Driving in France, like any country, requires a driver to remove all expectations about how drivers should drive, and add observations and experiences of how they do drive. It’s not a case of worse or better driving – it’s a case of both worse and better.
For those from countries that drive on the left, the obvious challenge of driving on the right hand side of the road is not a big problem as it just takes a bit of concentration for the first few weeks, then constant checking to ensure the driver is the closest person to the centre line of the road. The biggest trap is moving from one way streets, including freeways, into two way highways, as it’s very easy to execute a wide right turn – straight into oncoming traffic. When turning, we mutter the mantra “Tight Right, Loose Left”.
Two obvious differences in driving behaviour are giving way to other vehicles and occupying road space.
A benefit of the way the French generally drive, with the practice of ducking in and out of traffic, is they are very watchful of cars around them and therefore tolerant to allowing other cars in. This is good news to the tourist, for whom a suddenly noticed sign to one’s destination pointing left can be taken from the right hand lane across three lanes of traffic with no horns blaring and no-one squeezing up to block access. Using an indicator when turning or changing lanes is very much optional when driving in Europe, but I have found that using an indicator buys me a little more anticipation and leeway from other drivers.
Turn indicator users falls into three categories when overtaking or changing lanes on highways and autoroutes. Category one drivers, of which I am a member, indicate left when moving into the overtaking lane, then indicating right when moving back. Category two drivers indicate left when moving out and leave the left indicator on until the whole overtaking operation is complete. This is to indicate that there is overtaking taking place, although to me the fact the car is in the left lane is a fairly strong hint. Category three drivers regard the indicator as a device to be used only (occasionally) when turning, not when changing lanes, so do not use them at all. It seems to be like religion – a practice adopted early in one’s life based on the influence of others and rarely changed for its duration.
The maximum speeds one can travel on French roads are well signposted, and much the same as other parts of the world. Sometimes they are too well signposted as the various rules regarding the maximum speed under what conditions and in what locations can sometimes create a plethora of speed changes. For example, when driving through a rural town, there can be eight speed changes in a kilometre, from 90 (maximum highway speed) to 70 (edge of town), 50 (in town), 70 (other edge), 90 (derestricted zone), 70 (curve), 90, 80 (intersection) then 90 again.
Larger trucks bear their own three speed signs in decreasing value, such as 100, 80 and 60; or 90, 70 and 60. These signs bear no relation to the speed the truck is moving, as I regularly saw trucks bearing speed signs of 100 travelling at 120. It was unclear at the time, but the purpose of the three signs is supposed to indicate the maximum speeds on autoroutes, divided roads and other roads. It might be more effective to mount the signs up front of the cabin, where the driver can see them.
The French tolerance for high speed has diminished over recent years due to an escalating road toll. Although the autoroutes have always had a speed limit of 130kph, it was traditionally disregarded and rarely policed. Speeds are now more rigorously enforced with both police radar and Speed cameras. In typically Gallic liberté fashion, however, speed cameras are in large obvious metal boxes by the side of the road, often just after a sign saying “Speed cameras ahead”. In case that’s too subtle, the speed camera boxes are covered with yellow reflective tape so you can see them well before they see you. However, I was both amused and dazzled on one occasion at night when passing a speed camera which bore the sign ‘Making roads safer’. I was over the limit, so was greeted with a dazzling flash as it took my picture from the front, blinding my driving for the next 20 seconds. Not entirely sure I was safer.