The motorways, on the other hand, are among Europe’s finest roads. However, they’re also among the world’s most expensive, being mostly toll roads built by private companies. Whereas motorways are often virtually empty, trunk roads are usually jammed by drivers who are reluctant to pay or who cannot afford the high motorways tolls and are particularly over-used by heavy goods vehicles (some 70 per cent of goods transported through France travel by road).
If you’re travelling long distances, it may be cheaper to fly or take a TGV than to use the motorways and will almost certainly be quicker and less stressful. In rural areas, a car is generally a necessity, and driving can be enjoyable in remote areas, particularly outside the tourist season, where it’s possible to drive for miles without seeing another motorist (or a caravan).
Driving in French cities
If you live in a city, particularly Paris, a car is usually a liability. Traffic density and pollution in cities is increasing (it’s estimated that around 16,000 people die prematurely each year because of traffic-induced air pollution). Paris is one of Europe’s most traffic-polluted cities and it often experiences poor air quality in summer, with consequent restrictions on vehicle movement; a reduction in road speed limits ( un pic de pollution) is automatically triggered when ozone levels reach 240 micrograms per cubic metre of air. Parking in cities (especially Paris) can be a nightmare (dealing with parking takes up 60 per cent of the Paris Highway Department’s workload).
Some cities have drastically cut the number of vehicles entering the central area with dramatic results. For example, Bordeaux has seen a reduction of 80 per cent in road accidents since restricting traffic, instituting a system of buses and taxi-buses, and encouraging people to cycle and walk, and the Mayor of Paris has radical plans to exclude all except residents’ and essential service vehicles from the centre of Paris by 2012 (the first phase, due to be implemented by 2007, will see the speed limit reduced to 30kph and Phase 2 the pedestrianisation of the area surrounding Les Halles) and to ban all pre-1993 (the date of the introduction of the catalytic converter) vehicles from the city. Some towns provide free buses and others have annual ‘no car’ days – though usually on Sundays! France is in the forefront of the development of electric vehicles, which are now commercially available.
Rush hours and traffic jams in France
Rush hours are from around 06.30 to 08.30 and 16.30 to 18.30, Mondays to Fridays, when town centres are best avoided. A recent phenomenon, known as l’effet des 35 heures, is an advanced rush hour on Friday afternoons caused by workers on a 35-hour week knocking off early for the weekend. Paris, where traffic moves at around the same speed as a hundred years ago, is to be avoided by motorists at all times (except perhaps between 02.00 and 04.00). Friday afternoons are particularly busy on holiday weekends and also immediately before and after the lunch period – usually from around 12.00 to 15.00.
Traffic jams ( bouchon/embouteillage) are notorious at the start and end of holiday periods, particularly on roads out of Paris and other northern cities as sunseekers flock southwards. Some areas and roads (particularly the Autoroute du Soleil – commonly known as the ‘ autoroute de la mort’) are to be avoided in July and August, when 6m French people and around over 1m foreigners set off on their annual holidays ( grandes vacances). The most important days to stay at home are the first Saturday in July, when Parisians escape the city ( la départ), and the last Sunday in August when they return ( la rentrée). The 15th July and 15th August are also best avoided.
Accidents in France
Anyone who has driven in France won’t be surprised to learn that it has a high accident record. There were over 8,000 road deaths in 2002 – almost twice as many as in the UK or Japan (in proportion to the number of vehicles) – averaging a death every two hours and meaning that around one French people in every 100 would on the roads. These alarming statistics prompted the government to launch a major campaign to reduce the number of accident casualties, although it’s based on ‘cure’ rather than ‘prevention’, with 1,200 extra traffic police, 24-hour radar controls, remote-control cameras and heavier punishments for rule-breakers.
This has had surprising success, a ‘mere’ 5,318 people dying within 30 days of a road accident (the new European ‘definition’ of road death) in 2005, and 108,076 people being injured, both figures having fallen annually for three years. The French are reluctant to use taxis when they go out for a meal or to a party (or even to let a non-drinking spouse take the wheel!), so it isn’t surprising that some 40 per cent of accidents involve ‘drunken’ drivers; the most dangerous times for driving in France are consequently at night and on Sunday afternoons.
As you may know, the French drive on the right-hand side of the road. It saves confusion if you do likewise! If you aren’t used to driving on the right, take it easy until you’re accustomed to it. Be particularly alert when leaving lay-bys, T-junctions, one-way streets, petrol stations and car parks, as it’s easy to lapse into driving on the left. It’s helpful to display a reminder (e.g. ‘Think right!’) on your car’s dashboard.
Always check your rear view and wing mirrors carefully before overtaking, as French motorists seem to appear from nowhere and zoom past at a ‘zillion’ miles an hour, especially on country roads. If you drive a right-hand drive car, take extra care when overtaking. It’s wise to have a special ‘overtaking mirror’ (e.g. one designed for caravan towing) fitted.
Be particularly wary of moped ( vélomoteur) riders and cyclists. It isn’t always easy to see them, particularly when they’re hidden by the blind spots of a car or are riding at night without lights. Many young moped riders seem to have a death wish and hundreds lose their lives each year. They’re constantly pulling out into traffic or turning without looking or signalling. When overtaking mopeds and cyclists, ALWAYS give them a wide . . . . WIDE berth. If you knock them off their bikes, you may have a difficult time convincing the police that it wasn’t your fault; far better to avoid them (and the police).
Information about driving in France (and other European countries) can be found on the Automobile Association’s website (www.theaa.com), from which the European Motoring Advice guide can be downloaded.