22 Dec 2009
Brits travelling in France are often surprised by what they find on the roads. It's not just that you have to drive on the other side of the road. Manners, methods and techniques are all very different - sometimes dangerously different.
France has about twice the land area of Britain and about the same population. In rural areas, the traffic density is reminiscent of the 1950s in Britain. The roads are just empty.
But when we first moved to France, about 13 years ago, road fatalities were nearly three times those of Britain. Things have improved a bit, especially with the clampdown on drunk-driving, but it pays to be careful.
Here are a few tips to help you survive your journey in France.
Impatience, not anger
In Britain, drivers are aggressive. They want to demonstrate that they have the better car, better job and bigger willy, and they do this by trying to run you off the road.
French drivers seem even more aggressive. But there's a big difference. Where British drivers are competitive - it's all about them beating you - French drivers are merely impatient. They don't care about you. You're just an obstacle in the road. If you get out of their way, they won't give you a second thought.
Waste of space
French drivers regard the space between vehicles as wasted road. And remember that most of them have done some competitive cycling in their time and know all about the benefits of slipstreaming. So, just because the French driver's front bumper is mere inches from your tailgate, even at 100km/hr, that's not an act of aggression nor necessarily a desire to overtake. It's just their way of saving fuel. If you think about it, it's quite eco-friendly.
Rules for overtaking
British drivers are often shocked at the overtaking habits of French drivers. In fact, their behaviour is very easy to predict.
A French driver will not overtake unless at least one, and preferably all, of the following conditions are met:
Priorité à droite
Most French road junctions have got rid of the old rule where you had to give way to traffic on your right. But the authorities seem to delight in retaining the rule for the most difficult and dangerous junctions. What's more, most French drivers - especially the ones over 60 driving death-trap junkers - have simply ignored the change. There's a simple rule to remember here: if a vehicle appears on your right, you'll probably hit it.
One for the road
France is justly famous for its great wines, aperitifs and spirits. In our region of Normandy, it's calvados (brandy distilled from cider) that the French drink to improve their driving. If they want to be really great drivers, they drink a lot of it. Again, there's a simple rule: assume the French driver is drunk. It explains a lot.