Driving on the right-hand side of the road. How difficult can that be? We hired a car for 3 weeks in France so we could explore the Normandy, Brittany and Lot regions.
Well, what can I say? After more than 40 years of driving on the left, it was an interesting and challenging experience.
I had driven very briefly in Switzerland several years ago – jet lagged and in the mountains – nerve wracking as I was told that you needed always go on the inside of sharp bends if a bus or truck came the other way, and as I discovered the hard way, some of the turns were so sharp that you needed to cross into the other lane in order to turn.
So I must confess I was apprehensive. How difficult could it be? To make it easier, we hired an automatic. Turned out to be a great decision – this prevented finding nothing when reaching for the gear stick. I just the occasional starting of the windscreen wipers instead of the blinkers.
Staying in the lane
On the first day, heading out of Versailles, I really struggled to stay in the middle of the lane and found that I had a tendency to wander to the right. It didn’t matter how hard I concentrated, Pascale kept telling me that I was too close to the edge of the road. Yes, I needed to keep to the right, but not that far…
After a couple of hours, I realised that I focused on the white line or edge of the road that would have been in the middle of road in Australia. This subconscious habit combined with sitting on the other side of the car was what was causing my ‘drift’ to the right. When I started concentrating on focusing on the ‘other’ white line (the one in the middle of the road here), my ability to stay in the middle of lane improved.
The fast lane
That first day was also my first experience with the ‘fast lane’. To keep things simple, we used the most direct route and took the autoroute (freeway with tolls). The speed limit on the autoroutes are either 110 or 130 kph. Our little Toyota Auros was comfortable at 100 kph and 110 was pushing it.
I didn’t take long to learn that the if you go into the fast lane to pass a truck, motorhome or a rare slower car, you needed to be in and out of that lane very quickly. It seemed that the minimum speed limit for the fast lane was always at least 10 kph over the limit. If you dared to cause anyone in the fast lane to take their foot off the accelerator at all it would always result in flashing lights and often the use of the horn.
It was interesting to note that the Peugeot drivers were by far the most aggressive, followed by Mercedes and Volvo drivers.
What is the speed limit?
The speed limits in France are always either 30, 50, 70, 90, 110 or 130 kph. Never the 40, 60, 80 or 100 kph that we seem to like, although we seem to be starting to fall in line with lots of 50, 110 and 130 speed zones in Australia now. I guess if we go as far as driving on the other side of the road, it makes sense to almost never have the same speed limits.
Now for the complication. There also needs to be a rule that we are not used to. Whenever you enter a town or village, the speed limit changes to 50 kph and when you leave it goes back to 90 kph. How do you know?
When you enter the town or village, there is a sign on the side of the road with the name of the town or village with a red box around it and when you leave there is a sign with the name crossed out. I guess we are conditioned to associate speed limit changes with numbers in circles on the side of the road, so I don’t think I ever got completely used to slowing down when you see a town name on a sign. I’m hoping that I don’t have too many speeding fines.
The GPS lady
Don’t get me wrong. Having a GPS was great and it would have been much, much more difficult to find our way from place to place without it.
On the first day, we entered the address of our first night’s accommodation in Honfleur and set off following very detailed instructions of where to turn and which exit to use on each and every roundabout. By the way, there are lots of roundabouts in France – even more than in Noosa.
This was also the first time that I had ever seriously used a car GPS. Brilliant, it made everything so easy. What a great invention. How did we ever survive without them?
Everything was perfect until we were nearly at our destination in Honfleur and the GPS lady said to turn left into a lane that was blocked off by the police due to there being markets there that night. This was the first time we heard her patiently but insistently say ‘recalculating route’, and then find the best place for us to do a u-turn and go back and try again. We pulled up in a carpark and Google Maps came to the rescue giving us alternative routes to our accommodation. Honfleur was also where we learnt what ridiculously narrow cobbled lanes you drive through in France.
Over time we started to learn that the GPS lady had a few idiosyncrasies. She seemed to have a very biased preference for short cuts. If we could zig-zag our way through narrow back streets or winding country roads, then that was the way to go. If the back road was covered in cow shit, even better. After a while, we learnt that it was sometimes better to hit her mute button and then follow the road signs.
We also found that once you had entered where you were going and she had a planned route it was very difficult to get her to change her mind. And you were only ever given one choice on how to get there.
Towards the end of our travels in France, we discussed that it was strange that we kept referring to the GPS lady and never gave her a name. She was certainly a character that influenced our travels.
I survived 3 weeks of driving on the wrong side of the road and giving way to the right (occasionally) with a few minor indiscretions that I know of and one parking ticket.