Driving in France is like learning a new language. There's a certain logic to it, and it works for the population. However, until you know what you're doing, you don't know what you're doing.
Driving in France is also like going to the moon. There are countless intricacies to pay attention to so that the mission can be successful. It takes skillful driving acumen and confidence, of which I'm gaining every time I take the car out.
Last year I drove in the French countryside and it was delightfully beautiful. The green mountains and foothills of central and southwest France were breathtaking. However, the cities were always a trial because I didn't understand the road signs and markings. This year, as a full-time resident in LePuy, it is essential for me to learn the rules of the road.
Eluiza is teaching me how to navigate the road--in French. This can sometimes be a problem because of little things like understanding which way to turn. For example, droit (pronounced drw) means straight ahead while droite (pronounced drwhat with emphasized T) means turn right. These two important words are not always easy for me to distinguish, especially in the heat of the moment like an approaching intersection of three possible options or a round-about with cars behind me breathing down my neck. After a week of struggling with these pronunciations, we resolved this mix-up with her saying "straight"for straight, droite for right and gauche (pronounced GOsh) for left.
It is also important to understand that certain intersections have roadways with a "priority for passage," as illustrated with these signs. Certain blind corners give drivers a chance to get out onto the road. I haven't mastered this sign yet. It would help me tremendously to begin by first seeing the signs.
Another priority space is the checkered road, which was hard for me to find at first. It means that when you approach an intersection and cars are lined up at a red light (feu rouge), you need to leave space in the white checkered area so that cars trying to poke into traffic have the right of way to get out of their side road.
Then there are the round-abouts, which the French seem to love. They are everywhere. The most famous one is around the Arc of Triumph in Paris (see video below).
Fortunately, the round-abouts in LePuy are not this bad, but they are scary devils until you know how to do them--and trust that the other drivers around you do, too.
Getting into the round-about means that you must yield to drivers who are already in it. When the coast is clear, you step on it to get yourself into the circle. Then drive around it until you need to get off on your road. Don't forget your turn signal (clignotant) so the other cars know you are exiting the round-about.
The trick to the round-about is to realize that once you are in it, you have the right of way to turn off of it. The cars outside the round-about must yield to you.
French roads are hundreds of years old and they were built before there were cars. Many city streets are narrow and winding. Turns are abrupt and not always square. Some, in fact, are very rounded and present a blind corner. One way streets don't help and may hinder getting back (or remembering) to the intended direction. A good memory helps, but if you are in an area for the first time, pray to St. Christopher, the saint of travel, to get you through it all. (He was retired in the 60s, but he has certainly been watching over me in France.)
And while I'm on the subject of prayer, driving in France has allowed me the opportunity to pray more: before, during and after a ride. It has gotten me through several close calls. For example, one roadway was so narrow, I thought it was a one-way. Nope, it was a two-way and I almost got nailed.
Another time when we were parked near the bank/post office, I asked Eluiza if once we started again if we should turn left or right. She said we'd be going left. I took her at her word and once the car started, I went straight out of the parking lot and over the slight curb. "No, no, no!" she said excitedly, "we need to back out of the parking lot and go around." However, I was already halfway into the road, so she used her usual response: "vas-y, vas-y, vas-y" which means keep going. Fortunately, there were no police around to give me a ticket or cars to nail me (I did carefully check on-coming traffic.)
There's another rule about parking that rankles me a bit: you're not supposed to drive forward if the space in front of you is empty. That's probably because someone from the other side might try to swoop into the space. Instead, back out of your space.
The first time I went forward through an empty space Eluiza nearly had a heart attack! Actually, she is very calm and collected, and she has been a fantastic driver's education teacher. One day, I asked her if she was comfortable with my driving. "Oh yes," she said--as she sat on the edge of her seat and dug her fingernails deep into the glove compartment.
Nevertheless, after two weeks of driving, I'm feeling more comfortable at the wheel and Eluiza has complimented me on my confidence. She said I was "doué," which means gifted. In many cases I was just plain "chanceux" (lucky).
Of course, there are pedestrian crossings, which cars are obliged to stop for when pedestrians (piétons) are crossing. These are always marked at a traffic light, but sometimes they are just in the middle of a long street. Drivers are obliged to stop, however, sometimes they don't. So if you are a pedestrian, beware! And if you are a driver, for God's sake, don't kill someone.
Another important right-of-way is the bicycle marker. These can be seen on streets and on walkways. Drivers must yield to cyclists, especially when making a right turn. You don't want to cut off a cyclist because he can get hurt. To get back at you he will smash his hand on the side of your car and you'll hear a big thump. The first time you don't know what it is. After that you realize the potential consequences. Cyclists gave me a thump twice in Lyon last year, which is pretty good because Lyon has to be the worst city in the world to drive, well, maybe Paris, too, if you are brave enough to give that a try.
Sidewalks are more dangerous to you if you are a pedestrians because you can get hurt. Note that cyclists also tend to go fast and you have to watch for them very carefully.
Traffic lights are not always overhead, they are more often on the side of the road, so it's important to faites attention (be alert) to them.
Speed limits are indicated with red and white circles, which I find more colorful and friendly than American speed limit signs. Going through the city is usually 50 km (31 mph). A little further out is 70 km (44 mph), and in the countryside you can go 90-100 km (56-62 mph). Although I have a lead foot in the USA, I tend to go under the speed limit in France because the roads are so narrow, and I'm still not sure of how the car will respond. American roads tend to have wide spaces, even in the city, so it takes a different perspective to drive in France.
"Rappel" means "remember," which is diplomatic language for "don't you dare go over the speed limit, you link-head." If you do, you could get a ticket. On some roads the French police have installed speed radar that records your license plate and sends you a ticket, so taking these speed limits seriously is a "bon idée" (good idea).
Paying attention to speed limits is important because they are not always marked. You assume whatever speed to take based on the last sign you've seen. Sooo, maybe that's the reason they tell you to "rappel."
The French also use speed bumps (sleeping police) to slow down traffic. You only have to roll over one of these the first time to remember to look for them and slow down the next time: your car goes flying, which is what happened to me. Speed bump are indicated with a sign (see right), which tends to be more obscure than the arrows (below) that let you know you are about to go over a bump. "Faites attention
Construction, like in America, is ever-present and veering around it along with cars and bicyclists racing down the road, car doors opening in front of you and pedestrians trying to cross is a challenge. While there aren't signs posted indicating that you will serve jail time and pay a $10,000 fine for hitting a road worker, you really don't want to hit a worker just out of your humanity. Once again, the narrow roads make maneuvering a challenge. This photo illustrates what it seems like to me to drive French city roads.
And, oh, I almost forgot, watch out for motorcyclists who like to ride on the lane lines in between the cars. They show no fear and seem quite adept at driving. They are, nonetheless, one more hazard on the road.
This sign amuses me. It indicates when you have just left a city. When you enter the city, the red marker is not there.
Cities around LePuy are stacked up next to each other without much space in between them. So, I guess, this helps drivers know where they are. The only other place I've experienced this chain of cities phenomenon is in the Boston area.
I haven't seen this sign yet, but I like it. It says: "crossing without barriers or half-barriers." Should be interesting to find out what that means.
Learning to drive French roads is like learning a new language. I contend that once I master French driving, I will master an understanding of the French mentality. "Ho-ho-ho," said Sister Simone in her best British English. "The majority of French people do not drive." Zut alors!! (which means holy s!@#$%^&*).
Here is a website that provides a test of French street signs.
Here is a blog called "Americans in France" that teaches visitors about French roads and their signage--and a lot of other things.