California is fairly notorious for having really aggressive drivers and a lot of traffic.

But after three weeks of driving in Paris I have to say, Californians are sissy drivers by comparison.

Our problem: We’re too law-abiding.

It’s not so much a problem really. I rather enjoyed the comparably chaos-free driving I experienced in California. There weren’t horns honking at 6 a.m., waking up the entire neighborhood because a moving van is double-parked in the middle of an already barely wide enough one way street.

You never have to worry that if you go down a street you’ll find it blocked and be forced to drive in reverse down the entire length of the street and look for another route to your desired destination.

But in Paris these things happen more often than anyone would believe.

Emergency lights here are not used for real emergencies. They’re used instead as the “Hi, I know I’m not supposed to park here, but I’m going to anyway so please don’t give me a ticket” lights.

I asked a French friend about all the cars double parked on the streets, telling them that it’s illegal in the U.S. to double park like that because it causes too many traffic problems. Not only that, but it blocks in whoever you’re parked next to.

She said it’s illegal here too, just nobody cares. And, when getting my official Paris driving lessons, I was instructed to double park if I can’t find other parking.

So, what I guess I’m saying is that the French, or at least Parisians, don’t take Traffic Laws to heart really. They look at them more as a kind of loose guideline, only to be followed in exemplary driving conditions, or when they aren’t in a hurry.

To illustrate, here’s a diagram of the street in front of the school I have to go to each day:


A. The no parking sign.
B. The “We’re serious, don’t park here or we’ll tow you sign.”
C. The car illegally parked in front of the no parking sign, with emergency lights on of course.
D. My car, also illegally parked with emergency lights flashing.
E. The guy who parked legally and paid for parking, but is now blocked in by cars C and D.
F. A school bus parked in the middle of the street, now blocking all oncoming traffic, because the whole row of cars in front of me have parked illegally in front of the school.

Since I’ve been here I’ve double parked nearly every day, I’ve blocked intersections regularly, I’ve purposely driven the wrong way down a one-way street, and I’ve driven in reverse down an entire street after the moving van guy told me he’d be there for at least another half an hour and had no intention of moving.

I’ve also seen quite a few accidents involving cars and motorcycles. Because if cars have no traffic laws, motorcycles really don’t have any traffic laws here.

I think another part of the problem is the lack of dividing lines. There are lines right at the stop light to kind of divide up the traffic, but they disappear as you begin driving up the road. This means people are left to decide whether they want to have two lanes or three. And they will make their own lane whether you like it or not.

They will also park dangerously close to your car, so that you’re stuck in a reverse-forward-reverse-forward mess for about fifteen minutes trying to get out of the space.


I don’t know how they do it. It’s almost as though Parisian cars are an extension of the driver. Somehow they’re able to park as close as possible to anything without actually hitting it. I don’t think I’ll ever master this though. I’m constantly driving in circles looking for a larger parking space.

I was looking forward to continuing my car-free lifestyle here in Paris, but I’m getting used to the idea of driving here now. It’s unfortunate because I feel like it takes away from my experience of the city. Suddenly Paris doesn’t seem quite so huge. And I’m learning my way around much quicker than I did before.

But one thing to be said about it is that driving makes me feel more at home here. It’s making Paris familiar in a way it never was before. I have a routine of taking the children to school and picking them up from school everyday, which includes a dangerous trek through the Charles de Gaulle Etoile, famous for car accidents and having L’Arc de Triomphe at its center. But this week I went through it without even holding my breath or saying, “We made it,” to the boys afterward.

I haven’t decided whether I’m glad or disappointed about this development. It’s growing on me though.

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REBECCA ADLER is from Sacramento, CA, where she is a grad student in applied linguistics and works as a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Jane & Jane, Sacramento Business Journal, and Comstock's Business Magazine, among others. She also keeps a book review blog and can be found on Facebook or Twitter.

One response to “Californians Have Nothing On Parisian Drivers”

  1. Original Comment Thread Below:


    Comment by Kaytie M. Lee
    2007-09-23 15:31:36

    Traffic Rules – one of the last social contracts we have. May you continue to dodge and weave and double park with no serious ramifications. 🙂
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Dawn C.
    2007-09-23 16:41:51

    Those pictures are unbelievable! I feel my road rage rising just looking at them. I’m impressed you’ve adapted so quickly and readily.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Martyn
    2007-09-23 18:00:46

    I haven’t really driven in Paris, but I know California gave me at least 3 strokes, especially since Lenore drives like a fucking rally car racer
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Richard Ferguson
    2007-09-23 21:18:16

    Wow, the next time I go to Paris I’ll definitely have to walk. I have a hard enough time driving around here in LA.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Doug Mulliken
    2007-09-23 22:31:18

    HA! the other day, or the other month, something like that, they were re-paving 6th street and they had yet to paint the white lines onto the dark black asphalt. absolute psychosis by all drivers ensued. nobody knew where to be, where to stop, where to start, where to turn… just pure insanity.

    i feel the french, and the italians and the spanish and the rumanians and the mexicans, would have felt right at home.

    my high school english teacher always said that your true personality emerges behind the wheel, when you can honk and curse and be an asshole with almost no repercussions.

    nice post, rebecca.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Emma R
    2007-09-24 02:16:50

    Hey Rebecca

    It’s all true! Every time I visit Paris, I end up in a minor accident in the taxi between airport and hotel. Not that the driver ever considers it an accident. It’s just what happens when you drive while rummaging around in the glovebox for a cigarette.

    One thing though: the way they can get so close to other cars is by bump parking. The key is not to try not to touch the other car but to get your bumper against the parked vehicle and use that to wedge your car into the gap. Enjoy!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2007-09-24 04:42:51

    Martyn: Wait til you drive with me here. We’ll have to be sure to know where the nearest hospitals are at all times. (kidding).

    Doug: You have no idea how many times I just want to honk my horn in anger. I usually don’t because it’s when I’m stopped at one of the thousands of red lights in the city. Everyone would think I was crazy.

    Emma: I’m still not sure I feel comfortable purposely hitting other people’s cars. Perhaps in a week or so…
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Lenore
    2007-09-24 09:19:31

    i think i’d fit in there. i get pulled over practically weekly.

    but you just have to say you have your period (if the cop’s a man) and they let you go. the women don’t buy that shit; they give tickets for it.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kaytie M. Lee
    2007-09-24 11:27:39

    Driving in Paris. Sounds like the title of your future travelogue. If, you know, you survive the madness long enough to write it. 😛
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Laura Nicole
    2007-09-27 10:25:59

    Yes! This has finally driven me to stop lurking and start responding to posts.

    I remember when I went to Paris in high school. My french teacher and I ended up with the rudest taxi driver on the way to our hotel. I had fear in my heart the entire trip.

    I loved how he only let attractive girls cross the street, too.

    When I move to Paris, I plan on taking le metro… international driving be damned.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2007-09-28 14:06:50

    Laura: Yay for finally coming out of the shadows! The metro is the best thing EVER! Seriously, if I wasn’t forced to drive I wouldn’t. Last time I was here I considered the metro my own personal stair climber. I lost so much weight by not having a car. Bummer it won’t happen this time.

    So when are you planning to come to Paris???
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Todd Zuniga
    2007-09-29 10:52:51

    Rebecca, this is genius and hilarious all in one. Can’t wait to get there and be hit by a car…
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Laura Nicole
    2007-10-04 12:57:44

    As soon as possible.

    Which, for me, means about 6-10 years. Money, college, job… I’ll get there eventually!

    I hope to visit Paris sometime next year, though!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Chason
    2007-10-29 10:28:04

    “They will also park dangerously close to your car, so that you’re stuck in a reverse-forward-reverse-forward mess for about fifteen minutes trying to get out of the space.” ~That photo you had of the cars parked super close together was crazy! In the U.S., it is unspoken etiquette to ensure that the other parked cars around your car have enough room to get out, if no other reason than to avoid someone getting pissed off and clipping your bumper on their way out. If people parked around my car the way the photo you posted shows I’d have no choice but to damage somebody’s car getting out.
    On a side note, the “Smart” car is coming to the U.S. next year. I read a review of the new models in the paper and they said they are being built in France. The review said the cars get only about 40 miles to the gallon, though, which surprised me because the engines are pretty small. And the base price is around $12,000, which means I definitely won’t be getting one. They are cute, but they aren’t really economical. We’ll see how they do in the U.S. when they arrive next year.
    Reply to this comment

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