The French word autoroute literally means a road purpose-built for cars, allowing for speeds which in France are among the highest in Europe – up to 130kph (81mph), compared to 112kph (70mph) in the UK.
While the overall limit is 130kph, on some stretches it is reduced to 110kph, which also applies if there is rain, hail or snow, and the limit is 50kph in less than 50m visibility.
You should not go over 90kph if pulling a trailer or caravan.
There is also a minimum: you must not go less than 80kph in the fast lane and generally the law says you should not hinder others by going ‘abnormally slowly’ without a good reason.
An autoroute is defined by the fact the sides are separated by a central reservation, called in French le terre-plein, there is a hard shoulder (bande d’arrêt d’urgence) and no roads join it directly, only intersections with slip roads allowing you to build up speed to join the traffic, giving priority to cars on the road.
The first stretch opened in 1941, to the west of Paris between Saint-Cloud and Orgeval (Germany and Italy had them earlier, but the first UK stretch opened in 1958).
Today there are around 12,000km of autoroutes, more than 9,000km being run by private firms. However some areas are still not served including Corsica and much of Brittany.
Autoroutes have codes starting with A, plus a number, with most of the main arteries, from Paris to other major towns, having the lower numbers, up to 20.
Some have names, which may be geographical (A8, ‘La Provençale’; A13, ‘Autoroute de Normandie’), or descriptive (Autoroute du Soleil for the A6/A7 from Paris to the south-east or Autoroute des Anglais for the A26 from Calais to Troyes). Autoroutes are also part of an Europe-wide network with its own codes starting with E.
The costs of the companies in building and/or maintaining roads – is recouped by péages tolls. The state has allowed the use of these on stretches it has ‘conceded’ since 1955. The idea was to speed the development of the network without having to increase taxes or the share of the budget devoted to it.
The state has been progressively selling off its shares in these firms (though the roads still belong to the state) and they are now fully private. The Vinci group, based in Hauts-de-Seine, is the largest operator, running more than 4,000km via Autoroutes du Sud de la France (ASF), Escota, Cofiroute and Arcour. It has a radio station at 107.7FM or radiovinciautoroutes.com and you can visit its site at vinci-autoroutes.com/fr/autoroutes-temps-reel to see where there are jams or accidents (click on the map symbols for details), including an option to see web cam views.
Vinci also runs many car parks – some 460,000 spaces in 600 sites – via its subsidiary Indigo, based in La Défense.
The other large operators are Eiffage, based in Yvelines, and the Spanish company Abertis, which runs the Sanef network (Société des autoroutes du Nord et de l’Est de la France).
It costs about €6million/km to build an autoroute – however a new 12km coastal road on La Réunion, on land reclaimed from the sea, is reportedly costing €130M/km and is said to be the world’s most expensive road.
Péage tolls mean France’s motorways are among Europe’s most expensive, however a European study also found them to be the safest, being well-signed and maintained.
It is vital to use the correct lanes: a green arrow indicates an open lane accepting all forms of payment; a red cross indicates a closed one. You may also see one of three kinds of blue panel relating to payment: a man in a hat holding a ticket means you pay a person, two overlapping rectangles indicates card payment only and coins and notes means payment only in cash.
An orange T means télépéage – for vehicles equipped with an automatic payment box. Lanes with this and nothing else must not be used by other cars (these sometimes also have a special orange entrance). Tariffs vary on vehicle type: a car is class 1, a ‘light vehicle’; class 2, an ‘intermediate’ category, includes cars towing caravans, and vans. Class 3 is the first of two HGV categories, which might include some larger campervans.
You can find tariffs for popular journeys here: autoroutes.fr/en/key-rates.htm and the operating companies have more detailed charts on their sites.
If you use autoroutes often télépéage is practical. Boxes (which have to be stuck inside the windscreen) can be ordered by post on the internet.
Vinci, for example, offers two main rates, one with a €2/month fee that is not charged in any month you do not use the motorways, or one at €1.50. You can cancel at any time.
Exemption from the monthly payment is on offer for people who car share with BlaBlaCar and there is a ‘premium’ service at a further €1.50/month, including breakdown insurance.
People who do not live in France may also subscribe; you just need an IBAN bank account number. Certain shops in the Darty chain sell badges directly. Each firm’s badge also works on other routes in France.
A recent improvement in the system is télépéage sans arrêt or T30 – meaning you do not need to stop to wait for the barrier to lift, but may just slow to 30kph and continue through. Tolls equipped with the system have the T as well as an orange circle with the number ‘30’.
If you break down, you must use a dedicated motorway breakdown service at a fixed rate depending on size of vehicle. For cars this is €123.90 on weekdays 8.00 to 18.00, or €185.85 for night-time and weekends or public holidays.
If possible they will do a repair immediately; if not they may tow the car to a lay-by, service station or their workshop.
In a breakdown you should park on the hard shoulder, near the barrier but with enough space to be able to open the passenger door. Put on hazard lights and get out at the passenger side, wearing a reflective vest. Walk behind the barrier to the nearest emergency phone – these are identifiable by the orange colour of the box. Alternatively phone 112 and give the name of the autoroute, direction of travel and location – look out for a point de repère, a number indicating your location on the motorway, found on small signs by the hard shoulder or on the central reservation. Passengers should get out and stand behind the barrier. If you see an accident you may drive to the nearest box and park on the hard shoulder to use it.
If you use an electric car, you can obtain information on charging points near motorways here: autoroutes.fr/fr/bornes-recharge.htm
Hover your cursor over the map until it pulsates, then click for details.
The image here was drawn by artist Perry Taylor. For more of his work see www.perrytaylor.fr