True to their reputation, French people have a hard time making things simple and easy. It is the case for the French language, it is also accurate for traffic regulations. While riding in France is not extremely different from riding in North America or Australia, here are a few basic things you need to know about our road network and its particularities.
France has the densest highway network in Europe. The roads making it up can be divided into four different types:
- Autoroutes are multilane divided highways, symbolized by the color blue and the letter A (for example, A10). They’re not free (toll booths) but allow you to cover a lot of ground in a limited amount of time. They are dotted with rest areas and (expensive) gas stations.
- Routes Nationales are national roads, symbolized by the color red and the letter N (for example, N12). Routes Nationales can be either two-lane or four-lane roads. They usually have right of way at junctions and circumvent the small cities, making them a solid alternative to autoroutes for riders in a hurry.
- Routes Départementales (color yellow and letter D) are the local highways and roads. This is where the real fun begins! They offer the most winding and picturesque sections and allow for deep immersion in the country.
- Routes Communales (color white and letter C) are usually paved but not always. These small roads or trails are maintained at a local level and have the knack for taking you back in time. They are always the beginning of an exciting adventure!
If you come from the US, switching from mph to km/h might not seem easy at first, but after a couple of days of riding, it will feel natural!
- In cities and built-up areas, unless specified otherwise, a limit of 50 km/h (31 mph) applies. Built-up areas are signaled by a white sign with a red border, with the city name written on it. When entering a built-up area, the 50 km/h speed limit applies by default until you come across the identical sign, in black and white, with a bar through it.
- In certain urban areas, usually in the vicinity of schools or pedestrian streets, speed is limited to 30 km/h (19 mph). These areas will always be marked with speed signs, and will often be equipped with speed bumps.
- Outside of the cities, towns and villages, the new default speed limit is 80 km/h (50 mph). Why new? Because until July 2018, it was 90 km/h (56 mph), but this was amended in an attempt to reduce the number of road deaths. In early 2020, when the law did not seem to have the effect they had expected, the government, facing a strong discontent from the population, was forced to reconsider. But, instead of merely canceling the 80 km/h amendment, which would have been way too easy for the French people, local authorities were given the power to decide which roads should be set back to 90 km/h and which ones should stay at 80 km/h. The result? If not for the speed signs, it is now impossible to know whether you are subject to an 80 km/h or a 90 km/h speed limit! Why make it simple?
- Routes Nationales can either be two-lane roads (with a speed limit of 80 km/h or 90 km/h, depending on the alignment of the stars) or four-lane divided highways. In that case, the speed limit is always set at 110 km/h (68 mph).
- Finally, on the autoroutes, a speed limit of 130 km/h (80 mph) applies. Note that the speed limit is reduced to 110 km/h (68 mph) in rainy conditions.
Priority given to the right
Now here’s another funny rule that dates from the time of horses and carts. The priorité à droite rule (priority to the right) is a French exclusivity that we have to deal with, no matter how archaic and outdated it is.
The rule is quite simple: if the priorité à droite applies, any vehicle entering an intersection (even T-junctions) from a road (even the smallest village backstreet) on your right has the right of way.
Priorités à droite can be found in small villages as well as in big cities (downtown Paris is full of them), but also on rural roads where you can be riding peacefully at 90 km/h, and suddenly have to stop in the middle of the road because a car is approaching the intersection on your right.
By default, the priorité à droite rule is in effect. If you approach an intersection that has neither road signs nor road markings, always assume it is a priorité à droite. However, the rule can be overturned temporarily, either for a single intersection (see the sign: you have right of way on the next intersection) or for an entire section of the road (see the sign: you have right of way until further notice).
No turn on red
In France, the rule regarding traffic lights is pretty straightforward: if it’s red, you can’t go, period. No matter where you are, in the cities or out there in the countryside, you cannot turn right on red lights.
There’s only one exception to this rule: on some intersections, you will have a flashing orange arrow under the red light, that indicates that you can turn right if the coast is clear and no one is coming from the left.
If you don’t pay attention, you might miss it: the orange arrow usually starts blinking around 10 to 15 seconds after the traffic light turned red. But don’t worry, if it’s the case, a fellow road user will inevitably wake you up with a gentle but resounding horn blast!
Cocorico! Here’s another French pride: roundabouts!
France counts between 40,000 and 50,000 roundabouts in its territory, which represents half of the roundabouts in the world. That’s right: one roundabout out of two is French, and that means something as to how many of them you’ll encounter during your 2-week trip in the country. But hey, they’re a great way to work on your leaning angle…!
For the record, the very first roundabout was imagined by a city planner named Eugène Hénard in 1906 for the Place de l’Étoile in Paris, with the Arc de Triomphe sitting in its center.
Fun fact: the roundabout of the Arc de Triomphe is the only one in France that retained the original priorité à droite rule, meaning that vehicles entering the roundabout have the right of way. This exception is what gives the Arc de Triomphe intersection such an awful reputation amongst road users, as fender-benders are frequent. On every other roundabout in France, and possibly the world, the vehicles already on the roundabout have right of way over the vehicles entering the roundabout. Go figure…