Friday, July 15, 2005

Driving in France

Another one from the road:

France is a beautiful country, and there is much more to be seen beyond Paris. Driving in France is also an experience in itself, although not one for the faint of heart. For one thing, essentially all the French drivers are lunatics behind the wheel. This is widely acknowledged by the French themselves, although none of them see their own driving as bad; it's everyone else that causes the problem. Truth be told, high speed tailgating and thread-the-needle lane changes are practically the national sport. Merging as a lane closes is often marked by half a dozen cars deciding they must merge in front of you at 85 mph after their lane ends.

French cars tend to be quite small by American standards. Certainly the price of gasoline is part of the reason for this. It is currently around $6/gal, and it has been double or triple the US price since I began coming here in 1982. Pumping $60 or $70 worth of gas into a small car is bad enough, but imagine filling the tank of a Hummer or even a big SUV.

Another reason for choosing a small car in France is that the entire transportation system is geared towards small cars. One may find oneself on what appears to be a comfortable single lane road, but that is strictly an illusion. In fact that "single lane" road is expected to bear traffic in both directions and parking. Buildings in older areas of the cities and towns are often just a curb's width from the road. Traffic lanes and parking spaces all assume cars of subcompact size. So just give in and rent the smallest car that will hold your passengers.

For highway travel between the cities the French Interstate ("Autoroute") system is by far the fastest. The standard speed limit for cars is 130 km/hr (81 mph), but based on driver behavior this seems to be just a suggestion, much like the 55 mph speed limit around major US cities. The rule is keep to the right except when passing, and it's clear that one cannot drive very far in the left lane at 130 without making the people behind quite irate. Additional complexity is added by the separate, lower speed limit for trucks: 90 km/hr (56 mph). Consequently, anyone in a car who wishes to follow the actual speed limit must constantly switch between lanes at different, high speeds. Just imagine a two lane Interstate with many vehicles in the right lane restricted to 55 mph and the left lane full of agressive drivers in cars traveling 80 mph or faster. Apparently the idea is that it is unsafe to allow trucks to travel at 130 km/hr, but it could hardly be any less safe than the current practice.

The national and departmental roads are an alternative to the autoroutes, if you have plenty of time. The speed limits on these are normally 90 km/hr between towns and 50 km/hr inside. This is a great way to discover la France profonde in a way that you just can't do from the autoroutes. There are also pretty stiff tolls on the autoroutes, except right around the major cities, so the savings can be substantial. For a trip from (roughly) Bordeaux to Montpelier (300 miles) the round trip toll was 70 euro. The tradeoff is the trip will take a lot longer, up to twice as long.

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