Driving in France: what you need and the laws of the road

Driving in France: what you need and the laws of the road

With the summer holidays just around the corner, the thoughts millions of Britons are turning to swimming pools, sun loungers, a cheeky tarte aux pommes and a chilled glass of rosé. But before the holiday comes the preparation. And with so many choosing to drive rather than fly, it pays to brush up on France’s rules of the road.

There are certain items of equipment drivers must have in their car when driving through France, assuming they don’t wish to attract the attentions of the gendarmes.

And nobody wants to spend the first days of their holiday in France conked out on the hard shoulder, or in a garage struggling to communicate with school-day French. Here’s how to stay safe when driving through France, the most popular holiday destination with British drivers.

Are you insured to drive in France?

Whether driving through France or other parts of Europe, it’s likely that your car insurer will only provide the legally required third party cover. This means the insurer will only pay out for damage to a third party, their vehicle or property. Contact your insurer to check; you may have to pay a modest premium to upgrade.

Breakdown cover: compare quotes

Unless you are fluent in the local dialect and are confident your car won’t let you down during a three-hour traffic jam in the height of summer, it is strongly advisable to take out breakdown cover. This isn’t normally included with your regular car insurance.

Shop around for quotes and remember that price isn’t everything. Carefully compare the level of cover and terms and conditions. That way, if it comes to it, your garage bills will be covered or the car can be recovered to the UK.

Driving in France: checklist of obligatory items

Driving in France: what you need and the laws of the road

Whether visiting for a day trip, long weekend or two-week holiday with the family, British drivers are required to carry the following safety equipment in their car. Much of this can be bought at affordable prices online, before you travel, or at the ferry or Eurotunnel terminals.

Headlamp converters have to be fitted to British cars that don’t have automatically adjustable light patterns. You will need a GB sticker if your registration plates don’t have one. You need to carry a high visibility vest and should be able to put it on before leaving the vehicle. A reflective warning triangle and spare bulb kit are also required. And if you wear glasses when driving, you need to keep a spare pair in the car. (Don’t ask us why…) Failing to have each of these incurs a fine, ranging from £70 (€80) to £118 (€135).

Haven’t I read something about breathalysers?

You have seen something in the news about breathalysers in France. In 2012, the government announced that all drivers must carry two portable breathalysers. However, there was a national shortage, followed by a national outcry. There is now no fine or penalty for failing to carry one.

French cities now require an emissions sticker

Cars driving into many major French cities, including Paris, Lyon and Grenoble, must display a sticker, or vignette, relating to their engine’s exhaust emissions. The Crit’Air scheme allows the authorities to restrict the most polluting vehicles from inner city areas, as and when air pollution levels become dangerously high. It costs £3.65 (€4.18) and can be ordered online. Failing to have one will land drivers with a fine of £118 (€135).

Remember! The speed limits are different

Whether you’re driving in France, Spain, Italy, Germany or Belgium, the speed limits are different. For example, in France, the speed limit on the motorway is 81mph (130kmh). This lowers to 69mph (110kmh) when it’s raining. Open roads are 56mph (90kmh) and towns are 31mph (50kmh). Read a complete guide to speed limits abroad here. Also, it’s important to know that speed camera detectors or sat nav units that display the locations of speed cameras are not permitted. In the case of the latter, there should be an option to switch off such alerts.

When did you last have your car’s air-conditioning system serviced?

Did you know that a car’s air-conditioning system needs servicing every two to three years? If you didn’t, you’re not alone: few drivers appreciate it and surprisingly few garages offer to perform this at the same time as routine, scheduled servicing. Find more about it in our guide to an air-conditioning service.


James Mills

James is a motoring journalist and former magazine editor at BBC Top Gear and Auto Express. He has scooped, reported on and reviewed most new cars of the past 20 years, and currently contributes to the Driving section of The Sunday Times.

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