Driving in europe… (on the wrong side)
Because of swinging swords, when travelling by car in continental Europe you will find yourself forced to drive on the right hand side of the road. Hardly breaking news, but last weekend we jumped in the car and set off for Le Pailly, a town not too far from the Swiss border, deep in rural eastern France.
I couldn’t find a very basic guide to driving in France, so here’s the answers to the questions I had…
- The EuroTunnel
- Toll Roads
- Service Stations
- Getting Petrol or Diesel
- Roundabouts or Islands
- Zebra Crossings
- Equipment to Carry
- Headlight Modifications
The EuroTunnel – Le Shuttle
Taking your car on the EuroTunnel is really the start of your trip. And its quite exciting – and incredibly simple, once you’ve done it once!
Exit the M20 at junction 11a motorway, and follow the car symbols to the first gate section. At the gate (barrier) you will check in – at check in you will be asked for the surname under which you booked and your booking reference (the email you received has this in the subject title) the person or the check in machine will then print your ticket, which is designed with a hook to attach to your rear view mirror.
Once checked in you will be told to drive forward through the now raised barrier to passport control. There are three stages here, first a vehicle check, then UK border control, finally French border control. At the first checkpoint your car will be swabbed with an electronic device to check for explosives and narcotics. Once cleared, the two passport controls will ask you and your passengers for your documents and any relevant border control questions.
The final stage, driving onto the train. At each stage you will be directed where to go, but don’t be afraid to ask questions or to confirm instructions, the staff at the gate are helpful, but in my opinion expected people to ‘just know’ where and what to do next.
When directed onto the train, drive slowly and steadily and straight!! We were in a wide car but still had 15 to 20 cm next to a low kerb, with a narrow path on both sides. On the train continue until you are instructed to stop, a member of staff will help you pull up very closely to the car in front. Put on the handbrake, put the car in park or first gear, open your windows halfway and switch off your engine.
You’re now on the train and the journey will begin! Expect to wait about 15 minutes for the train to fill up, a safety announcement will come over the public address system telling you what to do in an emergency – then the train will start moving.
Feel free to get out the car, there are toilets to explore (that’s it) but in less than the advertised 35 minutes you will pull into Calais and be directed to drive off the train.
Fun fact – your phone works under the sea!!!
Out on the highway! You’ve made it to French soil, and your journey begins. I wasn’t expecting any huge differences to UK motorways – and I wasn’t disappointed. The motorway setup in Calais is arranged in such a way that you’re exited from the train and can’t make any mistakes. The system is one-way, and well sign posted.
Your left hand wing mirror is now your best friend, I adjusted mine so that it was slightly ‘out’ compared to driving in the UK, I also ‘nudged’ the rear view mirror across slightly – no major changes were needed but each car is obviously unique.
I realised that driving on French motorways, your mirrors, signalling, all your actions are actually identical to driving in the UK. For example when driving in the ‘fast lane’ on a UK motorway you use your left wing mirror to check it’s clear to move across, in Europe you do exactly the same, but for over taking rather than slowing down. Remember to check and double check over your shoulder for your blind spots.
Once you’ve established yourself on the motorway there are a few things to consider. The speed limit as of April 2019 is 130 km/h in good weather or 110 km/h in rain – this is faster than the UK. 130 km/h is just a hair over 80 mph (80.78 mph), 110 km/h is just under 70 mph (68.4 mph).
Now, the one big difference – this may be a shock. The general etiquette of French driving, is to always stay in lane 1 unless over taking. I know this is also a rule for UK motorways, but in France all traffic I encountered stuck to this rule. Like UK motorways lorries are restricted to a lower speed limit, so you will find yourself moving from lane 1 to lane 2 and back again quiet frequently.
Try not to drive much below the speed limit. When you start out it’s normal to want to ease yourself into the new road position and driving style, however try not to drive below the speed limit, especially when in traffic and or when over taking. The majority of traffic will drive at or slightly above the speed limit, much like the UK – but not excessively. If you hold up the free flow of traffic, expect to be flashed! Flashing is a get out of the way signal.
French Toll Roads
French motorways “l’autoroute” are not free, they are funded by tolls and therefore you have to pay to use them. Once you have established your route – and joined the motorway you will pass through tolls.
The toll gates operate much like UK parking barriers, when you first enter, a machine offers you a ticket (to your left hand side, so, if you don’t have a passenger you will have to get out the car) take the ticket, the barrier will rise and you can join the motorway. When you reach your exit junction there will be another set of gates, here you will insert your ticket, and then debit/credit card. The barrier will rise again and you continue.
Don’t be tempted to accelerate out of tolls like whacky races as there are speed cameras here…
Our journey (April 2019) of about 600 miles cost €82 euros.
Service Stations – Aire de Repos (rest area)
Service stations can be found along your route, but they vary significantly in facilities available. They all have parking, a bench/picnic area and toilets – but not all have a petrol station or food/shops. The signs on the side of the motorway have good symbols indicating the facilities available, and how far away they are.
At the smaller services the petrol pumps are self service, they operate in a similar fashion to UK supermarket pumps, follow the on screen directions, select the fuel type you want, insert card, enter PIN etc.
However, at one very rural stop I discovered when English language was selected on the machine, it actually ‘crashed’ the computer, so we had to use French. Which whilst it was reasonably easy to guess the steps, was not absolutely obvious. To prevent these situations I recommend you fill up at the larger stops that are manned (or learn french) (or bring a native).
Top Tip: Look for the words Aire de Repos (directish translation – rest area) and the symbols.
Getting Fuel in France – Petrol or Diesel
Petrol pumps in France really are the same as the UK with the exception that the majority are pay at pump rather than in the shop/kiosk. Fuel is a little cheaper than the UK – at service stations it is more expensive, although not extortionately so, 10-15 cents.
Gazole is diesel, sans plomb is unleaded petrol, diesel is diesel.
Pumps will have diesel and petrol, along with “special” or “super” versions.
Roundabouts in France
Before travelling to France I was worried about the rules and regulations surrounding how to approach roundabouts. What I discovered however is that they are the same as UK, but obviously you give way to the left and drive around anti-clockwise.
Take your time if you’re nervous, but progress steadily and you’ll discover they are not a problem. Use your indicators to signal your direction of travel on and off the roundabout, in the same fashion as the UK.
The roundabouts I encountered were much less frequent than I anticipated, and very clearly sign posted as well as marked on the road with painted lines and raised kerbs.
French law is quiet clear here, however reality is different. The reality may look like you don’t need to stop at zebra crossings for pedestrians, as nearly no one does. But the law says you must (just think UK law).
As a side note – respect zebra crossings when driving, be careful when walking!
Equipment to Carry
- Warning triangle
- Hi-viz vest
- Alcohol breath testers
- First aid kit
- Spare lightbulb kit
- A good backpack
Many modern cars have these bits and pieces as standard, so before you buy check what you need. As a matter of course, it’s a good idea to travel with water and blankets in addition to the “required” items, the distances between towns can be quite significant. If you break down in cold or hot weather having a way to stay warm and hydrated is important. A Black Backpack meanwhile is just the easiest and best way to travel light!
Headlights in France
Your right hand drive car has headlights that shine towards the left pavement in the UK so as not to dazzle oncoming traffic on your right. When you drive on the wrong side of the road in France (the right) if left unmodified your headlights will shine directly at oncoming traffic.
Therefore it’s required for you modify your lights, some cars have this as a setting you can alter, either as a setting from the dashboard, or a mechanical switch under the hood. Most cars however will require a small adhesive sticker to be applied to a specific location on the glass of the headlights.
We used EuroLites as they were cheap and had good instructions.
Getting around France is actually really simple. The road signs are very similar to English signs, junctions from motorways are very clearly sign posted and well in advance. I used google maps for the trip and it was very good.
Top Tip: If using your phone, prior to your journey plan your route, and download the maps so they’re available offline. When I left the tunnel I discovered my phone had no network coverage, had I not downloaded the maps we would have been in a pickle.
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