Driving south? Nice and slowly does it
France's roads are notoriously dangerous. But now police are cracking down on speeding drivers. Simon Heptinstall reports
Sunday 10 July 2005
Remember that beguiling land of quiet country roads where an onion-seller in a beret meandered on his bicycle down a long, straight road lined with poplars? Well forget it. The pastoral picture-postcard France that once lured millions of British travellers to drive on the Continent for the first time has been demolished by the past decade's Va Va Voom generation.
Today, the onion-seller on his wobbly bike would be slammed straight into a tree within minutes, because an epidemic of speeding and drunk drivers has made French roads some of Europe's most dangerous. But what exactly does this mean to British drivers crossing the Channel this summer? Are the French roads so dangerous that we ought to reconsider that drive down to the Dordogne?
There is no real reason to panic. British motorists should be reassured by the latest French accident figures. They show the recent government crackdown on dangerous driving has had remarkably quick results. Statistics suggest that French roads are safer in 2005 than they have been for many years, with a sensational drop in accident figures - from more than 8,000 road deaths in 2002 to 4,900 in the past 12 months.
The French have also been very diligent about publishing accident statistics. Visit http://www.securiteroutiere.gouv.fr and it's possible to work out the safest roads, times of days and regions to drive. It appears best to avoid 6pm on a Sunday, especially in Corsica and Gers. The safest départements for drivers are rather surprisingly, in and around Paris.
But the bad news is that these figures are still way above the UK's death toll of 3,000 a year. Even more worrying, foreign fatalities represent around 9 per cent of the French total. That is more than 400 visitors killed a year. And, of course, you are much more likely to fall foul of French motoring police because of the safety crackdown. That old tactic of putting your foot down and "driving like the French" to get to the Riviera is not only dangerous, it's likely to land you in much bigger trouble this year. The number of speed cameras in France has soared from only 100 less than two years ago to 1,000 now. Penalties have been increased and the government is determined to collect as many fines as possible. Previously only 40 per cent were actually paid. For British drivers this now means that if you have been caught on a fixed French speed camera the authorities may pursue you here for the money.
There is no legislation enabling the collection of fines internationally, but an AA spokesman, Gavin Hill-Smith, last week advised drivers that the DVLA will now release your addresses to the French authorities.
"If you don't pay, you risk being arrested for non-payment and having your vehicle impounded if you ever go back to France," he said. The AA reports that in some cases UK debt-collectors take on the unpaid French speeding debt and demand payment. And driving disqualifications earned in France now apply to the UK, too.
And it does not end there. If you are caught by a mobile radar gun - and it is estimated that there are around 300 on duty in France this summer - your punishment will be immediate. You will have to pay an on-the-spot fine if you are not resident in France. In cash. No cards are taken and you may have to drive under police escort to the nearest cash machine. Any problems and your car will be impounded. The minimum fine is £50; severe cases are more likely to bring a £500 bill. Recent extreme speeders have been bundled off to jail for a few days.
Note that using a radar detector that is still legal in this country is now illegal in France. The police will confiscate and destroy speed-trap detectors and you can be fined £1,000. In the worst cases the vehicle can be confiscated. If you are the sort to bemoan being forced to leave your radar detector at home then http://www.controleradar.org/ shows the position of every speed camera in France. But note that the cameras will protect you from dangerous speeding French motorists. The sites of the cameras are among the safest places to drive.
Another new rule means that drivers in France have been "recommended" to use dipped headlights away from built-up areas at all times. By this autumn that may have become legally binding, so it is probably best to keep your lights on. Also note that there is presently a crackdown across France on inappropriate use of the horn. Breaking the rule could get you a fine of €35 (£24).
And even if you trundle along the autoroute like a saint, be aware that you are more likely to be stopped by the police this summer than ever before. Official statements have recently attributed one in 10 accidents to outsiders, so police are more likely than ever to target cars with GB plates. So ensure you have all the paperwork in order. You must carry your driving licence, insurance papers and registration document. If you do not, you now risk a fine of at least €135 (£90).
But don't feel they're just out to get the British. Earlier this year, we were portrayed as perfect role models for French motorists when they were urged to emulate British drivers and their "legendary civility" during a national road courtesy day in March. The government-backed campaign said the "British recipe" explains why it has some of the safest roads in Europe and far fewer road deaths than France.
NEW ROUTES TO SPEED YOUR JOURNEY
Many travellers driving to their French holiday this summer will find the trunk-road system has been drastically upgraded since last year. Here are the biggest improvements to speed you on your way:
A75 Millau viaduct
This dramatic bridge allows a complete motorway north-south alternative to the very busy A6/A7 via Lyon. It will be particularly useful to those travelling to Languedoc-Roussillon and Spain. The new viaduct has reduced off-peak journey times by about 40 minutes but during peak summer traffic it could easily save two hours, because Millau was a notorious bottleneck.
A89 Mussidan to Thenon (east of Périgueux)
A new road that marks a massive improvement for those travelling to the Dordogne - i.e. the British.
A29 Amiens to Neufchâtel
Opened earlier this year to complete the west-east link from the A26 in north-eastern France across to the A28 (Rouen), A29 (Le Havre), A13 (Caen) and then on to Brittany.
A87 Les Essarts to La Roche-sur-Yon
A new link for vehicles heading from northern France and the Loire across to the Vendée coast.
A28 from Rouen to Alençon
The most significant new stretch for UK drivers will not open until after the summer rush. This will complete the motorway link from ports such as Calais and Le Havre down to the Loire, the Vendée and south-west France.
To counter these improvements, France has still has a problem with mountain tunnels. The Fréjus tunnel beneath the Alps linking Italy and France is the latest to have been closed after a serious lorry fire. The eight-mile tunnel, which carries two million vehicles a year, is closed indefinitely, amid fears that it could collapse. In 1999, the nearby Mont Blanc tunnel was shut after a two-day fire which killed 39 people.
For general information, contact the France Information Service (09068 244123/ calls cost 60p per minute; www.france guide.com. The AA (0870-600 0371; www.theaa.com) can help with route guidance, European breakdown cover, travel insurance and general driving information. Visit www.viamichelin.com for route planning, guides and maps, plus a speed-camera directory.
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