France’s rural roads are becoming increasingly dangerous - but who is to blame?

Normandy Diary: Locals say the bad behaviour began when people started to emigrate from cities and towns, but I am not sure that is right

John Lichfield
Saturday 30 April 2016 19:45
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A black ribbon marks a road accident outside the town of Petit-Palais-et-Cornemps in south west France last year in which 43 people died
A black ribbon marks a road accident outside the town of Petit-Palais-et-Cornemps in south west France last year in which 43 people died

Every morning I drive 10 kilometres to my nearest town. For three kilometres downhill, though the wooded, Norman hills, past a wood yard and a giant, concrete crucifix, I seldom see another car.

Then I reach the “valley of death”. At the T-junction with a busier road in the valley bottom, I look carefully in both directions. I wait for a clear road and pull out. Within seconds, a car or a van appears from nowhere and takes up station like a Battle of Britain fighter plane ten centimetres from my back-bumper. The driver flashes his lights. He tries to overtake, although I am travelling at the permitted limit of 90 kph. In feeble retaliation, I slow down to 40 kph and switch on my hazard lights. As he sweeps past, he goes through a wide repertoire of hand signals. I turn left onto a still busier road. Articulated trucks loom like asteroids in my rearview mirror. They flash their lights and beep when I slow to something approaching the legal 50 kph through large villages. Eventually, I reach the sanctuary of town and buy my bread and newspapers. Ah, the joys of country living!

My neighbour Michel, who was born in our village, says that this is all new. Bad behaviour on the roads began, he says, when people started to emigrate from Caen and other towns to estates of pale peach-coloured bungalows in the Norman hills a decade ago. I am not sure he is right. My persecutors look authentically rural to me. As they roar past, I see the drooping moustache which has become the distinguishing mark of the angry French rural male.

My experiences are, it appears, commonplace.

By far the most murderous roads in France, five times more so than the motorways, are the National and Departmental roads (equivalent to A and B roads in Britain). French motorways, largely thanks to radar sped traps, have become the safest in continental Europe.

Between 2002 and 2013, great progress was made in improving road safety in France. In 2001, then President Jacques Chirac took a radical and unprecedented decision: France would enforce its existing laws on speeding and drink driving. The number of road deaths plunged from 7,720 a year in 2001 to 3,268 in 2013. The carnage was once even greater. In 1971, when I hitchhiked across France, there were more than 17,000 deaths on French roads. The progress has now slipped into reverse gear. The number of road deaths has increased in each of the last two years – and mostly on rural roads. There were more than 3,600 deaths last year – twice as many as Britain, which has roughly the same population of both people and cars, but far fewer miles of road. It is now inconceivable that France will meet its target of reducing the death toll to under 2,000 a year by the end of this decade.

A series of reports by the French insurance company AXA, points to a serious attitude problem amongst rural drivers. In its most recent survey, AXA found that one in four French rural motorists admits that they drive at speeds between 120 and 130 kph on two lane roads (limit 90 kph). Four out of 10 motorists say that they feel unsafe on country roads. Nine in 10 blamed the behaviour of other rural motorists.

“National and departmental roads are the most used in France and those where most risks are taken and people feel the least safe”, AXA reported.

I was startled to find that my own département, Calvados, is actually one of the safest in France. As you move south across the country, road safety plunges towards the even more catastrophic levels found in Italy and Spain.

The worst départements in which to drive in France are Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon and Aquitaine.

The bad driving is, I believe, part of a wider tapestry of rural rejection of rule by the interfering Paris “elite”. Fixed radar traps on country roads are systematically vandalised. France has a dozen internet sites for exchanging information on radar checks – a digital equivalent of flashing your lights to warn that the gendarmes are around the next bend.

Over 30 per cent of people in my area now vote for the far right Front National, though I am almost the only immigrant.

I assume, perhaps unjustly, that all the “chauffards” (road hogs) in drooping moustaches are “frontistes”.

Safety campaigners are pushing for the standard two-lane, rural speed limit to be reduced to 80 kmh (50 mph) in line with the UK. Whatever the limit, it will be impossible to police 386,000 kilometres of rural road. The change has to come from country people themselves.

Small chance. The other day I saw a school bus, full of children, drive through a red light.

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