Who to call and what to say in a driving emergency in France

Heading off on holiday in France by car is always popular, with the country's beautiful countryside and well-maintained autoroutes making it a natural destination for a driving holiday. However, you might also need to know what to do in case of problems.

Who to call and what to say in a driving emergency in France
Photo: Philippe Desmazes / AFP

But from breakdowns to crashes, police stops to running out of petrol, sometimes things go wrong. Here’s our guide to what to do if there is a problem with your car, as well as some useful vocabulary in case of emergency.


If you can, find a safe place to stop, and get your car to the side of the road – or on the hard shoulder of a motorway.

Once you have come to a stop, slip on the hi-vis vest that all motorists in France are obliged to keep in their cars and – only if it is safe to do so – set up your warning triangle 30m to 50m away from your car facing the direction of oncoming traffic. 

The vest and triangle are part of the mandatory road safety kit all cars are expected to carry at all times. 

Be aware, you should only use the hard shoulder of a motorway in cases of ‘unforeseen emergency’, such as an unexpected breakdown. 

Any passengers should get out of the car on the side away from traffic and take shelter behind safety rails at the side of the road, if there are any. 

Call for help – On motorways you should use the nearest emergency call box rather than your mobile phone (they’re about 2km apart). Using the call box puts you immediately in touch with the motorway company, and means your car is easier to locate. 

Don’t worry if you don’t know the tow company’s number, you just press a button to be connected. And it’s free – but, be aware, the operator may not speak much English, so it’s a good idea at least to have the basics (see below).

Assistance should arrive within 30 minutes of your call. You can use that time to call your insurer if you have breakdown cover.

On other roads, it really helps to have proper breakdown cover for travelling in Europe – so check with your insurance company before travelling. If you have it, call them, and they can arrange for a local breakdown service to come out to you. Then it’s just a matter of waiting.

If you don’t have European breakdown cover, you have to deal with all that yourself – you have to find a local breakdown service, contact them, tell them where you are, and explain briefly what’s wrong. In French. 

You may be able to arrange emergency breakdown cover with your insurer after a breakdown – so do have their number to hand. The bad news is that will, most likely, include an added premium. 

How much will it cost?- If your vehicle can be repaired at the side of the motorway in 30 minutes or less, you will be charged a government-set fee. In 2021 that charge is €131.94, plus parts.

If, however, the repair is likely to take longer, your vehicle will be towed. You can decide whether your vehicle is taken to the garage to which the truck belongs, or one of your own choice, or another location within an acceptable distance.

For breakdown assistance that requires a tow (to a rest or service area, to a garage or to a location chosen by the motorist), this rate – again, set by the government annually – varies according to the weight of the vehicle. In 2021, those charges are set at:

  • €131.94 for vehicles weighing no more than 1.8 tonnes

  • €163.15 for vehicles with a total weight greater than 1.8 tonnes and less than 3.5 tonnes.

Add 50 percent to these charges if the call was made at weekends and public holidays, or between the hours of 6pm and 6am Monday to Friday.

What if you have run out of fuel?

If you’re on a motorway, don’t. Running out of fuel is not considered an unforeseen emergency for stopping at the side of a motorway. Motorists are expected to keep an eye on their fuel gauge and ensure they have enough fuel to complete their journey or to be able to reach the nearest service station. Also bear in mind that service stations can be up to 100km apart, so don’t let your vehicle get down to the fumes.

If you do run out of fuel – or battery charge if you’re driving an electric vehicle – you face a fine of up to €75, rising to €135 if you have come to a stop in a ‘dangerous location’. What is and is not a dangerous location is decided by the police.

If you have no other option but to pull over, you will need to call the breakdown service as above, but be prepared to be charged.

READ ALSO: What I learned driving 1,777km through France in an electric car

If you’re on another road, you’ll have to find a way to get to the nearest service station, or walk to pick up some fuel.

Involved in a crash

If you are involved in a crash, whether it was your fault or the fault of another driver, there are some rules you must follow.

Similar to the protocol if you break down, you should move to a safe place, put up warning triangles if safe to do so, put on your hi-vis yellow vest and if anyone is injured alert the police (on the number 17) and if necessary call an ambulance (on 15).

If two cars are involved, you may be asked to fill in a Constat Amiable D’Accident Automobile (an amiable declaration – also known as a European Accident Statement) by the driver of the other vehicle. These accident statements give a brief account of the circumstances of the accident, and then allow your insurance company to determine whose responsibility it was and the compensation that needs to be paid.

This is common practice in France and should include written and graphic descriptions of the accident – but if you don’t understand what has been written, or do not agree with the other driver’s version of events, do not sign the form. It is an important document and may be used as evidence. For more information on the form and what to do – click HERE.

Drink driving

France’s drink driving laws are strict and the allowed limit of alcohol is lower than in many countries, including the UK, meaning a pint of beer or large glass of wine is enough to put you over the limit. Find the full limits HERE.

Although sadly it is not uncommon to see people, especially in rural areas, ignoring the limits, this is no defence if you are caught and you face penalty points or even the removal of your licence. 

Pulled over by the police 

Speaking of the police, it is not uncommon to be pulled over by police if you are driving in France.

Obviously, if signalled by police you should pull over as soon as it is safe to do so and follow the instructions given.

Sometimes this will be just a routine check and it’s not uncommon for drivers of large vehicles or vans to be pulled over, especially in the vicinity of the Channel ports.

Other times it will be because you have broken French driving laws. The one that frequently catches out visitors is the Stop sign – you must come to a complete halt at a stop sign, if a police officer sees you doing a rolling stop (even if there are no other cars about) they can pull you over and give you a penalty notice.

Driving in France – what are the offences that can cost you points on your licence?

There’s also the ever-baffling priorité à droite rule – here’s our explanation of how that works.


And finally a note about the scammers who unfortunately frequently target cars with foreign number plates. From people spinning sob stories at motorway service stations to those passing themselves off as police officers to demand money, here are some of the most common types of scam.

French vocab

Ma voiture est en panne – My car has broken down

J’ai un pneu crevé / à plat – I have got a flat tyre

Pouvez-vous envoyer une dépanneuse? – Can you send a recovery vehicle?

Pouvez-vous me remorquer jusqu’à un garage? – Could you tow me to the repair garage?

La batterie est vide – The battery is flat

Le moteur surchauffe – The engine is overheating

Il y a un problème de freins – There’s a problem with the brakes

La voiture n’a plus d’essence – The car is out of petrol

Où est-ce qu’il y a une station-service près d’ici? – Where is there the nearest service (fuel) station?

J’ai eu un accident – I have had an accident

Il m’est rentré dedans avec sa voiture – He crashed into me

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


What drivers of foreign cars need to know about London’s low emissions zones

If you are driving to London from Europe with a foreign registered car you will need to know about the city's low emission zone and how to avoid being hit with a hefty fine, as some of our readers have been.

What drivers of foreign cars need to know about London's low emissions zones

Driving in London can be anxiety-inducing even for a local with a British car. Add to that a vehicle registered in Europe and all the rules on Low Emission Zones (LEZ), Ultra Low emission zones (ULEZ) and the Congestion Charge Zone, and the stress can be overwhelming.

And importantly for The Local’s readers, drivers of French, Spanish, German registered cars or any foreign registered car for that matter can’t avoid these rules.

“All foreign registered vehicles are subject to the ULEZ in the same way as those registered in the UK,” states TfL on its website.

So what are London’s low emission zones?

Before we tell you what you need to do here’s a brief explanation of London’s different low emission zones and congestion zones.

Since 2008, London has been introducing ‘low-emission zones’ to cut air pollution and reduce traffic congestion. This means drivers of certain vehicles have to pay a fee to enter such areas under certain conditions.

The Low Emission Zone (LEZ) was the first such area established in the British capital. It includes all roads within Greater London, TfL explains, apart from the M25 (the motorway encircling the city). The LEZ applies to heavy-duty vehicles such as lorries, vans and specialist heavy vehicles over 3.5 tonnes, as well as buses, minibuses and coaches over 5 tonnes.

It doesn’t apply to cars or motorcycles. It operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

The daily charge ranges from £100 for smaller vehicles to £300 for bigger ones. If you don’t pay the charge, you will receive a fine – which is much higher.

The Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) currently covers all areas inside (but not including) the North (A406) and South Circular (A205) roads, which form a ring road around central London.

From 29 August 2023, however, it will cover all London boroughs.

The ULEZ applies to all vehicles that don’t meet the set emissions standards, including cars and motorcycles (although there are discounts and exemptions, e.g. for vehicles for people with disabilities). It is active 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except Christmas Day.

To avoid the daily charge vehicles must meet the ULEZ emissions standards which are based on Euro emissions standards (Euro 1 to 6). As we’ve stated above you’ll know if your foreign registered vehicle meets the emissions standards, which means to you don’t have to pay the charge – when you register with TfL.

For the ULEZ area, the charge for those high polluting vehicles who don’t meet the standards is £12.50 a day (heavy vehicles do not need to pay the ULEZ charge as they already pay the LEZ).

With all the talk about ULEZ and LEZ, you’d be forgiven if you forgot about the Congestion Charge Zone, which operates from 7 am to 6 pm Monday to Friday, and 12 pm to 6 pm on weekends and bank holidays.

This covers several areas of Central London, including the City, Westminster, Charing Cross, London Bridge and Soho. You can check whether a postcode is in the Congestion Charge Zone here.

The £15 daily fee applies to all vehicles (except motorbikes and mopeds), even if they meet the ULEZ/LEZ emissions standards 

So what do I have to do if my vehicle is registered abroad and I’m heading to London?

First and foremost, the most crucial thing to do if you are planning to drive into London with a vehicle with a foreign number plate is to register online with Transport for London (TfL).

Once you do this you will know whether your vehicle meets the minimum emissions standards so you can drive in London without paying the fine – or whether you have to pay the charge.

“On receipt of this information we register the vehicle as complaint with the standards. This allows the vehicle to be used in the ULEZ without payment of the charge or risk of receiving a fine,” states TfL.

Understandably not everyone driving from Europe has been aware they have had to register.

One EU based reader David, who drives a foreign registered car told The Local: “I have a Mercedes GLC which passes all the emissions tests but I did not know I still had to register with the car with the London authorities. I drove there in October and was somewhat surprised to receive a demand from a collection agency EPC PLC for just under £500. This was the basic fine and late payments penalties.”

What do I need to register?

The problem with vehicles registered abroad is that TfL won’t automatically know whether they meet the emissions standards or not. So, you will need to provide proof that yours does.

To do so, you will need to provide a copy of the vehicle’s registration documents and the following:

  • For ULEZ: a letter from the vehicle manufacturer’s homologation department stating the vehicle’s Euro standard or a conformity certificate;
  • For LEZ: proof of abatement equipment fitted to the vehicle, for instance if the vehicle has been retrofitted.

Once TfL has registered the vehicle, its status will be updated and you will know whether you need to pay. 

TfL told The Local that they would advise drivers to submit their registration 10 days before their planned trip to London.

Drivers of British registered cars can find out if their car meets the minimum emissions standard by using TfL’s online check system.

If your vehicle is registered in the UK with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), you don’t need to register with TfL even if you live abroad, according to TfL.

You can then pay here or set up an autopay here. There is also an app to go through this process.

What are the fines?

There are hefty fines for people that do not comply with these rules.

You could receive a fine if:

  • Your vehicle doesn’t meet emissions standards and you don’t have a discount;
  • You haven’t registered your vehicle with TfL;
  • You haven’t paid the relevant charges (ULEZ, LEZ or Congestion) by the midnight of the third day of travel;
  • When registering a vehicle, you have given TfL an incorrect number plate or date of travel;
  • If you paid by post, you didn’t allow at least ten days for the payment to clear.

For the LEZ, fines are up to £2000 per vehicles. For the ULEZ the fine is £180, or £90 if paid within 14 days. The fine for not paying the Congestion Charge fee is also £180, £90 if paid within two weeks.

If a fine is involved, EPC, the contractor in charge of recovering penalty charge notices (PCNs) to cars with foreign number plates, will identify the relevant country and apply to obtain details from the National Licensing Agency. The notice will then be sent out to that country.

How to challenge a penalty

If you want to challenge a penalty charge notice, you will need to do so within 28 days (here). TfL told The Local that the 28-day period also applies to PCNs issued to drivers abroad.

The 28-day period starts from the date the penalty notice is issued, not when it was incurred. For example, if you were spotted driving in London with a non-compliant vehicle on 14 March, TfL would send your vehicle’s details to the EPC, which would obtain your details abroad and issue the PCN. The 28 days start from the day EPC issues the PCN.

A TfL spokesperson said: “The period [for challenging a PCN] is 28 days but postal delays are taken into account if an appeal is lodged shortly after that time. If, however, the appeal was made several weeks outside of the timeframe the driver would need to have a good reason as to why it was made so late.”

This article was produced in collaboration with EuroStreet news.