I find confusing as not clear that the thing inside is forbidden! BTW, I heard that the speed limits on main roads were slashed by 20km this weekend due to the pollution alert – just as thousands of people take to the roads to go on holiday. 😉 Bon courage with the baking and hope the party goes well!


  7. Always good to refresh the rule of the road in France as there are many things drivers from outside of Europe will find different. A couple of things I thought worth mentioning are the rules regarding giving space to bicycles. You are required to give at least 3 feet between your car and the bicycle when passing and if there is not enough space then you cannot pass. Also be aware that many town are putting in roundabouts and French drivers are not adjusting as fast as they perhaps should to the rules governing roundabout traffic. I’ve seen people go against traffic in the roundabout rather than go around the loop. They often also turn right from the inside lane in front of cars on the far right so be attentive.

    Everyone stay cool!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. NO!!!!!
        I Barely spoke…………
        EVERYONE was crossing their fingers for me when it was time to take the TEST!!!!!!!
        I PASSED………or they FAKED I PASSED!
        WE had to learn how the motor of a car worked!!!!!I don’t even know that in ENGLISH!!!!!!HA!

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, and I’ve spent considerable time there. However, Narbonne is closer to me and has more to offer. If one tires of walking there, a navette (shuttle) can take you and is free.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for this thorough article! The roundabouts always stress me out as people often drive so fast! Still, people always get to where they’re going fast! There’s little waiting at red lights. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I have been to France and that’s true that someone don’t really need to drive a car in cities as transport system is really good and if you have planned your journey well organized. If you are use to left hand drive cars than it can be a good idea to hire a car as it will safe journey time

    Liked by 1 person

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