Speed limits in France: Don't put yourself in the frame

Stick to the speed limit in France, warns Chris Dearden – foreign motorists are being targeted

Tuesday 12 October 2010 00:00

It could have been anywhere in Europe – the slow lane full of trucks and caravans doing a constant 50mph, and the fast lane full of cars doing admittedly quite a bit more than that. My friend who was driving us was speeding, without question, but to be fair to him, so was everyone else in that lane. Suddenly, a gendarme on his BMW motorbike overtook us and gestured for us to follow. Half a mile later, we turned in and parked alongside a dozen other cars, all caught in the same speed trap.

At first glance, it looked like a meeting of Euro MPs with cars from every major European nation. Was anybody missing? Well, it did look as if they had forgotten to invite anyone to represent France. Except, of course, for the six gendarmes with their BMW bikes, busily engaged in conversations with the owners of the parked cars. But hang on a minute, that conversation next door is in German, over there it is in Dutch, and our gendarme has just opened our meeting in pretty good English. Does this suggest that the French have decided to employ only highly educated linguists for their police force? Or perhaps it's just for this unit, and I think we can begin to see why.

Feeling chastened and lighter in the wallet as we drove away, we speculated that perhaps the recent near-riots in Paris over their proposed austerity measures have forced the French government to consider a different way to recoup their national deficit. We did a few quick calculations. My friend's on-the-spot fine had been €90, but a Dutch Audi driver had been relieved of €700, courtesy of a nearby cash machine. Working on an average fine of, say, €250, and 20 cars an hour, 10 hours a day, that speed trap could be pulling in €18m a year. They would have to sell quite a lot of Renault Scénics to earn that kind of foreign currency. We were warming to this theory until we realised that it would take several millennia to pay off their current €144bn deficit via this income stream, so maybe our suspicions were a little unjustified.

So why are they doing it? The reasons are, it seems, quite simple. In summer, more than half of the vehicles flashed for speeding by their fixed-camera network come from outside their borders. Is this because French drivers are slower and more law-abiding than their foreign cousins? Anybody who has been overtaken by a flat-out Deux-Chevaux on a Parisian boulevard, or out-accelerated from the lights by a rusty Renault panel van, knows this is hardly the case.

So how do we explain that statistic? Because the French drivers know how to play by the rules of the game, and the rest of us do not. Or at least we choose not to. One hundred metres before every fixed speed-camera in France is a large sign telling you of that camera's existence. Accordingly, as they pass the sign, any speeding French driver knows to slow down to the speed limit from whatever illegal speed they might have been travelling at, before accelerating back to it once they have passed the camera. They know they will get a fixed-penalty fine in the post if they do not. And why do the rest of us Europeans not do the same? Because we know that we won't get anything in the post, no matter how many times the cameras flash us. It should not surprise us that the French police, the government, and even the public, get pretty upset by this. What we might regard as just pragmatic behaviour, they see as discourteous or even insulting.

Back in 2008, the French transport minister, Dominique Bussereau, called for a Europe-wide number-plate exchange system so that those caught for a serious traffic offence in one country could be punished in their home nation. This was adopted by the European Commission, which unveiled a proposal entitled "Cross border traffic penalty enforcement" which was to be in place by 2010. With three months of 2010 left, how has this proposal fared? An EC spokesperson reported that the proposal is still under discussion in the European Parliament with no date for implementation agreed.

In reality, of course, the practicalities are, to put it mildly, complicated. The proposal calls for any offender who does not pay their foreign fine to be tried in their home-country courts, but under offence-country legislation. Police reports, requests for information and appeals could then bounce from one country to another and back, being translated and retranslated each time. And this is before the technical issues are considered. A systems expert commented that if we can't even get the different computer networks in the NHS to talk to each other, what chance do we have of getting the computerised drivers' records systems of 27 member states to communicate?

So now, with the prospect of being able to trace the foreign drivers caught by their fixed cameras disappearing over the horizon, the French are un-ashamedly targeting foreign drivers with mobile speed traps along with instant on-the-spot penalties. And the penalties don't stop at relieving you of some of your holiday money, either. If you are 50kmh over the limit, your licence will be confiscated, posted back to Britain at some indeterminate date in the future, and your six-month ban on French roads starts immediately. If you are en route to your ski hotel, and the only driver in your vehicle, you will have to take your suitcases, your skis, and your three sleeping children, and try to find a taxi to get you to the nearest SNCF station. Just in case your reaction to this possibility is to turn on your UK legal radar detector as you drive off the ferry, you need to remember that if caught, its use in France will bring about immediate arrest. If all of this puts you off driving in France, it shouldn't. Their motorways are some of the best and least crowded in the world, and have a speed limit 10mph faster than in Britain.

But if the driver of the car in front suddenly hits the brakes for no apparent reason, he probably knows something that you do not, and I don't know about you, but given the choice between handing my holiday money to a waiter in a bistro or a gendarme on a BMW, I think I know which I would choose.

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