We can't say it too many times: unless you have a special, compelling reason, do yourself a favor and avoid driving in Paris. But if you've decided to do it anyway, there are some things to know. France's roads are classified into five types; they are numbered and have letter prefixes: A (autoroute,expressways), N (route nationale), D (route départmentale), and the smaller C or V. There are excellent links between Paris and most French cities. When trying to get around Ile-de-France, it's often difficult to avoid Paris—just try to steer clear of rush hours (7–9:30 and 4:30–7:30). A péage (toll) must be paid on most expressways outside Ile-de-France: the rate varies but can be steep. Certain booths allow you to pay with a credit card.
The major ring road encircling Paris is called the périphérique, with the périphérique intérieur going counterclockwise around the city, and the périphérique extérieur, or the outside ring, going clockwise; maximum speed is 70 kph (43 mph). Up to five lanes wide, the périphérique is a major highway from which 30 portes (gates) connect Paris to the major highways of France. The names of these highways function on the same principle as the métro, with the final destination as the determining point in the direction you must take.
Heading north, look for Porte de la Chapelle (direction Lille and Charles de Gaulle Airport); east, for Porte de Bagnolet (direction Metz and Nancy); south, for Porte d'Orléans (direction Lyon and Bordeaux); and west, for Porte d'Auteuil (direction Rouen and Chartres) or Porte de St-Cloud (Boulogne-Billancourt).
There are gas stations throughout the city, but they can be difficult to spot; you will often find them in the underground tunnels that cross the city and in larger parking garages. Gas is expensive and prices vary enormously, ranging from about €1.38 to €1.87 per liter. If you're on your way out of Paris, save money by waiting until you've left the city to fill up. All gas stations accept credit cards.
Finding parking in Paris is tough. Both meters and parking-ticket machines use parking cards (cartes de stationnement–"Paris Carte"), which you can purchase at any café posting the red "Tabac" sign. They're sold in two denominations: €15 and €40. Metered parking in the capital costs €2.40 to €4 per hour, depending on the arrondissement, and is payable Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 8 pm, with a two-hour limit. Insert your card into the nearest meter (they do not accept coins), choose the approximate amount of time you expect to stay, and receive a green receipt. Place it on the dashboard on the passenger side, making sure the receipt is clearly visible to the meter patrol. Parking tickets are expensive, and there's no shortage of blue-uniformed parking police. Parking lots, indicated by a blue sign with a white "P," are usually underground; they generally charge around €2.50 per hour or €19 to €30 per day (outside of the city center you'll pay €10 to €15 per day). One bright spot: you can park for free on Sunday, national holidays, and in certain residential areas in August. Parking meters with yellow circles indicate the free-parking zone during August. Before walking away, double-check that the car doors are locked and that any valuables are out of sight, either in the glove compartment or the trunk.
Chaotic traffic is a way of life in Paris. Some streets in the city center can seem impossibly narrow; street signs are often hard to spot; jaded city drivers often make erratic, last-minute maneuvers without signaling; and motorcycles often weave around traffic. Priority is given to drivers coming from the right, so watch for drivers barreling out of small streets on your right. When the speed limit is 30 kph (18.5 mph) cyclists can travel against traffic on one-way streets, so keep an eye open for them as well. Traffic lights are placed to the left and right of crosswalks, not above, so they may be blocked from view by vehicles ahead of you.
There are a few major roundabouts at the most congested intersections, notably at L'Étoile (around the Arc de Triomphe), Place de la Bastille, and Place de la Concorde. Watch oncoming cars carefully and stick to the outer lane to make your exit. The périphériques (ring roads) are generally easier to use, and the quays that parallel the Seine can be a downright pleasure to drive when there's no traffic. Electronic signs on the périphériques and highways post traffic conditions: fluide (clear) or bouchon (jammed).
Some important traffic terms and signs to note: sortie (exit), sens unique (one way), stationnement interdit (no parking), impasse (dead end). Blue rectangular signs indicate a highway; triangles carry illustrations of a particular traffic hazard; speed limits are indicated in a circle, with the maximum speed circled in red.
If your car breaks down on an expressway, pull it as far off the road as quickly as you can, set your emergency indicators, and, if possible, take the emergency triangle from the car's trunk (they're mandatory in all vehicles) and put it at least 30 yards behind your car to warn oncoming traffic; then go to a roadside emergency telephone. These phones put you in direct contact with the police, automatically indicating your exact location, and are available every 2 km (1.25 miles). If you have a breakdown anywhere else, find the nearest garage or contact the police. There are also 24-hour assistance hotlines valid throughout France (numbers are available through rental agencies and supplied to you when you rent the car).
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Rules of the Road
You must always carry vehicle registration documents and your personal identification. The French police are entitled to stop you at will to verify your ID and your car—such spot checks are frequent, especially at peak holiday times. In France you drive on the right and give priority to drivers coming from the right (this rule is called priorité à droite).
The driver and all passengers in vehicles must wear seat belts, and children under 12 may not travel in the front seat. Children under 10 need to be in a car seat or specific child-restraining device, always in the back seat. Speed limits are designated by the type of road you're driving on: 130 kph (80 mph) or 110 kph (70 mph) on expressways (autoroutes), 90 kph (55 mph) on divided roads (routes nationales), 50 kph (30 mph) on departmental roads (routes), and 35 kph (22 mph) in some cities and towns (villes et villages). These limits are reduced by 10 kph (6 mph) in rainy, snowy, and foggy conditions. Drivers are expected to know these limits, so signs are generally posted only when there are exceptions to the rules. Right-hand turns are not allowed on a red light.
The use of headsets and handheld cellular phones while driving is forbidden (even if you are only holding them); the penalty is a €135 fine. Alcohol laws are also quite tough—there is a 0.05% blood alcohol limit (a lower limit than in the United States), which drops to 0.02% for drivers who've been licensed for fewer than three years.