France cracks down on speeding
Sebastien Blanc reports on a controversial move in a country which has one of the worst road safety records in Europe.Around a dozen fixed automatic radars were first set up in France for the November 1st holiday weekend on motorways and highways around the country, particularly near Paris.
Many more are on the way: another 50 fixed radars and 30 others in unmarked police cars by the end of 2003, then another 1,000 over the following two years.
But the belated attempt to change the infamously lead-footed driving habits of the French will not be easy, authorities know - that's why the new digital cameras are protected in metal casings said to be tamper-proof, paint-proof and rigged up with alarms to protect them from irate motorists.
That didn't stop the very first radar camera inaugurated at the end of October being vandalised hours after its installation by someone who cracked its armoured-glass plating with a sledgehammer.
Equally determined police had the EUR 80,000 unit repaired for the next day, and its images were being examined for clues as to the likely culprit who, if caught, faces up to three years in prison and a EUR 45,000 fine.
Two unprotected surveillance cameras - used to manage traffic, not identify speeding cars - were destroyed by gunshot last month in eastern France, probably by somebody who mistook them for radar devices, police said.
The roll-out of the new radar cameras is an attempt to bring down the number of traffic fatalities which, at around 8,000 a year since 1998, make France the worst country in the European Union for road deaths, ahead of Germany and Italy.
Britain, with a comparable population, has the lowest traffic mortality rate, at around half that of France.
"We don't want to trap drivers. We just want them to know that there are spots that are especially dangerous and that if they are going too fast they should know that they will be nabbed," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said when the first machine was unveiled.
Transport Minister Gilles de Robien said: "If this can save lives, I say 'thank you' to technology."
French motorists have up to now regularly flouted road laws, particularly those limiting speeds to 130 kilometres (80 miles) an hour on toll motorways and to 110 or 90 kilometres an hour on highways away from residential areas.
Officials said the new cameras were completely automated, meaning that when a car was caught going more than six kilometres an hour over the speed limit, its number plate was "flashed" and sent to a central computer which in turn sent out a fine to the owner of the vehicle.
If the owner was not the driver at the time of the infraction, he or she had to identify who was using the vehicle at the time to avoid being left with the fine.
Raphael Bartold, the head of the unit overseeing the network, said "in a few weeks the radars will be programmed from a departmental computer to take into account reduced speeds during fog or rain," which require drivers to observe a speed limit reduced by 10 or 20 kilometres an hour depending on raod types.
The transport ministry said the radars would not be hidden, and that motorists would be alerted to their presence by signs placed a short distance before their locations.
In other countries which have been using such cameras for several years, units have been vandalised by angry motorists.
In Britain, for instance, several "anti-radar" groups have sprung up, most notably the "Motorists Against Detection", who have claimed responsibility for putting several cameras out of service. One unit in Northern Ireland was even blown up.
Subject: Living in France