In retrospect it probably was an act of lunacy. After only seven days in Paris and a two-day train excursion to Normandy, I bravely proclaimed, “Hey, next time let’s rent a car and drive around Normandy!” I knew intuitively that if I ever had to drive on the left, as in Britain, I would be Dead Man Driving, so once I confirmed the French drive on the correct side of the road I figured I had it knocked. I was good to go!
The next year my battle cry was, “I ain’t scared. I got gas!” I was wise enough to know I didn’t want to drive anywhere within the limits of Paris, and so we took a metro to the end of the line, and from there rented a car to head out into the wilds of Normandy, armed with approximately zero knowledge of roads, driving etiquette, and oh yes, The Law. And over the last twenty years and tens of thousands of kilometers, I have learned a lot, you betcha.
The first thing you learn is that almost all roads in France are small. Like, narrow. And on both sides of those roads, almost without exception, is a ditch lying inches off the edge of the road surface. And although most European cars are smaller than the standard American car, trucks are not. In fact, trucks on European roads are enormous, and they often move in what is called a “convoi exceptionnel” which means a string of really, really big, slow-moving trucks. On narrow roads.
There are only a few major highways, the A-route toll roads, all of which tend to funnel traffic towards Paris. Most folks avoid these, and most truck drivers too. They stick to the non-toll roads, which tend to be those narrow roads. The major non-toll road between Paris and Tours goes through our area here from Le Lude, La Fleche, into le Mans. It is mostly two lanes, one in each direction, except for a small section every so often where it expands to three lanes with a passing lane in the middle.
Then there are roundabouts, or if you come from New Jersey, traffic circles. Back in the States roundabouts appear to be a dying breed, something of an oddity. In France, they are ubiquitous, a deeply embedded part of life on the roads. The French don’t love roundabouts–they cannot live without them. I don’t care where you are going, you cannot get there from here without encountering roundabouts. Lots of them.
This isn’t to say they’re a bad thing, especially when armed with a GPS or WAZE, as you will usually know well in advance which exit on the circle you want to take, and you can motor right along without slowing down for a traffic light. French driving etiquette calls for you to signal left or right as you enter to let the people around you know if you’re getting off at the first or a later exit. You keep flashing left until you approach the exit you plan to take, then flash right so they know you’re getting off. It’s quite civilized, really, and mostly avoids conflict.
What is genuinely irritating is the manipulation of speed limits. When you leave town, any town of any size, France goes rural. You find yourself on a 2-lane (well, 1 ½-lane) country road, slip your car into cruise control speed of say, 50 miles an hour, and you have barely settled in to enjoy the ride when you see a sign that drops the limit to 30km, because you are entering a small village. You slow down to 30, crawl through a hamlet of four homes, then see a sign that raises the limit to 50km, a few yards later, to 60km, until a couple of kilometers down the road you encounter another hamlet and it all happens again. You find yourself perpetually going up, then down, then up, then down.
You had better slow down pronto when you see those signs, too, because the French have embraced the speed camera with a vengeance. You don’t see a lot of cops on the roads in France, but oh, those cameras.
They have this have this neat trick where coming out of a village where the speed limit is, say, 30km, and up ahead you see a sign that says 60km. So you speed up. But you get above 30 before you actually get to the sign, and BINGO! Off to the left you see a flash. You have been had! You will be receiving a 100-euro ticket in the mail.
But I suppose that’s better than the alternative. If a gendarme flags you over for a speeding ticket, you have to pay him on the spot. If not, you can’t continue your trip!
There’s good news, though. The French have a road sign that is a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card for confused and lost motorists almost everywhere, but especially in the middle of a strange city. It’s a sign that says, “toutes directions,” which means all directions. That seems a little odd, but in fact it means that if you follow these signs you will eventually wind up at…you guessed it… a roundabout, which will be festooned with other direction signs pointing the way to wherever you want to go. Trust me, it is a life saver. When in doubt, look for “toutes directions.”
There are other little gems you pick up along the way that would have been good to know from the beginning. For instance, it is required that you have a yellow safety vest, a gilet jaune, in the car at all times. If you don’t, you’re in for a ticket. The cops will check for this.
I also learned that French police routinely hide and pull cars over for alcohol testing. They check out the numbers on license tags, and if they see a car at night with an out-of-area tag, especially one from Paris, they’ll assume you might be a tourist on the way home from dinner (read that “wine”) and pull you over for a breath test. I don’t think the penalty is summary execution, but I know it’s severe. I told one Brit I know that so far I had never been pulled over and he just brushed that off and said “Oh, you will.”
I’ve also learned that unlike in the US, a flashing of lights from behind does not mean “move over you asshole.” It is actually a courtesy to let you know they’re going to pass, and it is not intended to carry a negative or aggressive implication, because the French do, indeed love to pass on those narrow roads. Me, not so much.
So, I learned a lot over the years. I got pretty comfortable driving those French roads, managing my way through confusing toll booth exchanges on the A routes, avoiding speed cameras (well, mostly), navigating those roundabouts. Yep, I was doing real good. And then one day, after driving thousands of miles all over the country, after literally years of driving in France, I discovered that I had been avoiding death at every turn and had not a clue.
You see, there is a rule in France that is so crazed, so lunatic, so incredibly dangerous, it is a pure miracle that neither Karen nor I, nor in fact any number of French people I have never met, have not all been killed by my ignorance.
It is called “priorité à droite” and it means the car on the right has priority. Now, follow me if you can.
If you are driving down a road…and it matters not what speed you are going, assuming that speed is at or below the legal limit…if there is a car entering that road from a side road, and there is not a line painted across that side road where it meets the main road, indicating that is where the car entering traffic must stop, then it not only doesn’t have to stop, it has the right of way and you must stop to let it in.
Consider that if you please. Tooling along at say 50 miles an hour, you come across a car entering from a side road, and he doesn’t have to stop. He has the right of way. Yes, there is much screeching of tires and slamming of brakes by the driver on the main road. Unless, of course, he is aware of priorité à droite, and is actively looking for white lines on the entrance to side roads.
Which, for nearly 20 years, I was not.
I recently had this insanity brought to my attention for the first time. I thought it was a joke, and had to have it explained to me multiple times to make sure I heard it right. And while it is some consolation to know that the French government is kinda trying to phase it out, in the provinces it is still clung to tenaciously, mostly by elderly gentlemen in tiny cars towing tiny trailers, or by large farm vehicles. They exercise this unalienable right of way with absolute certainty that you will see them and comply.
I became aware of priorité à droite because I was being polite. One day I was on the side road, attempting to pull out into traffic, and no, I did not see that there wasn’t a white line where my side road met the main road. Who knew?
So, I sat there, and waited for an opening, when someone coming from my left slowed to a halt and looked at me. Polite me, I waved him on. After all he was on the main road. He had the right of way. I’m a good guy.
After several exchanges of waves, mine cheerful and passive, his increasingly, uh, irritated, the final one I got from him, accompanied by what appeared to be a lot of French being directed my way convinced me I should probably go ahead and make my turn onto the main road. I had no idea what had just happened.
When I asked Anthony about what the hell that was all about, he just said, “Oh. That’s Priority to the Right. I thought you knew. Crazy, huh?”