Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Driving habits in France

They tell me that more people than ever will be coming to France this summer so I thought a quick reminder of driving habits in France would be useful. Happily lots of drivers fall into one sterotype or another so it’s quite easy to know what to look out for…
1. Cars that drive 10 centimetres behind you, swaying from side to side on dangerous corners looking for any chance to overtake
These are being driven by young French lads who have passed their test in the last three months and are now in a desperate hurry to get somewhere. It’s not clear why they think it is worth risking their lives to get there 30 seconds earlier, but you have two choices:  pull over and let them pass as soon as possible, or drive slower and slower until you are both doing about 10 miles an hour.
The second approach will probably mean they drive even closer and more dangerously and start flashing but will perhaps bring you a small amount of satisfaction.
Typical vehicle: small and fast, and often brand new. I don’t know how young drivers afford such flashy cars but they will usually be driving a better car than your own.
2. Cars that drive very slowly 10 centimetres in front of you, swaying from side to side and continually swerving between the middle of the road and the ditch
These are being driven by elderly French who have realised that it isn’t worth rushing to get anywhere.
Your choices are: to veer dangerously in and out in an effort to overtake on a dangerous corner, or to drive even closer and start flashing…
Typical vehicle: very small and very old (like the driver), and belching large amounts of exhaust fumes. Perhaps old folk are exempt from exhaust emission tests?

3. Large cars that block the entire road and are driven at exactly the speed limit
These are usually being driven by the Dutch, who are safe drivers (when they are not forcing cyclists off the road with their oversized vehicles) but do like to drive cars three times as large as the European average, which can make overtaking tricky.
The more ambitious among them trade in their big cars for a motorhome – not, I think,  because they want to tour around and see different places, but simply because a motorhome is bigger than even a big car.
Typical car: a special brand unknown elsewhere outside Holland and built for size rather than style. Might well also have a large luggage carrier box on top and a couple of bikes on the back.

4. Cars that come zooming towards you on the wrong side of the road
These are either the young French drivers referred to above, overtaking on a dangerous bend, or other holidaymakers.
UK drivers are used to driving on the left and occasionally forget they are driving in France and set off on the wrong side of the road. Happily this is usually on quiet roads (it’s hard to forget on a busy road when there are lots of other cars around) so the danger isn’t so great, but still something to watch out for on back roads.
5. The midday rush hour
In the countryside many workers rush to a restaurant or home for lunch between 12.00 and 2.00. Hence the roads are far more hazardous around those two times. They usually drive at top speed, with the added ‘bonus’ that they don’t care if their vehicle gets dented so same advice as (1) above – pull over and let them pass, don’t try and get between a Frenchman and his lunch break.
Typical vehicle: large white van
6. Middle of the night – expat hour
Expats typically drive quite sedately, but they do have one challenge – how to drink all night at a friends house and then get home without being pulled-over and breathalysed. The first option is not to drink, a choice that gets rejected as soon as the aperitifs are produced.
The second is to find a route home that avoids all possibility of detection. France is a big country criss-crossed by remote country lanes, and it is almost always possible, given enough planning, to get from A to B without passing through any towns or villages.
Of course, what is usually a five minute journey might well become a 50 mile journey taking an hour or two, but what does it matter – most expats don’t need to get up for work in the morning.
You probably won’t meet these drivers, but if you are staying somewhere in a remote countryside location where you see no cars all day, but then there is a stream of traffic in the lane outside at 2am every night, you will know what has caused it. Venture out at your peril.
Note: there is a second category of expat driver, seen more rarely, that refuse to leave home without a large trailer full of building materials attached to the back of the car and then drive at high speed. Approach with extreme caution.
And don’t forget – always carry a yellow safety jacket with you in your car. Or Karl Lagerfeld to wear one for you.
PS My own driving? A recent survey found that something like 85% of male drivers thought they were among the best drivers on the road. I am proud to fall in this category.

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