Drive off Le Shuttle and into danger

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ANYBODY WHO wants to see national differences made real need only start driving on local roads. The style - and the driving culture - varies radically, from country to country. This can make life deeply confusing, to say the least.

In almost every European country, road deaths rose sharply over Christmas, many caused by alcohol. But the approaches to road safety are different.

In France, an unexplained surge in road deaths in 1998 - after years of encouraging decline - has started a controversy about road safety.

It is a stark fact that your risk of being killed in a road accident rises sharply as soon as you leave the Shuttle terminal in Calais. The transport minister has blamed the French practice of "exploding" traffic tickets - calling a contact in the police or the judicial system to have a speeding, or even more serious violation, dropped. Forty per cent of all road offences - higher for parking offences - vanish this way.

But is there also something about the way the French drive which increases the number of road accidents? French people are not technically bad drivers, but they are aggressive, rude and fast. The mantra seems to be: "My rights are mine and your rights are mine, too." The most startling illustration is the daily automotive Jacuzzi at the Etoile (Arc de Triomphe) in Paris. Cars zoom on to the circuit - as is their right - cutting millimetres in front of cars already in orbit.

But they also zoom off the circuit on to their chosen avenue - as is not their right - giving no quarter to those trying to enter. There is at least one semi-serious accident each day; the wonder is that there are not many more.

Something of the same selfishness is found on motorways: excessive speed and overtaking on the inside. Another reason for the high death toll in France is that the motorway system is small in proportion to the size of the country. The overwhelming number of traffic deaths happen on the small rural roads.

In Russia, there is no special expression for "road rage": rudeness on the roads is taken as the norm. Instead, the Silver Rain radio station gives awards to the rare "Silver Knights" who show consideration for other road users.

If there is a crash, the stronger driver demands compensation from the weaker, sometimes at gunpoint, because there is no proper system of insurance in Russia. Russian cars never stop at zebra crossings. Rather they increase speed and aim at those on foot, who are forced to scuttle across the roads like frightened cats and dogs.

In Germany, things are done strictly by the book. Here, what counts is power and speed. The autobahn is where Germans unwind, free themselves from the shackles of normal social conventions, and pretend for a fleeting hour or two to be masters of the Universe. Anyone who fails to appreciate the primeval urges triggered by an unrestricted stretch of the motorway is in for a harrowing experience.

The car racing behind you in the fast lane at 120 mph will not slow. It will execute an emergency brake about three yards from your rear bumper, lights flashing, then pull up to within inches. From there it will not budge, until the irritating obstacle has been removed. All cars must defer to an Audi or BMW, which in turn must give way to a Mercedes, irrespective of relative speeds. It follows that Merc drivers are the only people who feel entitled to hog the fast lane, no matter how slow they happen to be travelling.

For a calmer life, it may be better to go in search of apparent anarchy.

In any Italian city, the man behind the wheel of the sleekest Alfa Romeo is a Vespa rider at heart. He will dodge, weave, barge in and cut you out, all to advance five yards in the jam that stretches as far as the eye can see.

And yet there is a reason in the madness. Why the Italians ask, observe rules if they do not work? Far better to fare il furbo, be smart. And if you're bested, well, gesticulation is marvellous therapy for road rage. On motorways by contrast, Italians behave themselves. No Germanic cavalry charge up the fast lane here. Instead, Italians are careful to keep their distance from the car in front. If rules save lives, then even Italians will obey them.

For the greatest amicable chaos, you need to travel to India, where laidback attitudes stretch even to the ability to drive a vehicle in the first place.

At one recent driving test, the examiner turned up and announced apologetically that today there was no car available for the tests. Would the examinees mind instead taking a simple test at the wheel of a large lorry? When they refused, the examiner simply handed out licences with no proof of competence.

Indians drive in a world with very few rules. Traffic lights are routinely ignored, except those at genuinely dangerous intersections. One-way streets are there to be challenged. If you can save time and petrol by going the wrong way round a roundabout, good luck.

The functioning anarchy of India's roads can be fantastically tiring. But there is an upside. As no one expects good manners, road rage is equally unusual. Wildness is balanced by wariness: one has to be braced for any type of lunacy from fellow road users. The most basic rule of all - survive - is adhered to fiercely. In Delhi's recent dense fogs, it was a pleasant surprise to find everyone driving very slowly indeed.

Reports by perfect drivers John Lichfield (Paris), Helen Womack (Moscow), Imre Karacs (Bonn), Peter Popham (New Delhi) and Rupert Cornwell.