Out of France: Dangerous bends appear in new rules of the road

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The Independent Online
PARIS - When a Parisian on a bicycle slipped through a red traffic light on the Boulevard Saint Germain, he found himself booked and told he was going to lose two of the six points on his driving licence.

The cyclist had his driving licence with him and the policeman noted down its full details for forwarding to a magistrate. Interviewed on radio, the aggrieved cyclist told the nation that his persecutor was drunk.

A woman leaving the A1 motorway near Paris at 11am last week on one of the sunniest days of the year was stopped and told she was liable to lose one point because she had the fog-lights of her car turned on. This, a gendarme said, could dazzle motorists but a colleague persuaded him to drop the matter.

A month ago the introduction of the permis a points, similar to Britain's endorsement system, brought France to a halt. Lorry drivers blocked main roads and motorways, bringing chaos as the tourist season began.

Suddenly, with promises of a review of the system for professional drivers and a thorough look at their working conditions, the affair seemed to melt away. A subsequent dropping of all charges against drivers involved in the protests, except those who had used violence against motorists, appeared likely to guarantee social peace.

The motive behind the new system was to reduce France's staggering number of road deaths, currently just under 10,000 a year. Although the 1 July introduction date was criticised by some as calculated to harm the tourist season, the government argued that it would be irresponsible to delay it at one of the most murderous times of the year on the roads. The new system, the authorities said, was designed to change the way the French drive.

One month on, the effect of the points system is very mixed. In the Indre-et-Loire department around Tours, for example, 11 people died on the roads in July, compared with nine last year. Police in other departments, however, have reported an overall trend to fewer deaths on the motorways - most fatalities occur on lesser roads - and fewer cases of speeding or drunken driving. But the general sentiment so far is that the police have largely restricted implementation of the new law to easy cases and are making little effort to stamp on dangerous driving practices.

'What good does this law do?' asked a professor of medicine in a letter to Le Figaro, 'since there is no one to watch over the streets, roads and tracks?' Quoting Montesquieu, he added: 'Useless laws weaken necessary laws and those which are eluded weaken legislation.' Another letter said the regulation stating that fog-lights could dazzle at any time of day or night was a device to stop motorists flashing their lights to signal the presence of speed- traps to one another.

And now there are signs that the lorry drivers may restart their protests, although probably not until the end of the summer season. Speaking to journalists over the past few days, drivers have talked of a new movement, better co-ordinated by unions, because the weeks since their protest have seen no changes. A common complaint is that hours spent loading trucks are not counted towards working time, meaning the driving that follows can come after a day of physical labour.

As for the poor cyclist who was penalised in Paris, this kind of incident will not happen again. A circular for police, signed by ministers, makes it clear that the permis a points legislation applies only to offences committed by drivers of vehicules terrestres a moteur, literally 'land vehicles with a motor'.

The affair led to the uncovering of another disgruntled group - the police. The officer involved said he felt 'ridiculed'. As a police-union spokesman said, 'a policeman cannot spend seven hours riding the roads, issuing fines, supervising road safety at school closing times, listening to the concierge who has found syringes in the corridor and then know how to . . . translate texts voted by parliament into everyday language'.

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