When your car breaks down, it is never a pleasant experience, but it can be even more worrying when driving on the motorway (or autoroute).
Despite the speed of cars (up to 130km/h), the motorway is one of the safest places to drive, with a fatality rate of only 1.4 people per billion kilometres travelled, according to a 2022 Association des sociétés françaises d'autoroute report.
This is in part due to the specific rules for motorway breakdowns in France, which differ from what you must do if your car breaks down on another road, and are aimed at ensuring the safety of both those inside a broken-down vehicle and other drivers on the motorway.
Below, we cover the rules of what you must do, and explain how assistance is provided in the case of a breakdown.
What are the rules if your vehicle breaks down on a French motorway?
The most important rules are regarding the safety of yourself and other drivers.
If you notice any problems with your car, you should immediately pull over to the hard shoulder (bande d’arrêt d’urgence) to prevent being a danger to others.
Once your car has stopped, put on your reflective jacket (gilet jaune), which is mandatory and should be within easy reach (i.e. you should not have to get out of the car to put it on).
Other passengers should exit the vehicle and put on reflective jackets if they have them, and stand behind the barrier of the hard shoulder.
You will also need to place your warning triangle (triangle de presignalisation) 150m behind your car, to warn oncoming drivers of your presence on the hard shoulder.
The driver should then, staying as far to the right of the hard shoulder as possible, walk to the nearest call point to let the motorway’s emergency services know your car has broken down.
Unlike in the UK, you do not directly contact your insurance provider for breakdown assistance.
These emergency call points can be found every 2,500m along the road, with signs every 500m directing you to the nearest one.
Alternatively, there are some free smartphone apps offered by motorway companies you can use to contact the motorway service agents. These include the SOS Autoroute (for APRR, AREA, and Sanef networks) and Ulys by Vinci, for the roads under their control.
You should give information including the colour and model of your car, the nature of your breakdown (if you know it), your location (there will be hectometre signs near the call point) and the direction the traffic is flowing in.
You should not try to repair your car yourself.
Who will come to help if your vehicle breaks down?
The agents will send out the services you require, be it a breakdown specialist, the fire department, or otherwise.
Only authorised breakdown specialists are permitted to attend broken down cars on the motorway, hence why you must call the motorway services instead of your insurance provider.
A motorway breakdown specialist should arrive within 30 minutes, and if the problem is not too severe will fix your car on the spot.
Alternatively, they will take your car to the nearest garage – or a nearby garage of your choice, provided it is less than 5km away from the motorway exit.
The government sets the price for assistance. Since 2022 there has been a fixed rate of €138.01 if your car is 1.8 tonnes or under or €170.65 if your car is between 1.8 tonnes and 3.5 tonnes.
This cost is usually covered by your car insurance but not always.
Your insurance may also cover additional costs such as a hotel for the night (up to a certain value) or an alternate vehicle for you to complete your route – you should carefully check your contract to see what you are entitled to in the event of a breakdown.