Driving in France: are you sure?

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – French driversThe French road system is excellent. The country is covered by a comprehensive network of autoroutes – similar to our Interstate Highway System in the US – along with plenty of secondary roads.

The roads in France are in uniformly good condition and are well-marked so you can find your way.

If there is any downside to the French road system it would have to be… French drivers.

French drivers and the need for speed

The French like to drive much too fast.

No matter what road you are on or how fast you are driving, you can be sure that a French driver will be tailgating you. It’s as if it is required by law.

You could be setting a new land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats and if you looked in your rearview mirror you would see a French driver, just inches from your tailpipe.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – French drivers

In fact, it is possible that French drivers own all the land speed records, how could they not? It’s just that after setting them they stopped for lunch and a nap and forgot to call the people at Guinness to make it official.

Etiquette to overtaking when driving in France

After tailgating you for a while, the French driver will finally decide to pass you.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – French driversThere are two basic ways to do this:  on a nice, roomy autoroute or on a narrow, winding country road.

  • On the autoroute, the obvious thing is for the other car to move one lane to the left in order to pass you. But no, there’s no challenge in that. Instead, the preferred method is to pass you in your own lane. This means zooming by so closely that you can tell if the other driver had onions for lunch. And it requires that you, the one being passed by this insane guy, drive perfectly straight. Anything that might cause your car to move even a millimetre to the left – a cough, a sneeze, a fart – could result in a fiery death.
  • On the narrow, winding roads, by contrast, the French driver doesn’t do anything so silly as try to pass while close to you. No, no, it is much better to move as far to the left as possible so as to be able to terrorize oncoming traffic, careening back into your lane only at the last possible instant. Ah, the thrill! The grandeur!

French drivers: not always predictable

And then there’s the stopping. Even in situations where it would be incredibly dangerous to stop – say, in a traffic circle or the middle of an intersection – French drivers will frequently stop, look at the road signs, discuss which way they should go, have a smoke, and maybe talk about last night’s soccer game, before finally moving along again.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – French drivers

In other words:  If you care at all about safety, and you’re thinking of driving in France. Don’t! Take the train.

What are your experiences of driving in France? Share your stories in the comments box below.

Image credits
1. Circular road, via Flikr.
2. Steering wheel, via Unsplash.
3. French autoroute, via Wikipedia.
4. Headlights, via Wikipedia.
(1) This very popular article has been refreshed and republished in 2021.
(2) We suggest that this article partners well with this ‘Driving in France: read this first—must-knows’ by the same author Keith Van Sickle.

About the Contributor

Keith Van Sickle

I am a lifelong traveler who lives part of the year in Provence. I am the author of Are We French Yet and One Sip at a Time, as well as the upcoming An Insider’s Guide to Provence, all available at Amazon. You can follow me on Facebook,  Twitter and keithvansickle.com.

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  1. Daniel Klein Oct 21, 2017 at 11:33 AM - Reply

    I’ve only driven in and near Marseilles, and with a French friend in the car guiding me. Once I got used to driving on the wrong side of the road, it wasn’t too bad! I certainly didn’t notice any excruciatingly bad or dangerous driving. They probably had to watch out for me driving as if I was still in Australia!

  2. Ray Johnstone Oct 23, 2017 at 4:37 PM - Reply

    Thanks for an interesting article.
    However, I’m not sure I agree with the points you make on roads versus trains in France.

    Twenty years ago, we bought a campervan and spent seven months touring around and looking for a house. (This was long before you needed a bigger mortgage for that kind of vehicle than you needed for the property). During this time, perhaps because I’d spent all my life driving on the “wrong side” of the road, I inadvertently did some seriously outrageous things in traffic. But when French motorists were really, really angry, all they did was flash their lights at us.

    A recent BBC poll put South African, British and Greek drivers as the worst road rage offenders.

    But, I do give it to you—adapting to French road rules does have its challenges. What does that white car on a blue rectangle mean—or the yellow square standing on a point? Why are zebra crossings routinely ignored by motorists? Not many drivers can answer these questions—and many others about driving in France.

    Now to trains. Try this: take the Paris underground from Montparnasse to Charles de Gaulle. As an extra challenge take a suitcase and a backpack. The dearth of escalators and lifts means lots (and lots and lots) of stairs. And in some of the corridors you could be excused for thinking you’ve taken a wrong turn out of the Metro system into the Paris catacombs.

    But finally, reading between the lines in your article, I think we both agree that all these little daily frustrations—like cultural differences inherent in different driving styles, poor retail service, waiting in LaPoste while customers and staff discuss the latest births, deaths and marriages—are a small price to pay for living in Paradise.

    • Keith Van Sickle Oct 23, 2017 at 7:13 PM - Reply

      Agreed that the frustrations of living in France are small beer compared to the many pleasures. And I agree that those some road signs are mysterious. Just what is a “Passage Canadien” anyway? Should we be on the lookout for a hockey player or a Mountie?

  3. Alex lowe Mar 15, 2019 at 6:24 AM - Reply

    I ha e driven in France for the last 18 years approximatrly 50k kilometers a year without accident! No thanks to the locals! They are terrible drivers and rude with it! They drive too fast, without thinking about tbe consequences
    They do not understand roundabouts or indicators , they are usrless in any adverse conditions and are usually yo be found in a ditch!
    Worst of all I live in a village witha 50 limit but they drive ad fadt as possible necause yhey are always late for work.
    I am a qualified driving instrjctor from Uk

  4. Trevor Overton Apr 4, 2019 at 4:33 PM - Reply

    I have lived in France (Normandie) for 6 yrs now and can honestly say I have never seen such bad driving in my life! For me, the biggest worry is roundabouts, the French just don’t seem to understand the function of them, or maybe they do but just don’t care! Why they all seem to indicate to go left when they’re going straight on beats me. Another good one is, when there are two approach lanes they always stay in the right hand lane even when going all the way round! I have developed the need now to always check my right side when exiting a roundabout! Another favourite one is the French will not use their headlights in daytime, even when visibilty is down to 50m!!
    I could go on and on!

    • Ryan Topping Feb 15, 2021 at 4:19 AM - Reply

      Trevor its Ryan mara is this you ??

  5. ANDREW BURNE Oct 16, 2019 at 8:24 PM - Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly with most comments. Having driven annually in France since before the advent of autoroutes when all overtaking was about playing chicken, I assure you it is all so much better now and really be thankful for it. Death rates then we’re horrific.
    In fact I feel safer driving autoroutes today than the M1 in UK which I also do regularly!
    As to indicators, it might be safer to ignore them and just use intuition. I am sure a lot of French actually snap the stalks off when they get a new car anyway? Might be for the best.

  6. David Lowe Feb 24, 2022 at 7:36 PM - Reply

    I,ve been driving in France fir twenty years , not pottering but 30k a year commuting!
    French drivers are terrible to be honest!
    I have lost count of how many cars I have seen in ditches , they blame the roads snd everything except themselves and their lack of common sense!
    Tailgating , speeding , wandering all over the road and absolute ignorance of how to traverse roundabouts and indicate!
    The roads here are fantastic and not overcrowded but the accident figures are diabolical, amongst the worst in the western world!

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