Chirac's crackdown on French drivers has saved 1,400 lives

For any politician to be credited with saving lives is rare. In President Jacques Chirac's case, it is rare for him to be credited with anything.

But a year after the French premier made road safety one of the main themes of his second term of office, road deaths have plummeted.

For many years, road accidents in France claimed an annual total of about 8,000 lives (double that of Britain, which has a similar population and cars but fewer miles of road). But in the yearto June, there were 6,353 deaths, 18.1 per cent fewer than the previous year and the biggest annual fall in French history.

What has made the difference? The police and gendarmerie, have become an active presence on the roads.

Since the start of the year, the number of speeding tickets issued has risen by 28 per cent and drink-driving summonses are up by 29 per cent.

In years gone by, French drivers contacted local officials to have road offences quashed, but the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, has ordered this practice to end and motorists now have to pay upfront - sometimes on the spot - and challenge it later.

Road safety campaigners say the new approach has helped bring down the accident rate. The gendarmerie estimates that speeds on the country's roads has fallen by 10kph. "There was a culture of impunity and excuse in this country which, we hope, has now ended," Christiane Cellier of the Fondation Contre L'Insecurité Routière, said.

Mme Cellier credits President Chirac. Otherssuggest there was a growing embarrassment among French drivers about the country's appalling record.

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