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

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

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.

Breakdown

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.

Scams

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


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