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Know the rules in case your car breaks down on a French motorway

When you can use the hard shoulder, who to call - and where from - how much it costs to get towed, and what happens if you run out of fuel...

Nothing is guaranteed to spoil the summer holiday spirit more than your car breaking down on the way to your destination or on the way back.

But frazzled tempers will only get worse if you unwittingly find yourself on the wrong end of a fine for breaching the French Highway Code.

Here is what you need to know if you break down on the motorway (autoroute).

Using the hard shoulder

Be aware that the hard shoulder is for emergency use only, in case of unforeseen breakdowns.

What to do if you break down

Once you have come to a stop on the hard shoulder, turn on your hazard lights, slip on a hi-vis vest that all motorists in France are obliged to keep in their cars and - if it is safe to do so - set up your mandatory warning triangle facing the direction of oncoming traffic. Any passengers should get out of the car on the side away from traffic and take shelter behind the safety rails at the side of the road.

Who are you going to call?

Repairing or towing a vehicle that has broken down on the motorway can only be carried out by an approved professional. Calling a friend for a tow guarantees unwanted interest from the police.

Read more: A guide to driving in France

You must call for help from the nearest emergency call box (there’s one about every 2km along motorways) as that allows you to be located more easily than if you use a mobile phone. Using the call box puts you immediately in touch with the motorway company. The call is free and you do not need to dial a number - you just press a button to be connected.

A tow truck should arrive within 30 minutes of your call.

Can my car be repaired on the spot?

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: Yes, but … there are rules. If a repair is likely to take more than 30 minutes, your vehicle will be towed. You have a choice at this stage whether your vehicle is taken to the garage to which the truck belongs or one of your own choice.

You will be charged a fixed fee - set by the government - for towing based on the weight of your vehicle. 

If your vehicle can be repaired at the side of the road, you will be charged €131.94 plus parts.

For breakdown assistance requiring towing (to a rest or service area, to a garage or to a location chosen by the motorist), this rate varies according to the weight of the vehicle:

€131.94 for vehicles weighing less than or equal to 1.8 tonnes;

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

These prices increase 50% if the emergency call was made between 18.00 and 08.00 on weekdays, or at weekends and public holidays.

Read more: Cost of a week's car rental in France jumps 35% in two years

What if you have just run out of fuel?

According to the Highway Code, drivers must ensure they have enough fuel to complete their journey or to be able to reach the nearest service station without any problem. 

If you run out of fuel - or battery charge if driving an electric vehicle - you face a fine of up to €75, rising to €135 if you have stopped in what police consider to be a dangerous location.

Running out of fuel is not considered an unforeseen emergency. Motorists are expected to keep an eye on their fuel gauge and ensure they do not run out.

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