New Year brings carnage to French roads

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A MURDEROUS New Year on the French roads has drawn attention to a depressing and puzzling statistic. The number of road deaths in France rose dramatically last year after nine years of steady decline.

In 1997 the number of people killed in road accidents in France fell below 8,000 for the first time, causing the authorities to congratulate themselves on the effectiveness of new safety laws, on drink-driving in particular.

Inexplicably, road deaths leapt again in 1998, when it is estimated that 8,450 people died - the highest figure for five years (and roughly twice as many as the annual average in Britain). These statistics were tragically illuminated by a disastrous New Year's Day in France. In the first 24 hours of 1999, 46 people were killed on the roads, more than double last year's figure. Of these, 27 were less than 25 years old - the equivalent of an "entire school class", as Isabelle Massin, the junior minister in charge of road safety, pointed out. Excessive drink and tiredness, after New Year parties extending until dawn, are believed to be to blame for many of the deaths.

The causes of the sharp rise in road victims last year are more difficult to fathom. Experts blamed failure by police and gendarmerie to enforce speed limits and tougher drink-driving laws. They also suggested the proliferation of safety equipment, such as air-bags, was giving people a false sense of security. Ms Massin praised one local initiative in the Bordeaux area: in future, police will close down any nightclub that has a customer killed in a drink-related road accident. Other, more optimistic, experts said that the surge in deaths might be a statistical blip. There has been a steady reduction in the number of road victims in France for 25 years. That was also interrupted by a brief increase in road deaths in the late Eighties before the decline resumed.

Meanwhile, the tragediescontinue. Three people died in a four-vehicle pile-up on the A6 motorway near Fontaine-bleau yesterday.