Most French people’s personalities (yes, women’s too!) change the moment they get behind the wheel of a car, when even the gentlest person can become an impatient, intolerant and even aggressive maniac with an unshakeable conviction in his own immortality. The French themselves have a quite different opinion of their driving: according to a survey by the Association Française de Prévention des Comportements au Volant, no fewer than 98 per cent consider themselves to be ‘courteous’ and ‘responsible’ – a sad case of self-delusion.
The French revere racing drivers (Alain Prost et al) and the majority of drivers are assailed by an uncontrollable urge to drive everywhere at maximum speed (women – young and old – often drive faster than men). To a French person, the racing line on a bend (which usually means driving on the wrong side of the road!) is de rigueur and overtaking is an obligation; me first ( moi d’abord) is the French driver’s motto.
Even when not overtaking or cutting corners, the French have an unnerving tendency to wander across the centre line, threatening a head-on collision with anything coming in the opposite direction. When following another vehicle (and even when they have no intention of overtaking it), French drivers sit a few metres (or even centimetres) from its rear bumper trying to push it along irrespective of traffic density, road and weather conditions or the prevailing speed limit.
They’re among Europe’s worst tail-gaters, despite a recent (and ludicrously unenforceable) law forbidding driving within two seconds of the car in front (referred to as the distance de sécurité and sometimes shown on motorways by arrows marked on the road surface).
Always try to leave a large gap between your car and the one in front in order to give yourself time to stop should the vehicles in front decide to get together, without the inevitable tail-gater behind you ploughing into your boot. Observe the simple rule: the closer the car is behind you, the further you should be from the vehicle in front.
Beware of big vehicles
Beware of lorries and buses on narrow roads, as lorry drivers believe they have a divine right to three-quarters of the road and expect you to pull over. Don’t, however, pull over too far, as many rural roads have soft verges and ditches.
What makes driving in France even more hazardous is that for many months of the year French roads are jammed with assorted foreigners, including many (such as the British) who don’t even know which side of the road to drive on and whose driving habits vary from exemplary to suicidal.
Most French drivers have little respect for traffic rules, particularly anything to do with parking (in Paris, a car is a device used to create parking spaces). French drivers wear their dents with pride and there are many (many) dented cars in France – particularly in Paris (a ‘75’ registration number acts as a warning to other motorists to keep well clear).
But don’t be too discouraged by the road hogs and tail-gaters. Driving in France can be a pleasant experience (Paris excepted), particularly when using country roads that are almost traffic-free most of the time. If you come from a country where traffic drives on the left, rest assured that most people quickly get used to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Just take it easy at first, particularly at junctions, and bear in mind that there are other foreigners around just as confused as you are!
This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.