The carnage on French roads

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

If you've been following our French news coverage, you'll know about the horrific accident in southern France in which five firmen were killed by a speeding car.


The Mercedes ploughed into the group of emergency services staff as they were attending a previous, but minor, accident on a bridge along France's busiest motorway, the A7, at a spot near the town of Valence.

Officials said the car was travelling at 150 kph, (that's about 90 mph), on a stretch restricted to a maximum speed of 90 kph. Two of the firemen died after they were thrown of the road and into a river underneath. One of their bodies has still not been found.

Shortly after the carnage, France's transport minister, Gilles de Robien, announced that 15 new road safety measures would be in place by the end of December.

The horror of the crash moved France, and when Jacques Chirac attended the funerals of the men, who were posthulously awarded bravery medals, he gave a thundering speech to a crowd of 500 firemen in which he described France's road safety record as "a national scandal."

Chirac had hardly set foot back in Paris when came a news report that a record in speeding offences inside the capital had been broken - a driver was recorded travelling at almost 150 kph through the city's streets before trying to throw off police in pursuit.

Now, I'll bet that many people reading this have their minds made up about the sort of people involved in these outrages. I'll also wager that most will believe these are typical examples of the cause of France's more than 8,000 road deaths every year.

Drunk drivers are a major cause of accidents and young adults are, by far, the age group worst hit by deaths and injuries. There is a sharp rise in serious accidents involving motorbikes. These are but some of the conclusions of French road accident statistics - but what do they really tell us about the measures that need to be taken to reduce the yearly carnage - apart from the very urgent need to get tough on drunks?

One of the problems of tackling road safety, like the unrelated issues of street crime or educational performance, is the easy generalisations and clichés which are produced in a poor debate which ends in laws which invariably do little to solve the situation.

Speeding, almost every time there is an accident which attracts media coverage, is cited as one of, if not the, primary causes of road crashes. France, among the bottom of the European road safety table, is again compared to Britain, which boasts, with Sweden, the safest European road accident figures. In Britain, motorway speed limits, and speed limits in general, are lower than in France.

As a driver, I don't find France's road infastructure is any less policed than in Britain, and French roads appear generally better maintained. In reality, many cars travel along motorways in Britain well above the legal limit, and speeding is hardly confined to the French.

In France, 'prevention', as politicians call speed traps, is often a police radar hidden along a clear and unpopulated stretch of road, where the efforts of an afternoon's operation will pay huge financial dividends but little in the way of preventing an accident. Upping the stakes in this ridiculous cat-and-mouse game between drivers and police is a nonesense.

A French police officers' union recently reported an incident which is typical of the problems the government faces in presenting a credible road safety campaign. It illustrates a culture of arrogance and abuse which discredits the idea that road safety enforcement is a part of a common effort for the good. The union revealed that a senator was stopped by officers who clocked him at 83 kph in a 50 kph zone. After indicating his official senate vehicle pass, the politician drove off, reportedly forcing officers to jump out of his way.

He was stopped a second time and said he was late for an important meeting. A second car then stopped and its occupant, "a former minister", asked the officers to let the senator go without a ticket. The scene is one which few will have difficulty recognising, such is abuse of power so available and rampant, and the common place nature of such incidents does more to undermine road safety than any vroom-vroom car ad.

Maybe, perhaps, the senator was caught in one of those cash-till speed traps on a safe and open road - but he and his friend - more on him later - vote the laws in.

It is often observed, and I readily do it again here, that insane speeding in built-up areas, where lives are so obviously at risk, is hardly ever caught in a speed trap, much less the subject of a police caution. The hooligan antics of drivers in everyday traffic needs to be tackled partly by a change in attitude to policing, which would involve less lucrative but more effective speed traps in populated areas, road patrols in unmarked cars, unpopular but effective drink-driving checks outside places like country discotheques.

Above all, preventing road accidents is a question of educating people about the use of their car and, especially, about respecting others. That's a vast programme, because it involves a lot of issues which go well beyond road behaviour alone, especially in France. But a start has to be made, combining intelligent enforcement with a raising of public awareness about how dangerous a tonne of painted metal can be.

Travelling at the limit of 50 kph in many populated areas is often potentially murderous. But it is legal. Drivers rendered into a partially abnormal state of mind by rage or exhaustion - or the fear of arriving late at work - are a public menace, but escape sanction.

Many holier-than-thou types who will have an easily expressed opinion about road safety regularly fall into this category - which includes mum's dropping children off at school, managers with a lunchtime appointment or grandads setting off for the afternoon shopping.

What about all those silly people who drive at legal speeds but who never use their mirrors - who overtake on the motorway or open their doors or without looking, who legally drive into flowing traffic from a right-hand priority instead of waiting, who charge at busy roundabouts, who never clean their windows or forget to turn their lights on? Few of these are perceived as drunks or speed freaks - but they're bloody dangerous.

We're all concerned by this. The perfect driver doesn't - and cannot - exist. We all make mistakes and, if we're honest, some very stupid ones. Road safety measures, beginning with an effective crackdown on drunks and speed hooligans, must be considered in a responsible manner and not in a headline-grabbing, ignorant, knee-jerk reaction.

For the dangerous driver falls into no single category; returning to the story of the speeding senator, the police union identified him as the affable Socialist Claude Estier and his intervening friend as Daniel Vaillant, former interior minister; the reckless driver who killed the five firemen was aged 81, and is a former local politician - while the nutter who was caught speeding at almost 150 kph through the streets of Paris was a woman doctor.

5 December 2002

(This article was written by Graham Tearse, former editor of Expatica France).

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