WE OFTEN envy the French way of life: the food, the wine, the style, the fashion and the shops. Their holidays, however, are one thing of which we need not be envious. What sort of collective lunacy inspires them all to set off on holiday on the same weekend at the beginning of August - and all to return on the same weekend at the end of the month?

Anybody caught up in the madness of le grand depart or la grande rentree will witness scenes that make tailbacks on the M5 in Devon look like a queue at a Drive-Thru McDonald's.

There are good economic reasons for not concentrating the tourist season in this way. Hotels, self-catering places and restaurants bump their prices up dramatically for the August period (they do this partly because they know they can get away with it, but mainly because they are required to make their living largely from one month's business).

Perhaps the most compelling argument for the staggering of holidays, however, is road safety. During August the toll of injuries on French roads reads like a casualty list from the Verdun battlefield.

Between 30 July and 2 August this year, 116 people were killed on French roads, and 2,565 people were injured in a total of 1,765 traffic accidents. And each year the problem gets worse. Accident figures during this year's grand depart were 18 per cent higher than in 1992. Police say the main reason for the accidents is that holidaymakers want to drive non-stop.

But even when the French reach their holiday destinations, the danger is not over. Holidaymakers there are engaging in ever more hazardous summer pursuits. In the alpine region of Isere, for example, 27 people have died so far this year while climbing, parascending or mountain-biking. In one weekend alone, over 17 July, 10 people died.

On French beaches, meanwhile, the rising popularity of activities such as jet-skiing and scuba diving seems to have contributed to a marked rise in seaside accidents.

The safest place in France during August is Paris, since most of the Parisians seem to have abandoned the city. The only danger comes from the unpredictable behaviour of foreign tourists.