Rules of the road

What you should know when driving in France

The following guide to road rules may help you to adjust to driving in France. Don’t, however, expect other motorists to adhere to them (most French drivers invent their own ‘rules’).

All motorists in France must be familiar with the highway code ( Code de la Route), available from bookshops throughout France (around €15), when they take their test, but most promptly ignore it as soon as they’ve passed. Note that there isn’t a single official highway code, but numerous versions of it produced by different publishers (e.g. Ediser and Rousseau)!

The Prévention Routière produces a leaflet in English called Keep Right highlighting the major rules and conventions, and a similar guide, entitled Welcome on [ sic] France’s Roads, including a list of common fines, is downloadable from the Sécurité Routière website (www.securiteroutiere.gouv.fr  – click on ‘ Les dépliants thématiques’ under ‘ Ressources’).

These are both rather basic, however. For more detailed guidance, you should obtain the Guide Pratique et Juridique de l’Automobiliste (Editions Grancher), which explains the rights and obligations of car owners. If your French motoring vocabulary is wanting, Hadley’s French Motoring Phrase Book & Dictionary (Hadley Pager Info) is a handy reference.

Equipment

All motorists must carry a full set of spare bulbs and fuses. It’s recommended also to carry a red breakdown triangle (compulsory if your car doesn’t have hazard warning lights), a fire extinguisher and a first-aid kit. An ‘F’ nationality plate ( plaque de nationalité) must be affixed to the rear of a French-registered car when motoring abroad. Most French registration plates incorporate the nationality letter. Similarly, drivers of foreign-registered cars in France must have the appropriate nationality plate affixed to the rear of their cars; you can be fined on the spot for not displaying one.

The wearing of seatbelts ( ceinture de sécurité) is compulsory for both front- and rear-seat passengers (unless belts aren’t fitted; front belts are mandatory on cars registered after January 1965 and rear seatbelts on cars registered after October 1978). Even passengers can be fined for not wearing a seatbelt. If you have an accident and weren’t wearing a seatbelt, your insurance company can refuse to pay a claim for personal injury.

Studded tyres may be used from 1st November to 31st March (although this can be extended in bad weather) on vehicles weighing under 3.5 tonnes. Vehicles fitted with studded tyres or snow chains are restricted to a maximum speed of 90kph (56mph) and a ‘90’ disc must be affixed to the rear. You can be fined for not having chains in your car in winter in mountain areas, even when there’s no snow!

Lights & Horns in France

A recent government ‘directive’, which may become EU law, advises motorists to use dipped headlights (low beam) day and night when driving outside built-up areas between the end of October and the end of March (i.e. when the clocks are on winter time).

In any case, it’s illegal to drive on side (parking) lights ( codes or veilleuses) at any time. It’s also illegal to use full beam ( pleins phares) when you’re following a vehicle or when a vehicle is approaching from the opposite direction; failure to dip your lights can cost you a penalty point on your licence. You should also use dipped headlights ( codes) in tunnels and when driving onto and off cross-Channel ferries. Side lights should be left on when parked at night on an unlit road.

You should flash your headlights only to warn other road users of your presence, although the French usually do so to mean “get out of my way” and occasionally to warn other motorists of police speed checks and road blocks, which is illegal and punishable by a fine. Hazard warning lights ( feux de détresse or warnings) may be used to warn other drivers of an obstruction, e.g. an accident or a traffic jam and should be used when being towed.

The use of horns ( Klaxon) in built-up areas is restricted to situations where it’s necessary to avoid an accident; in any case, a horn should be used as a warning signal and not an expression of frustration (Parisian drivers please note!).

Mobile Phones

Mobile (cellular) phones ( portable or mobile) shouldn’t be used while driving, even with a ‘hands-free’ system. As with non-use of seatbelts, you can be fined on the spot.

Children

The driver is responsible for all passengers under 13, who should travel in the back of a car whenever possible. It’s dangerous to fit a child seat (even a rear-facing seat) in the front of a car fitted with a passenger airbag; some airbags can be disabled for this purpose .

Babies weighing under 9kg (20lb), i.e. aged under around nine months, must ride in a rear-facing baby seat. Infants weighing between 9 and 18kg (20 and 40lb), i.e. aged between around nine months and three or four years, must ride in a front-facing child seat and children over 18kg and up to ten years of age must ride on a raised seat and wear a standard seatbelt.

Priority

The traditional French rule that you should give way to traffic coming from your right ( priorité à droite) still applies in some cases, and it’s important to know what these are. Failure to observe this rule is the cause of many accidents and punishable by fines and licence penalties. The rules are as follows:

  • You must give way to the right:
      • At junctions marked by a triangular sign with a red border showing a black X, including junctions normally traffic-light controlled when the lights are out of order or flashing amber. (Note that any junction can be denoted by this sign and not only a crossroads.)
      • In car parks.
      • Wherever you see the sign ‘ Vous n’avez pas la priorité’ (‘You don’t have priority’).
  • You don’t need to give way to the right (but should still take care):
      • At junctions marked by a triangular sign with a red border showing a black X and the words Passage protégé underneath.
      • At junctions marked by a triangular sign with a red border showing a broad vertical arrow with a thinner horizontal line through it.
      • Where the main road is joined by a private road or exit or a dirt track.
  • Diamond-shaped yellow signs with a white border, which are posted at regular intervals (e.g. every 5km) on some national roads, indicate that you have priority at all junctions. If this sign has a thick diagonal black line through it, however, it means that you no longer have priority at every junction and must obey individual junction signs (see above).

If you’re ever in doubt about who has the right of way, it’s wise to give way (particularly to large trucks!), and you should always give way to trams and to emergency (ambulance, fire, police) and public utility (electricity, gas, telephone, water) vehicles when their lights are flashing or sirens sounding (or they don’t look as if they’re going to stop!).

Roundabouts

Vehicles on a roundabout ( sens giratoire or rond-point) usually have priority and not those entering it, who are faced with a ‘Give Way’ sign (‘ Cédez le passage’ or ‘ Vous n’avez pas la priorité’). While it used to be that drivers on the roundabout at times had to give way to vehicles entering the roundabout, this has slowly changed, and almost all roundabouts give priority to the vehicles on the roundabout. British drivers should note that traffic flows anti-clockwise round round­abouts and not clockwise.

Traffic Lights in France

The sequence of French traffic lights ( feux) is red, green, amber (yellow) and back to red. Amber means stop at the stop line; you may proceed only if the amber light appears after you’ve crossed the stop line or when stopping may cause an accident. Traffic lights are often suspended above the road, although most are on posts at the side, with smaller lights at eye level for motorists who are too close to see the main lights (an excellent idea).

In Paris and other cities there’s a two-second delay after one set of lights changes to red before the other set changes to green, to allow time for those who don’t care to stop at red lights or cannot tell the difference between red and green (a significant proportion of Parisian drivers). You can be fined around €300 and penalised four licence points for driving through a red light.

An amber or green filter light, usually flashing and with a direction arrow, may be shown in addition to the main signal. This means that you may drive in the direction shown by the arrow, but must give priority to pedestrians or other traffic. Flashing amber lights are a warning to proceed with caution and are often used at junctions at night, in which case you should be very careful and observe the priority signs (see above). Occasionally you will see a flashing red light, meaning stop or no entry, e.g. at a railway crossing.

Level Crossings

Most level crossings have automatic barriers; red lights start flashing and a bell rings a few seconds before the barriers come down, indicating that you must stop. At crossings without barriers, a similar light system is in operation, and there may be the classic French sign, ‘ Un train peut en cacher un autre’.

Road Markings in France

White lines mark the separation of traffic lanes. A solid single line means no overtaking in either direction. A solid line to the right of the centre line, i.e. on your side of the road, means that overtaking is prohibited in your direction. You may overtake only when there’s a single broken line in the middle of the road or double lines with a broken line on your side of the road.

Note, however, that if the gaps between the lines are short and the lines long you should overtake only slow-moving vehicles. No overtaking may also be shown by the international sign of two cars side by side (one red and one black). Processions, funeral corteges, horse riders and foot soldiers mustn’t be overtaken at more than 30kph (18mph).

Don’t drive in bus, taxi or cycle lanes (you can be fined for doing so) unless neces­sary to avoid a stationary vehicle or another obstruction. Bus lanes are identified by a continuous yellow line parallel to the kerb. Be sure to keep clear of tram lines and outside the restricted area, delineated by a line.

Stopping & Overtaking in France

If you want or need to stop on a main road, you must drive your car completely off the road, but beware of ditches and soft verges ( accotements non-stabilisés).

The French are obsessive overtakers and will do so at the most dangerous moments, often cutting in sharply within inches of your front bumper. It’s therefore wise to decelerate when being overtaken. You must indicate left before and while overtaking; on single carriageway roads you must indicate right when moving back into your lane, but this isn’t necessary on dual-carriageways or motorways.

Many French motorists seem to have an aversion to driving in the right-hand lane on a three-lane road, in effect reducing it to two lanes, but it’s an offence not to move over to the right-hand lane if it’s safe to do so. It’s illegal to overtake on an inside lane unless traffic is being channelled in a different direction, although this is a favourite manoeuvre among impatient French drivers.

Loads & Trailers

Cars mustn’t be overloaded (particularly roof-racks), and luggage weight shouldn’t exceed that recommended in manufacturers’ handbooks. Carrying bicycles on the back of a car is illegal if they obscure the rear lights or the number plate. The police make spot checks and fine offenders around €75.

The maximum dimensions for caravans or trailers are 2.5m (8.2ft) wide and 11m (36ft) long, or a combined length of 18m (59ft) for car and caravan/trailer. No passengers may be carried in a moving caravan. On narrow roads, drivers towing a caravan or trailer are (where possible) required to slow or pull in to the side of the road to allow faster vehicles to overtake (although they rarely do). The speed limits for a towing car depend on the weight of the trailer or caravan. A special licence is required for towing heavy trailers or caravans.

Goods Vehicles

Goods vehicles over 7.5 tonnes are banned from roads between 10.00 Saturday and 22.00 Sunday, and from 22.00 on the eve of a public holiday to 22.00 on the day of the holiday. In Paris, goods vehicles aren’t permitted to travel out of the city between 16.00 and 19.00 on Fridays to allow car drivers to get a head start for the weekend.

Road Signs

Although France generally adheres to international standard road signs, there are also many unique signs with instructions or information in French.

Always come to a complete stop when you’re faced with a Stop sign and a solid white line across the road and ensure that you stop behind the line. (Junctions are a favourite spot for police patrols.)

The Autoroutes du Sud de la France publishes a booklet explaining motorway signs and symbols, which is available from motorway toll booths or from the ASF (08 92 70 70 01, www.asf.fr ).

Speed limits in France

  • Speed limits are reduced in rain ( par temps de pluie), when the second limit shown above applies. When visibility is less than 50m (162ft), e.g. in fog or heavy rain, speed limits are automatically reduced to 50kph on all roads.
  • Speed limits in built-up areas ( agglomération) such as small towns and villages often aren’t posted. Unless a lower speed limit (such as 40 or 45kph) is posted, the limit is 50kph and starts with the town or village’s name sign, which usually has black letters on a white background with a red border. The end of the speed limit is indicated by the town’s sign with a diagonal red line through it. A village sign with white letters on a dark blue background doesn’t indicate a speed restriction unless otherwise indicated.
  • Speed limits also apply to cars towing a trailer or caravan, provided the trailer’s weight doesn’t exceed that of the car. If the trailer’s weight exceeds that of the car by less than 30 per cent, you’re limited to 65kph (39mph); if the trailer is more than 30 per cent heavier than the car, you mustn’t exceed 45kph (28mph). A plate showing the permitted maximum speed must be displayed at the rear of the trailer. Cars towing trailers with restricted speeds aren’t permitted to use the left lane on a three-lane motorway.
  • Vehicles fitted with studded tyres or snow chains are restricted to 90kph (56mph) and a ‘90’ plate must be displayed at the rear.
  • For two years after passing your driving test in France, you’re designated a ‘young’ driver ( jeune conducteur), irrespective of your age, and must display a disque réglementaire consisting of a red capital letter A on a white background on the back of any car being driven. During this period you mustn’t exceed 80kph (50mph) on roads where the limit is normally 90kph, 100kph (62mph) on roads with a 110kph limit, or 110kph (69mph) on motorways with a 130kph limit. Visitors who have held a licence for less than two years are also subject to these speed restrictions, but aren’t required to display a disc.
  • There’s a minimum speed of 80kph (50mph) on motorways in the outside (overtaking) lane during daylight, in dry weather on level surfaces and in good visibility, i.e. perfect conditions.
  • The word rappel (reminder) is often displayed beneath speed restriction signs to remind motorists that the limit is still in force.
  • Sleeping policemen ( ralentisseur or dos d’âne) are common on many major and minor roads and are often accompanied by a 30kph (18mph) sign; if you don’t slow down, you risk damaging your vehicle!

The use of radar speed checks is widespread (including on motorways). Around 1,000 of these are already in place with an additional 1,000 due to be installed in 2006/07 (find out where they are on www.controleradar.org ). Police also use concealed cameras to snap speeding motorists. French drivers often flash their headlights to warn other motorists of speed checks, but radar-detection devices are illegal. Speed limits are enforced by motorcycle traffic police operating in pairs.

If your car has a GPS system, you can be ‘caught’ speeding by a new Big Brother-style satellite surveillance system called ‘ Lavia’ (short for Limitation s’adaptant à la vitesse autorisée). Note also that motorway toll tickets are timed and you can be convicted of speeding if you complete a section of motorway in less than a certain time!

French drivers routinely speed everywhere, generally at least 20kph above the speed limit and often far more: a recent motoring magazine survey (in Var) found that the average speed on motorways was 160kph (100mph) and on routes nationales 107kph (67mph)! Drivers rarely slow down for villages and are often irritated by motorists who do so. Usually you’re ‘allowed’ to be 10 per cent above the limit, so if you’re clocked at 55kph in a 50kph zone, or 99kph in an 90kph zone, you won’t normally be penalised – but don’t bank on it!

This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.

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Other comments

  • Ian Dudley (in La Sarthe), 01 September 2008 Reply

    Roundabouts - give way?

    According to this article, you give way to the right on roundabouts. I am not aware of this, nor how it could work - this is what used to happen, with more and more cars coming onto the roundabout, and traffic snarling up! If anything, you give way to the left on a roundabout, i.e. those vehicles already on the roundabout have priority. Typically, once on the roundabout, you have right of way over vehicles waiting to join the roundabout - they have a give-way line to cross. Please tell me what I've missed!

    • R. Rinne 06 May 2012, 11:04

      Roundabouts

      Although the section headed "Priority" does (incorrectly in the case of roundabouts) say that you must give way to the right wherever you see the sign "Vous n'avez pas la priorite", the subsequent paragraph headed "Roundabouts" is quite clear that vehicles on a roundabout have priority over those entering the roundabout (i.e., coming from their right).

  • Melanie de Sainte Croix, France, 06 January 2011 Reply

    Flashing headlights to warn of speed checks

    It is not illegal in France to flash your headlights to warn oncoming motorists of police speed checks. It is, however, illegal to be in possession of a radar detector even if it is not connected.

    Je ne risque rien en faisant des appels de phares pour prévenir de la présence d'un radar

    VRAI.
    Maître Cervera Khelifi, avocate au Barreau de Paris, nous éclaire sur ce point. "Rien n'interdit de faire des appels de phares pour informer les automobilistes venant en sens inverse. En droit français, on ne peut pas punir quelqu'un pour des faits qui ne sont pas interdits par un texte."

    "Dans les années 70, certains conducteurs avaient été poursuivis pour avoir fait des appels de phares sur la base d'un outrage à agent, mais les Tribunaux ont relaxé ces prévenus au motif que de tels signaux n'avaient pas pour but
    de ridiculiser l'action des Gendarmes."

    Par ailleurs, rappelons qu'il est toutefois interdit de transporter un détecteur de radar. Vous risqueriez sinon une amende de 1.500 euros, 3 ans de suspension du permis de conduire, un retrait de 2 points, et une confiscation du véhicule si le dispositif est incorporé. Enfin, notez bien que vous pouvez être sanctionné, que le détecteur soit branché ou non.
    Le simple fait d'être en sa possession étant répréhensible.