Breaking Down on a French Motorway

By | 9 May 2015


AutoRoute photo - from

AutoRoute photo – from

This actually happened a couple of weeks back, whilst my original dog was still alive and with me, but due to the subsequent events I haven’t posted it until now.

I was coming back to Burgundy with doggie and went to fill up with diesel at my usual service station.

I thought I’d picked a good time to get en route as there was nobody queuing up at the station.  I went straight in and entered my card.  ‘Carte muette’ it told me.  I tried it several times, then another card.  I then tried the pump on the other side but it wouldn’t even take a card as it had a broken one lodged in it.

Unable to fill up, I continued on and resigned myself to paying motorway prices. My usual access to the motorway was then blocked (only one sign earlier to advise of a diversion that was right at the point where one had to divert and didn’t say that the other access was closed!).

By the time I made it on to the motorway I was low in fuel and eager to get on with my long journey.

You may be thinking that I ran out of fuel.  But actually, no.  I pulled into a station, filled right up to the top, got back on to the motorway and then only about a couple of hundred yards further along the car slowed rapidly and stopped.

No restarting it.

It couldn’t have been at a worst point – there was no hard shoulder, going uphill and on bend.

I realised after the car broke down that I’d put the wrong fuel in – petrol instead of diesel.

I’d always wondered how people made that mistake and didn’t think it would happen to me since both our cars are diesel now.  But it wasn’t mistaking the car, it was mistaking the nozzle – there were more choices than my usual station and they were in a different order.  I thought I’d picked up the yellow one, but hadn’t.  I was obviously a little distracted.

I left the car from the passenger side, with my hi-vis vest on and, considering the place where I’d broken down and it being a hot day, I got the dog out too.

As I was doing so I thought about those traffic announcements when they warn that a dog is loose on the motorway and wondered if this was how that happened.

Mine was eager to get out but I kept a firm hold on him and got us both over the barrier straight away.

As the station was close by, I returned to it to make my emergency call from their orange phone.

I had wondered whether to use my mobile but my French one wasn’t picking up any signal.  I had my UK one with me but the battery was very low and it needed a top up of funds.

On the phone, they told me it would be about half an hour.

I tried to get my UK mobile topped up as my French one was still not getting a signal and I had been warned to always call the insurance straight away otherwise the recovery charges as soon as you get off the motorway are huge.

As I was returning to my breakdown, a police car passed and stopped me.  When I explained I’d broken down they seemed surprised – not sure why, maybe they thought I was just exercising my dog down the service station slip road, as one does!

They let me walk on back to my car, telling me to keep behind the barriers.  Shortly after I saw the rescue truck drive past.

At my car, waiting for me to arrive were the Gendarmes, the tow truck and the same police car – if they’d given me a lift I would have been with them a lot quicker instead of having to walk through the rough terrain with a dog pulling in all directions.  Maybe lifts aren’t allowed, although the idea is to remove the car from the motorway as soon as possible.

But it was all incredibly efficient and I think they arrived under the half hour I was told.

The tow truck man asked me for my papers (one has to have these and your driving licence with you at all times).  We were very close to an exit and so we were soon there.

This tow man was a star.  I felt so stupid for putting the wrong fuel in and he was really calm, saying that it happens a fair bit.   Feeling tired and a bit panicky after the events, I seemed to forget most of my  French and the tow man helped me by telling me what I needed to ask for at the insurance – he even let me use his phone to call them.

It was good to have that insurance – although these prices are set by the government, they’re quite hefty.

At the garage, they asked me if I’d filled the tank.  I said Yes and they sucked air through their teeth and made a cringe face.

Then they asked me if I’d realised as soon as I put the petrol in and I said No, I’d driven off and the car had stopped.  I was given another but far more grimacing cringe face.

They were fun people though and luckily were able to drain and flush the engine that afternoon, so I was back on my way just before 6pm.

This happened near Arras and it was a nice day so it wasn’t all bad as doggie and I were able to walk around and stop for a drink (of water of course).

Since returning I’ve looked up what one should do when you breakdown on a motorway and it seems I did almost everything right, although I’ll list some of the areas I wasn’t sure about:

  • They prefer you to call from one of their phones rather than your mobile as it is then much easier and quicker to locate you that way.   The orange phones are situated approximately every 2km.  If you can’t call from one then call the European emergency number of 112 from your mobile
  • On a motorway it is mostly considered too dangerous to put a triangle out, so hazard lights only.
  • Generally one should leave animals in the vehicle, although I’m sure I read somewhere that they can be removed if it is easy to do so from passenger side, but I can’t find that now.  If it is a hot day I’d say the dog is likely to die if left in the car even with the windows open, so I would take my dog with me.  Of course, removing them can be dangerous not only because they could get free but because you are spending more time in the car, so intelligence has to be used.
  • You can tell the tow man that you have breakdown insurance and you need to call them at the exit, and do so once the other side of the tolls.  (I was previously told to call them straight away but there really is no point until you are off the motorway and know where the nearest garage will be and have the details from the tow man to get the ‘prise en charge’ authorisation).

As mentioned , maybe I was lucky or perhaps it was because I was actually on the motorway, but I was really impressed with the efficiency of it all, and that the car was able to be fixed that afternoon.

I don’t think mistaking my carburant is an error I’ll ever make again, though… well, at least not this month.
Lou Messugo

2 thoughts on “Breaking Down on a French Motorway

  1. Phoebe @ Lou Messugo

    Oh my! I’ve also put the wrong fuel in the car, but not on a motorway, nor did I drive it as I realised what I was doing just in time. I think (hope!) that it’s the sort of thing you only ever do once in your life! I can just imagine your panic. It sounds like you dealt with it all very calmly and that everyone involved was efficient. Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance

  2. Di Warren

    What a stressful time!
    Thanks for the info, great to know if breaking down ever happens.
    I’m sure the carburant thing is pretty common as well.


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