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MOTORWAY

What you need to know about driving on France’s motorways

Here's a guide to driving on French autoroutes, from foreign drivers who know a thing or two about it.

What you need to know about driving on France's motorways
All photos: AFP
France's motorways are generally excellent, but that doesn't mean using them is simple. Here's a guide from foreigners who use the motorways a lot. 
 
1. They're not free!
 
They may be called “freeways” in English but don't be deceived by the name, they're certainly not free of charge in France. 
 
Seasoned autoroute user Maximilian Loherstorfer advises first time users to plan ahead for the many toll booths (péages). 
 
“I drive from Germany to Poitiers (in central western France) pretty often, and it costs me something like €60 plus gas,” he tells The Local.
 
“To avoid any bad surprises, I'd advise people to visit autoroutes.fr for information on toll prices.”
 
Indeed, with some roads costing €8 for as little as 20 kilometres (we're looking at you A14) then it's best to know what you're in for. 
 
 
2. Use well known bank cards (or cash) at the tolls
 
If you have a card from a well-known bank, or indeed cash, you will be fine at the toll booths, although some bank cards can cause problems. 
 
Readers told us of problems with Amex, for example. 
 
And be warned that some foreign banks will charge for transactions, so a long trip can really hit your wallet hard. 
 
“If you pay by UK bank card you will incur a fee for every transaction, so its better to go via the coin booths,” says Julie Down. 
 
Tony Warwick said: “I would extol the virtues of a Sanef Toll Tag.
 
They are utterly brilliant (and discount the toll charges slightly).
 
“The biggest advantage is that you don't stop, or take a ticket – hence avoiding the Right Hand drive / Left Hand ticket machine contortions.
 
“Sanef Tags can be bought and set up in UK, mine has worked without any problems in regular use over last 18 months.”
 
 
3. Avoid the autoroutes at peak holiday time
 
“It can be a nightmare, especially around Paris,” says Loherstorfer. 
 
And he's right! When it's holiday season, roads are typically clogged in both directions at most big cities or on motorways towards the coast or the mountains.
 
It's best to leave VERY early in the morning if you absolutely have to drive, and be sure to check in with traffic website Bison Futé before taking off. 
 
Or you might be stuck in tailbacks like the one pictured below. You've been warned.
 
 
4. Stick to the speed limit
 
Several readers pointed out that there are lots of speed cameras in use on France's autoroutes, so it's best to keep to the speed limit (it's there for your safety after all). 
 
The upper speed limit is typically 130km/hr (or 110km/hr in wet weather), although many will typically go a little faster.  When autoroutes are wide open and empty it's easy to cruise past the speed limit without noticing, so beware.
 
Slip roads leading off motorways also have strict speed limits that should be observed, for safety if nothing else.
 
And it's not just the speed cameras that are out to get you, says Tony Wileman. 
 
“Be conscious you can be timed between the tolls and if you've been excessively speeding they'll know this and you could be reported and or fined,” he says.
 
Speeding motorists are a real problem in France, with “risky behaviour” said to be a key problem in France's 3,500 road death toll in 2015.  
 
In February last year France rolled out 5,000 dummy speed cameras in the hope of tricking motorists into driving more safely. 
 
 
5. The cars don't always merge at autoroute entry points
 
Foreign drivers should be aware that it's not always a straight-forward merge to get onto the autoroute in France. 
 
“Joining the motorway is different, they won't just let you on,” says autoroute regular Julie Down. 
 
“In some cases you will have to stop as you would at a give way sign here.”
 
6. Invest in a good Sat-Nav
 
You'd be surprised just how handy the Sat-Navs are these days, not just for finding the way, but for finding the cheapest way. 
 
“There may be parallel roads that won't cost, so plan your journey accordingly,” says Julie Down. 
 
Indeed, there are loads of pages on the internet about how to drive around France and avoiding the toll booths, like this one
 
Photo: SeppVei/WikiCommons
 
7. Buy your petrol beforehand
 
Petrol isn't cheap along the autoroutes, so plan in advance. 
 
“It's better to fill up your tank at a supermarket before you leave,” advises Loherstorfer. 
 
Indeed, there are around 4,500 petrol stations around the country, so you have plenty of choice if you're looking to economize. 
 
Here's a link to our story about the best apps for finding fuel in France. 
 
 
 
8. Take regular breaks (and you will enjoy them)
 
There's typically a high standard of service stations at the rest breaks across France (aires d'autoroute), which can be found every 15 kilometres or so. 

They often include clean bathrooms, plenty of shops, restaurants, and even playgrounds for the kids. 
 
“I always enjoy driving on the French freeway knowing that I'll be able to find some good food, a decent spot for changing the baby's nappy, or just relaxing,” says regular motorway user Maximilian Loherstorfer.
 
Just remember that these rest stops can get very busy in peak times, so plan accordingly.  
 
In France it's recommended that motorists take a 15 minute break every 2 hours. 
 
9. Beware of tailgating and other bad driving habits
 
The French are not known for being the most easygoing drivers, especially on motorways.
 
When The Local asked readers to point out the most annoying habits of French drivers, tailgating (or driving up your rear) was the clear number one. You can expect to be flashed at (with car lights) and beeped until you move lane.
 
Mike Walker on Twitter said that France's tailgaters “infuriate” him. He says that “you can sometimes see a line of cars that almost appear to be conjoined”.
 
And be careful because tailgaters can appear within a split second and take you by surprise.
 
Best thing to do of course is gently move over.
 
Beware of undertakers too. Not the folk who drive hearses, but the ones who overtake from the inside. Then there are the drivers swerving in and of lanes or off the autoroute at the last minute. Beware of them too. In fact just be aware.
 
And in traffic jams keep an eye in your mirrors for motorbikers and scooter drivers weaving their way through the standstill.
 
Drive safely!
 
10. You can't cycle on them
 
Although it may be tempting, given that they are often quite and offer the quickest route to get between cities, do not venture onto an autoroute with a bike.
 
It is against the law, as one Russian cyclist found out when she was fined €22 when French police finally caught up with her as she tried to pay at a motorway toll station.
 

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DRIVING

Driving in France: Understanding the new French traffic laws

Over the past few months France has brought in several new laws relating to the roads - here is what you need to know, whether you're a pedestrian, a cyclist or a motorist.

Driving in France: Understanding the new French traffic laws

Changes for bicycles

France already has quite strict laws in place for cyclists, including a ban on listening to music on headphones while cycling, but as the government attempts to boost cycling in France, some additional laws have come into effect.

New categories – Starting in October 2022, France will create two additional categories for bicycles: the vélomobile (bicyles with protective panelling) and the vélo couché (horizontal bicycles). As these bikes are lower to the ground and more difficult for motorists to detect, they will be banned on roads where speed limits exceed 50 km/h.

Fast bicycles – Bicycles whose electric assistance allows them to go up to 45km/h will have to ride on a D9 track on roads with a speed limit of 50 km/h or more. This type of track allows for a separate space for pedestrians and cyclists. These types of bicycles should not ride on D10 tracks (where the sidewalk is shared between cyclists and pedestrians) for safety reasons.

Reflectors – New rules will go into place at the start of October also allow bicycles to use orange or yellow reflectors, which were previously prohibited. 

READ ALSO Everything you need to know about cycling in France

Changes for drivers

Signs

Signs banning the use of “cruise control” were repealed starting October 1st.

Additionally, starting in October, on the road in front of railroad crossings, a checkerboard marking area will be added to limit the possibility of accidents. This is intended to help vehicles be more aware of where they cannot enter, particularly if they are to be blocked in that space due to traffic. 

QUIZ How well do you know your French driving laws?

Electric vehicles

Starting October 1st, electric vehicles parked in front of a public charging station must be connected and charging – drivers cannot simply use them as an extra parking space. Violators risk a fine of €58.

Driverless cars

Starting September 1st, a new set of laws went into place that allowed for the licensing of more types of autonomous vehicles on the road in France, albeit with some limits.

Specifically, the laws concern “Level 3” (on a scale of 1 to 5) ‘semi-autonomous vehicles.’ These vehicles can operate either with a driver or automatically. However, France is still a long way from allowing unmanned vehicles on the roads, and it is important to note that so far only one such semi-autonomous vehicle has been approved for use – the Mercedes S-Class. Several other manufacturers have also announced their plans to launch their own versions.

City vehicle limits

Several new cities have introduced either introduced or extended their current rules regarding low-emission zones, which ban the most polluting vehicles from certain areas, based on the Crit’Air sticker system.

As of September 1st, the cities of Marseilles, Lyon and Rouen introduced such changes.

All vehicles are required to display a Crit’Air sticker, which gives them a rating of 1-5 based on their emissions level.

In Marseille Crit’Air 5 vehicles will be banned from a zone in the city centre, while the law comes into effect on September 1st, police will only start issuing fines on October 1st.

In Lyon the low-emission zone which is already in place in the city and its surrounding suburbs will now include private vehicles – previously it only concerned commercial vehicles. It covers Crit’Air 3,4 and 5 vehicles, however fines will only start being given in January 2023, until then police will simply inform drivers of the new rules.

READ MORE: MAP: Which French cities have vehicle bans or restrictions?

Rouen too is expanding its low-emission zone – which covers 13 communes of the city and its suburbs – to include private vehicles with a Crit’Air 4 or 5 rating.

A similar scheme is already in place in Paris, covers vehicles with Crit’Air 3, 4 and 5 ratings, while several other cities have intermittent schemes that come into effect when pollution levels rise. 

The sticker requirement covers both French and foreign-registered cars.

“Contrôle techniques” for motocycles and two-wheel vehicles

Technically, all motorised two-wheel vehicles were expected to need to submit to inspects as per a 2014 directive from the European Union.

In France this means the Contrôle technique – the regular vehicle inspection already required for cars (similar to the MOT in the UK). This would affect owners of motorised two-wheelers (scooters, motorcycles, mopeds) larger than 50 centimetres cubed. It would also impact owners of unlicensed cars, three-wheeled scooters, sidecars and quads.

If you have a vehicle dating from before 2016, according to the directive by the European Union, you should do your technical inspection prior to October 1st. For vehicles manufactured between 2016 and 2020, you have (in theory) until January 1, 2024. There is no set time frame for newer vehicles.

However, there has been much confusion surrounding this rule. President Emmanuel Macron’s government has attempted to pass legislation eliminating the obligation, but the legal status of the French government’s attempts are unclear, as they are still being judged by the European Commission. There will likely be more clarity on the subject, including further regulations regarding sound pollution, in the coming months, according to La Nouvelle Republique

According to reporting by La Voix du Nord, owners of two-wheeled vehicles do not have to worry about being fined if they have not yet submitted to inspections. 

Paris 

Within the city of Paris, riders of motorbikes, mopeds and scooters now have to pay for parking.

The new rules come into effect on Thursday, September 1st and concern motorbikes, mopeds and scooters.

Anyone who parks a motorbike, moped or a scooter with an internal combustion engine in public parking spaces within the Paris area has to pay.

READ MORE: Paris brings in new parking fees for motorbikes and scooters

Low-emission two-wheelers, such as electric scooters, can still park for free – however you will still need to register with the scheme. 

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