I Have Spent More On Highway Tolls Than Shopping In France

Yes.  That title, although said, is true.  Let me explain.

While some highways and bridges in the US need of repair, our highway system is pretty extensive.  For the most part, it’s cheap or free.  Switzerland got a late start building their highway system.  They haven’t even finished it yet.  In typical Swiss fashion, it is extraordinarily engineered and well maintained.  Their infrastructure is impressive; our visitors are always amazed by the tunnels.  Some of it is also rigged to blow.    Foreigners who drive through Switzerland complain about having to pay for vignettes, stickers that allow the vehicle to travel on Swiss highways.  You purchase them at the border (or at the post office) for 40 CHF and they are good all year.

Not surprisingly, they do things a bit differently in France.  Here are some of the main differences:

Highways in France require paying tolls.  Lots of them.  I can’t remember exactly how much we spent in tolls heading from Geneva to the south of France and back, but it was well over 100 Euro and probably more like 200 Euro.  It was too painful to tabulate and made Switzerland’s 40 CHF vignette look like a bargain.

Highways in France are privatized.  Therefore, if your car happened to break down on one,  your auto service cannot come get you.  Only certain specified highway-approved tow trucks are allowed to come get your car.  I learned this little tidbit of information the hard way.  In case you were wondering, you must always pay the toll when exiting the highway… even when your car exits on the back of a truck.

Rest areas in France are a little different than in North Carolina.  They serve real food… and wine.  I was busy worrying about my car and chatting with the police, the tow truck driver, etc., so I didn’t partake (not that I had to worry about driving in the near future).  It looked pretty tasty.

Description unavailable

Description unavailable (Photo credit: Alain Bachellier)

On some highways in France, they have wildlife overpasses (also known as wildlife crossings) for animals to cross the highway.  A practice in habitat conservation, it connects habitats, countering fragmentation.  They also help prevent animals from entering onto the highway, avoiding the resulting accidents.   Below is a photo of one of them.  Sorry I couldn’t take one, but I was busy driving.  It’s handy to avoid the scene above…or worse.

Français : Autoroute A19 – Ouvrage dédié au pa...

Français : Autoroute A19 – Ouvrage dédié au passage de la faune (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Why We Miss Driving In The US

We are lucky to have a car and be able to drive here.  Nevertheless, it is a lot more stressful than driving in the US. The rules, the road signs, the cars, the roads and the other customs are all different.  Because they aren’t yet second nature and we learned in a different environment, driving takes a lot more effort.  We don’t think of Sunday drives here as relaxing.  Here’s why we miss driving in the US.

The signs are different.

  • Speed limit signs are round with a number indicating the speed limit (in k.p.h.).  Unfortunately, we haven’t seen many of them.  More often, we see circular signs with a slash through them.  They indicate that the listed speed limit has just ended.  We would find it much more helpful if the new speed were posted.  These signs mean that the limit reverts to the standard speed limit posted at the borders.

Speed Limit

  • We find this especially difficult because we live mere miles from the French border.  The limits differ in France.  I get the default speeds confused.
  • Due to Europe’s multi-linguality, many road signs have symbols instead of words.  Modifiers (such as, only farm vehicle are permitted) are always given in the local language, which we probably won’t understand.
  • Traffic lights are rarely above the road.  Instead, they are mounted on posts on either side of the road.  I have found myself in the left lane watching the stoplight on the right side (I missed the light for my left turn).  The lights change from red to yellow (before becoming green), giving everyone a change to get a great start off the line.
  • Street names frequently change, at irregular intervals and without warning.  It is even more problematic because there aren’t signposts at intersections.  Street signs are posted on the corner of buildings, just above the ground floor.  This makes them harder to see from the car.  Sometimes they are missing.  Other times, they are in a different language than what is listed in the guidebook.

The rules of the road differ from the US.

  • There is no right turn on red.  Given the may complex intersections, it is understandable (but still slightly frustrating when you are sitting in traffic).
  • The speed limit drops when the road is wet.  What qualifies as wet?  A drop? A rainstorm?
  • Here, yellow diamonds indicate priority.  In the US, priority is generally standard given your location.  Roads here tend to intersect at bizarre angles and turn randomly.  As such, they need a different way to show priority.  They use yellow diamonds (intersecting roads have yield markings).  In the absence of signs, it isn’t the first vehicle on the spot, but the vehicle coming from the right that has the right of way.  Approaching intersections, I constantly worry about whether I have missed a sign…

Customs are different here.

 

  • Standard transmissions are standard.  Although it doesn’t bother us (unless we are stuck in traffic) a lot of our friends miss having an automatic transmission, particularly on hills.

 

  • Radar detectors are epidemic. Rather than seeing a police car roadside or lurking in a median, inconspicuous radar/camera/strobe lights cameras are everywhere.   We live in constant fear of receiving a giant ticket in the mail.  Why a giant one?  Look below at the section on speed limit signs.

 

  • We were astounded the other week when on our trip through the south of France, people didn’t immediately pull over for an ambulance.  Apparently this is common here.   Even so, it was foreign to us.  In the US, drivers are required by law to pull to the right and stop for all emergency vehicles with siren and lights.  By the way, emergency vehicles here sound just like they do in the Bourne Identity movies.

The roads aren’t the broad, straight avenues that we grew up on in the US.

  • Shoulders?  What are those?
  • Good luck finding a straight road.  The roads are narrow, winding and often steep.
  • The German Autobahn doesn’t always have speed limits.  Fun, but not exactly relaxing.  We didn’t get to take full advantage of it because we spent most of our time on the world’s narrowest lanes in construction.
  • Parking spaces are Texas tight.
  • Car-free pedestrian zones all over.  Usually, there is usually a barrier preventing you from driving  in these areas, not that you would want to.  They usually have crazy streets.  You can’t get into them, but getting around them can take a while.

Oh well, at least the scenery is good.  No Entry

  • More problematic is when there is merely no entry sign with words underneath.  These are easy to miss.  Often, they have words underneath describing which cars are permitted to enter…in another language.  They may allow certain vehicles, like taxis or local residents and business owners, to enter.
  • One way streets.  It isn’t just that you have to make sure that you are going the correct way.  The problem is also that if you miss your turn, you can’t change your route easily.  It can take an extra 20 minutes to get back.
  • Roundabouts (aka traffic circles).  Worse with driving in the UK and you have to go them the other way around.

Road Signs In South Africa

While we were in South Africa, we saw a number of road signs that we’d never seen before.  Cow. Impalas. Horse. Crocodile.  Enjoy.
We won’t be swimming in that river.
If only I could have gotten out of the car to take a picture in front of the sign…
In areas without signs, street vendors were everywhere.  I’ve never seen so many people roadside.  There were even pedestrians on the sides of highways.
The sign below warns you of flooding.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get one of the sign warning you of no fences.  We were too busy looking at the cow in the road!