/ Motoring

France’s car safety requirements – just a boot load of hassle?

France sign

Going for a holiday in France? Taking your own car? Well, there’s a whole load of car safety kit you’ll need if you’re to avoid being fined. But are these car safety requirements more hassle than they’re worth?

So you’ve waited and planned all year for your annual trek abroad. Everybody is wound up with excitement. It’s the Friday before the Saturday you’re booked on the Chunnel and you’ve finished your last day’s toil for a whole fortnight. But instead of feeling relaxed, you’ve got lists!

A list of car safety extras

You’re running round in “headless chicken mode”, looking for all those extras required just to drive in France – every bulb your car can need, red emergency triangle, more bulbs, a first aid kit, another bulb you forgot about, and the family, their luggage, and, oh yes, the passports. Mustn’t forget the passports!

Well the passports are essential, and so is, I suppose, the family and the luggage – but are all those bulbs really needed? And what about the red triangle? It fills a gap in the boot – maybe one you don’t have – but you aren’t planning to breakdown are you?

As for the bulbs, well they take up half the glove box and you aren’t sure if you could change the headlamp bulbs yourself anyway, are you? So are they worth the hassle?

Do you need all this safety kit?

In my view the answer has to be yes. It’s one thing to run round familiar roads, risking the odd breakdown or blown bulb, knowing you can call for help or pop to Halfords for a new bulb to be fitted.

It’s a whole different kettle of fish to find yourself on a dark French country lane, with the rain pouring down and no phone signal. You keep reminding yourself that the traffic will come from the opposite direction, on the wrong side of the road, so that red triangle will be a godsend – warning others (after all it is a “warning” triangle) that you’re round the next bend, potentially with excited or tired family, milling around in the road.

And if a bulb blows, you won’t have to search around for the French equivalent of Halford (L’alfords perhaps?), or somewhere where they speak enough English to understand what you need is “Une ampoule d’indicateur pour ma voiture.”

Bring this safety kit to Britain

I’m convinced it would make sense to carry all those little odds and sods that are mandatory for continental driving in the UK. Not only would it potentially avoid seeing all those cars with a dud headlamp coming at you like a crazed motorbike, but it would also mean that last minute panic before your holiday would be a thing of the past and you could focus on relaxing earlier than you do right now.

To avoid being served up with an on-the-spot fine, or even having your car impounded in France, here’s a list of all those bits and bobs required by visiting drivers:

  • Headlamp Adaptors – so you don’t dazzle oncoming traffic
  • GB Stickers – mandatory to let everyone know where the car is registered
  • Warning Triangle – to be placed 50-150 metres (320-480 ft) behind your car if you break down
  • Fluorescent Safety Vest
  • Spare Bulbs
  • First Aid Kit
  • Fire Extinguisher
  • Spare glasses – yes, believe it or not, if you need glasses or contact lenses to drive, you must carry a second pair
  • You may also need your glasses to read the reams of documentation you’re carrying, including UK Driving Licence, car registration and insurance policy documents

Bon Voyage!


I imagine that headlamp adaptors and the documentation mentioned would be needed by anyone visiting the UK. Commonsense suggests that every motorist should carry a couple of copies of their insurance certificate to pass on to other drivers in the event of an accident.

It would make sense to agree requirements across Europe, and think carefully about what is essential and what is recommended.

It is very difficult to change a headlight bulb on some cars. Various manufacturers have been criticised on other Conversations and I have named and shamed Volkswagen for this deficiency.

I wonder why continental countries, where it is mandatory (and very sensible) to carry spare bulbs, allow manufacturers to sell cars that are so poorly designed that it is difficult or impossible to change bulbs at the roadside.

Agree about how un-user-friendly some car lights are: it’s very annoying when simple good design, enabling a quick bulb-change is forgotten (deliberately?) in favour of near-inaccessible lights. My VW Polo is so difficult. For safety reasons manufacturers should be required to make lights that the average motorist can change a bulb in within a few minutes and without tools.

Your point about being able to change bulbs without tools is an important one. It seems obvious that this should come under the Construction and Use Regulations for motor vehicles.

Eventually the problem will disappear when filament lamps are replaced by more modern alternatives but it is surprising that VW and other manufacturers get away with this when so many safety features have been introduced in recent years.

John says:
18 August 2011

I recently had a VW polo and agree with this point. Carrying spare bulbs is fair enough. Although you do need to be able to change them. My Polo didn’t require tools to change the bulbs, but the manual said find a garage to fit the new bulb, sort of defying the point of carrying a spare bulb.

John – I asked VW why their manual referred to finding a garage and was told that this was because some cars have headlights that use very high voltages (i.e. have gas discharge lamps). That does not apply to most models and certainly does not apply to all bulbs.

The manual for my (diesel) Golf says to put in in a warm room if it won’t start in cold weather!

The point of having spare bulbs is useless if you cannot get easy access to change them. Tthe ford focus headlamp is very akward to change. My hands are to big to get proper access therefore it takes be 45 minutes of scraped knuckles and cursing to do a job my mechanic can do it 30 seconds. It used to be easy to change a bulb now its just a pain.

Wirecutter says:
14 August 2011

In Spain a Fluorescent Safety Vest is required for each occupant,
Even if you hire a car any where in Europe it is worth checking against, the above list to see what you have NOT been provided with.
I think that all cars in the UK to carry spare bulbs, and the drivers to find out HOW to fit them, and yes
I do think that manufacturers should be required to make lights that the average motorist can change,
then there might be less one eyed Monsters on the roads

Phil says:
14 August 2011

Worth remembering that hi-viz vests must be carried within reach in the passenger compartment and not in the boot.

My last car had a space-saver emergency wheel, but I did not make the same mistake again. I recently discovered that some makes and models of cars are sold without any spare wheel.

Do any EU countries have rules on spare wheels?

I have always carried the items listed in my car even on UK roads with the exception of a second pair of driving spectacles – In the same way that I carry a comprehensive set of tools. So far never had any difficulties changing any bulbs (but do not have a new car) The last addition I made to my kit was a florescent safety vest when I found them on display very cheaply.

It has always made sense to me to carry such kit..

I hope that we all shake our fire extinguishers regularly. This is supposed to help prevent the contents of dry powder extinguishers consolidating. I have had fire extinguishers fail on two occasions, despite the pressure gauge being in the ‘green’ region, and they had not been shaken. A faulty fire extinguisher is worse than not having one.

The tiny fire extinguishers sold in car accessory shops are unlikely to be of much use, even if they do work.

Except of course, modern headlight bulbs can’t be fitted at the roadside by an amateur. You need to dismantle the cable and air ducting plus shrouds under the bonnet, dismantle the headlight (or remove it for XENON units) and re-fit with the aid of a computer.

Are we expected to carry a £900 XENON headlight as a spare?

In principle – YES – but get a life. Until manufacturers are forced to something about serviceability we will continue to be milked by dealers for what should be minor consumer-based maintenance.

We’ve just been on holiday to France and I was quite shocked about how much extra stuff you had to carry around just to drive there. Then I looked at it the other way and thought, ‘why aren’t we made to carry this stuff in the UK?’

Ironically, on the way home from the ferry, driving back through the UK, we went past someone who had broken down, stood dangerously in the road with no warning signs. It might seem a little over-the-top to carry all this stuff, but once you’ve got it all it just sits in your car in preparation.

Greystoker says:
16 August 2011

I have travelled on continental roads for many years and carry all the equipment,tools and documentation including an emergency torch.I carry these in the UK apart from insurance and the car registration document.I have a travelling file which contains motor insurance,registration document and travel insurance which is picked up when we go abroad.

For the ferry traveller at the Channel ports,there is a great emphaisis by the motoring organisations to highlight these requirements and the penalties for not complying.Then go into places in France and see some of the types driving the cars that they have on the road.I can’t think that these types would in anyway comply with these requirements.I have never seen a French car with a high visibility vest on display in a car.

As regards difficult lighting bulb changes.If a motorist has a vehicle breakdown policy,it should be possible to have a bulb change undertaken at the roadside.

We’re driving down to the Dordogne in a few weeks’ time so this article is a useful reminder.

Also, French Law requires you to re-paint your vehicle in luminescent paint and fit it with an audible warning system to notify other road users of your presence at all times. You must follow all 147 pre-drive checks and ensure every item in your car is securely fastened down. It’s absolutely against the law to commence a journey with less than half a tankful of fuel. All entertainment and navigation aids must be switched off whilst the engine is running. You must also carry a spare bonnet (particularly if you drive a French vehicle) and if you happen to drive a vehicle not manufactured in France you must pay the appropriate €600 tax. Protesting by way of gesticulating wildly with your arms is only allowed if you are a French national (including inhabitants of overseas departements). And don’t forget to register your itinerary with the local gendarmerie at least 8 hours before commencing it. British drivers are only allowed to park in designated spaces – marked by a roast beef sign.

Still, at least their motorways are good and relatively empty (if expensive), have a decent speed limit, have many rest areas and sell decent coffee and their town centres offer plenty of free parking.

I am of course joking. My comprehensive safety equipment consists of a pair of flip-flops and an AA card.

On a directly-related topic:
Who would back a “Which” campaign to force manufacturers to make bulbs simple roadside replacements that can :
1) be carried out by any member of the general public
2) with tools supplied with the vehicle


FOXY Steph says:
19 August 2011

John, you ask…

Who would back a “Which” campaign to force manufacturers to make bulbs simple roadside replacements that can :
1) be carried out by any member of the general public
2) with tools supplied with the vehicle

Not the AA or RAC I suspect ;-).

mike [hull] says:
17 October 2011

We drove through france & Spain this june for 2 weeks,we didnt need any of our bits & bobs. but do the police check locals for their bits & bobs, i have a work collegue who drives in the half terms who has been stopped & fined twice, we went 1 week later & from landing in france to arriving in Narbonne we saw 1 police car on the other side of the motorway!!!!! do the french police turn out in force for our half terms?

I have driven on the continent for many years and have always fitted headlamp beam deflectors. But I nowadays notice that the glass fronts on many modern car headlamps are at an angle which doesn’t seem to be appropriate for fitting these devices. Furthermore, despite following the suppliers directions to the limit the results don’t seem to come up to expectations. I go through the motions, as requested but I think that this is just lip-service – these gadgets just don’t really work.

Emjay says:
9 March 2012

The spare bulbs problem is not just one of difficulty. It is impossible to get at the headlamps of the Renault Modus without dismantling the front of the car, and the cost? We were quoted £130 by a Renault garage. Just to change a bulb! Fortunately our usual ‘independent’ garage was much cheaper, but still an expensive way to do what needs be a simple diy job in case of emergency, ( and to comply with the law in France). I initially assumed that the removal of the two bolts at the top of the headlamp unit would enable it to be lifted out. Nothing so simple. Is this just another deliberate ploy to gain more business for franchises?
Incidentally, we do regularly see hi-vis vests in French cars, usually draped over the drivers seat. These are a sensible safety requirement, especially in the dark, as anyone saw one of the French TV ads about their introduction will appreciate.

Dave Evans seems to think that carrying a set of spare vehicle bulbs will encourage those many drivers we all see, (or don’t!!!), that have blown bulbs to replace them…I disagree. If I have the opportunity I try to let drivers know they have a bulb failure & most appreciate the gesture. Better that all vehicles were fitted with a bulb failure warning light on the dashboard first & also carry the spares just in case your roadside assistance operative does not have one onboard.
Anyway, as has already been stated, changing some bulbs is not so straight forward on modern cars anymore. On the other hand I do agree that high-vis jackets should be mandatory.
Off to Spain soon.

bernie says:
4 July 2012

dont for get now you have to carry a breath test kit too £5.99 halfords im only going for a day trip and am shocked that i had to spend £50.00 on stuff for the car i think if we have to do this to go to another country then the same rules should apply to any one entering GB

bill-the-lute says:
21 July 2012

This is all rather confusing and it’s hard not to believe that some organisations/businesses with (high visibility) vest-ed interests are being slightly economic with the facts.
After some time spent trying to research what is actually required by law, it seems that a complete set of light bulbs is ‘recommended’, as is the fire extinguisher & first aid kit (though it’s hard to find out exactly what this should contain). The hi-vis vest, head lamp converters, shiny triangle and full documentation are legal requirements; so is the pair of breathalysers – though you won’t be fined until November for not having these. I’d be very grateful if someone could confirm this (and not just based on what your mate told you down the pub!)
It’s probably not surprising that some businesses are playing this up. I have just had an email from Brittany Ferries informing me of the new law on breathalysers but reassuring me that I can buy them on board their ferry/floating retail outlet: the most you’d expect to pay in France for two breathalysers is 4 Euros – BF are charging £5.99…