Our Locations in France

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Reflections on the First 10,000 Kilometers

Driving in France (Je conduis la voiture)

After driving almost 10,000 kilometers, mostly in France, and after just completing a ten hour drive from Provence to Angers, I've decided that I like some aspects of driving in France better than driving in the United States, such as the high speed limits and the relatively small number of trucks on the highways, and other things I don't like quite so much.  Here are a few observations regarding differences between driving in France and driving in the United States.  

1.  Most drivers abide by the speed limit

This scarlet letter indicates a novice driver
It is surprising to me that most French drivers seem to abide by the speed limit although they ignore many other laws (parking restrictions, picking up dog droppings, etc.). In the U.S., if I set the cruise control at exactly the speed limit, I would be left in the dust of most cars, honked at by the other cars, run-over by the semi-trailer trucks, and get to see the middle finger of a lot of people. In France, if I set the cruise control at the speed limit, I find that I am passing almost everybody on the road. 

The only vehicles that seem to routinely pass me on French highways are Audi drivers, novice drivers (drivers with less than 2 years of experience who have to display a red "A" on the back of their vehicle), and motorcycles.  I have no explanation as to why the somebody driving an Audi feels compelled to speed, but it is an observation that I have confirmed over and over.  (BMW drivers, in contrast, seem to be a bunch of old ladies.)

Some of you are probably shaking your head and telling yourself that Rick probably has no clue what the speed limits are (remembering my previous posts about the difficulty of knowing the speed limit because speed limits are often unposted). I admit that it is possible that at times I might have incorrectly assumed that the speed limit was 130 kph (the default speed limit on motorways outside of urban areas when it is not raining) when it was actually 110 kph (the default speed limit for non-motorway divided highways outside of urban areas ... when it is not raining), or possibly even 90 kph (the default speed limit in a whole lot of other situations), but I really think that I have started to figure out the speed limits.

French speed camera
So why do the French follow the speed limits, but ignore lots of other rules?  I have several hypotheses:

Hypothesis A - There are so many speed cameras and the penalties for speeding are so high that it is simply too expensive to speed.

Hypothesis B - The speed limits seem to have been set by a committee of race car drivers because in many places it takes a good car and good reflexes to maintain the posted speed. Most people probably consider it dangerous to drive faster than the posted speed limit. 130 kph is the equivalent of about 80 mph and can be challenging to drive the speed limit on windy, narrow highways with a guardrail inches from one side of the car and a vehicle inches from the other side of the car. Wide paved shoulders on the highway are almost non-existent. Let's not forget that many French cars are narrow and tall with tiny engines, which may be ideal for driving and creative parking in narrow streets, but not so great for driving at high speeds on winding roads. The French must be shocked to find that the speed limit on U.S. highways is often 55 mph (88 kph) even though French highways often have narrower lanes, sharper turns, and less-forgiving shoulders. Don't even get me started on the exits from French highways, which tend to have minimal lighting, large potholes and corkscrew in unpredictable directions.

Hypothesis C - In the United States you are often intimidated by the sight of the grill of a large semi-trailer truck in your rear view mirror to drive faster than the posted speed limit. In France, the trucks that are on the highways are generally in the far right lane and driving much slower than the cars. I don't think that we have ever been passed by a truck in France. Which brings me to my next observation ....

2.  Where are the big trucks?

Although there are trucks on the highways, the ratio of trucks to cars seems to be much lower in France than the U.S. Why aren't there more trucks? I don't know, but possible the railroads carry more of the freight or maybe the French just rely a lot more on local products. When your bread is baked down the street from your house and you buy your produce from local farmers at a street market, you don't need a lot of trucks to transport food from a warehouse to a supermarket.

3.  Where are the school buses?

Another thing that seems to be much less common in France than in the U.S. are school buses. Taking the back roads on a weekday in the U.S. usually means that you will get stuck behind a school bus. Although I have seen one or two school buses, I have yet to see a school bus stop traffic on a highway.

4.  Where are the gas stations?

While the absence of trucks and school buses from the roads is pleasant, the absence of gas stations near major intersections and exits can be really annoying. In the United States, there seems to be at least one gas station at every major intersections and most exits from highways in populated areas. In France, gas stations are almost never located near an exit from a highway. With the exception of the service centers on the toll roads (where it will cost an extra 20 Euros to fill your tank), gas stations seem to be located as inconveniently as possible. Furthermore, other than automated pumps at supermarkets, gas stations seem to be closed most of the time, especially after noon on Sundays.

Typical automated supermarket fuel dispenser
Our car has a GPS that shows the supposed locations of gas stations, which seems like it might be a very useful tool, but alas most of the time, after paying the toll to exit the highway and winding our way for 15 minutes though multiple small village streets, the GPS leads us to gas station that is closed. With the exception of the 24-hour automated gas pumps at supermarkets, we can't seem to figure out when the gas stations are open. They do not seem to be open on the days when we are traveling.

Thus, we now look for signs for the big supermarkets, which usually have some automated gas pumps near the store. The catch is that some of these automated pumps only accept French debit cards and will not accept any type of American credit card. On one recent trip, after scouring the countryside for an open gas station, and receiving repeated warnings from the automated voice in our car that we were about to run out of fuel, we finally found set of pumps near a supermarket in the outskirts of a small town. Unfortunately, the pumps would not accept our credit card. We ended up begging a kind Frenchman to let us use his debit card in our pump and then reimburse him in cash.

Toll Booth Roulette

Credit card problems are not limited to gas stations. French toll booths can present a major challenge if you have limited cash and American credit cards. Here is how French toll booth roulette works. As you approach a French toll plaza you have to correctly guess whether you have a credit card that is accepted at that toll plaza, correctly guess which type of card will be accepted, and correctly pick the lane that will accept credit cards. Determining whether American credit cards will be accepted and whether there are lanes that accept either credit cards or cash is usually not obvious when you enter the toll plaza and have to pick a line. If you choose to go through a cash lane, I hope that you are smart enough to have figured out the toll (I'm told that there is a way to figure it out on a website) and are prepared with exact change, or that you are lucky enough to find a machine that will provide change.

The toll booths in each region seem to be slightly different and accept different forms of payment, but the rules are rarely clear. Some lanes accept only a Telepass (usually marked by "T" over the lane), and other lanes accept only cash.  Many toll plazas are completely automated so you can't simply drive up to the booth with a person and get their help.  

The rules about using credit cards to pay tolls seem to vary by region. The only consistent thing is that French toll booths will not accept credit cards that don't have a chip and PIN. Fortunately, we do have cards with chips and PINs.  The toll booths in some regions will accept at least one brand of American credit card if you correctly pick the right lane. In our home region (Pays de la Loire), if you enter the lane designated for bank cards, when you get to the front of the line (usually with a long line of impatient drivers behind you) the machine where you insert your credit card usually has a small sign indicating that American credit cards are not accepted (symbols for Visa, MasterCard and American Express with a red slash through them). At that point, using cash is not an option unless you get all of the other cars to back up and you enter the cash only lane. 

However, we have learned that just because there is a sign saying that the machine will not accept Visa, MasterCard or American Express does not always mean that you can't use one of those cards. After desperately inserting every credit card we own, we've determined that sometimes the machine will accept one our credit cards even if the sign says it won't accept the card. 

If we are particularly lucky, the first card that we try works and the gate opens before anybody honks their horn. If it is a really bad day, none our cards work, we can't get the line of cars behind us to back up and we have to press the help button and wait for somebody to come rescue us. We've done that once and it is not pleasant for us or the unhappy drivers trapped behind us.
A simple solution is to avoid toll roads, which we generally try to do both because you see more on the non-toll roads and because it is less expensive.  However, if you are trying to travel large distances it is almost essential to learn to navigate French toll plazas. On our recent trip from Provence to Angers, using the toll roads shaved approximately two hours off of a 10+ hour drive. Of course, the French make you pay for the convenience. On our drive we paid over 50 Euros in tolls and got to play the toll booth roulette game multiple times. 

Updates on Previous Posts

If you have been reading some of our earlier posts, a few updates are in order.

With respect to my post on road signs (http://gaskinsfrenchadventure.blogspot.fr/2015/08/driving-and-parking-in-germany-and.html), we discovered a traffic circle in France where they appear to grow prohibition road signs and a trailer in Austria that they use to constantly erect new road signs.

Growing road signs
Sign trailer
With respect to the French love of funny hats (see previous blogs at http://gaskinsfrenchadventure.blogspot.fr/2015/07/bastille-day-aka-la-fete-nationale-or.html and http://gaskinsfrenchadventure.blogspot.fr/2015/07/why-i-was-asked-to-leave-le-musee-de.html), we have noticed that every museum has display cases full of hats 

Museum display case
Museum display case

Street vendor selling old military hats
and that every market has a vendor selling old military hats.

Even the museum in a Roman arena found a way to work in a display of matador hats.

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